Don’t you love Red Sox–Yankees? On May 6 game at Yankee Stadium, the ninth inning featured the fireworks that fans pay to see. After an improbable rally against Yankees closer Andrew Miller, David Ortiz was rung up on two close strike calls. The Red Sox DH was then ejected for slamming his equipment outside the dugout in protest. Upon closer inspection, umpire Ron Kulpa’s controversial calls were close but the final verdict is fully defensible.
To review the at-bat: Miller started off Ortiz with an inside fastball that was fouled off, followed by two balls outside the zone. Then the 2-1 pitch — a slider that swept across the plate — had Ortiz checking his swing. Upon appeal to the third-base umpire, the ruling was “no swing,” which was a favorable call for the Red Sox DH. But then the fireworks began.
Miller delivered a breaking ball to the outside corner that completely crossed up Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who clearly expected a fastball. (Sign sequences change when a runner can see them being called from second base.) In McCann’s awkward handling of the ball, it looked low, outside, and anything but a strike. However, the PITCHf/x graph from Brooks Baseball shows it definitely was a good pitch (No. 5 in red).
Kulpa uncharacteristically ignored the ugly framing by McCann and called the pitch for what it was: a strike when it crossed the plate toward the outside corner above the knees. Ortiz, accustomed to pitches caught that way always being called balls, went beserk. Waving his arms and screaming at the umpire, Ortiz somehow was not ejected.
Red Sox manager John Farrell came out and got ejected instead of Ortiz. Then the real fireworks were lit after Miller struck out Ortiz on a slider that looked down in the zone. According to PITCHf/x, pitch No. 6 was borderline.
Then again, we have conflicting K-zone readers to contend with here. As Shaun Newkirk of Royals Review pointed out last October, the difference between the “rulebook strike zone” and “called strike zone” is significant — .25 feet (three inches) to be exact. Broadcasts on the MLB Network and Red Sox station were using the rulebook zone that has the bottom as 1.75 feet from the ground.
Brooks Baseball and other systems use the called zone — because they are called that way — ending 1.5 feet from the ground. In the rulebook zone, strike three is a clear ball; in the called zone, strike three is a borderline strike. Following the rulebook isn’t that easy due to the disappearance of the high strike in baseball — it simply never gets called. Umpires who want to take back some of the zone only have low strikes at their disposal.
Who’s right? Most umpires, players, and fans will say if you can get within a inch or two most of the time you are a good ump. Any coverage that pretends the called zone doesn’t exist is lacking, and that includes MLB Network and ESPN post-game coverage. We also have extenuating circumstances: one, the cross-up that caused the bad frame by McCann; two, the disputed second strike magnifying the importance of the third strike.
Those who want to go by the rulebook cannot defend Ortiz’s outburst. By the rules, Ortiz should have been tossed for animated arguing during an at-bat while the opponent tries to maintain concentration on the mound and at defensive positions. (Ortiz, who does not play a position, showed no respect for his opponent.) Kulpa showed restraint in that regard by leaving well enough alone. As for strike three, veteran hitters know you lose any benefit of the doubt by showing up a home plate umpire.
If you’re Ortiz, you swing the bat on anything close if you want to make an impact with the game on the line. Otherwise you sit back and take your chances with an umpire you just mocked on national television on a call that turned out to be right. Ortiz’s choice not to swing was puzzling, and it ultimately cost the Red Sox the game.
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