Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Errors in judgment, errors in performance, and a five-game sample size

Errors in judgment, errors in performance, and a five-game sample size

Cliff Lee pitched pitched six innings and allowed five runs on 12 hits in Game 2. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Lee pitched pitched six innings and allowed five runs on 12 hits in Game 2. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

 

The graphics above are from the fine folks at BrooksBaseball.net. The top graphic is a chart of the strike zone during the Phillies' 5-4 loss to the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS on Sunday night, which has become something of a hot-button issue for a couple of reasons: One, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa griped about the zone in his in-game interview on TBS and in some chats with home plate umpire Jerry Meals, and two, Phillies pitchers were pretty frustrated with their own zone.

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Anyway, the chart uses data from the Pitch FX system, which is supposed to track the exact flight and location of each pitch. The square box denotes the strike zone, with the red symbols representing pitches that were called strikes and the green symbols representing pitches that were called balls. Pitches by the Phillies are squares, pitches by the Cardinals are triangles.

The location of each pitches is plotted based on the location of an individual hitter's supposed strike zone. If you want the technical details, head over to BrooksBaseball.net. Otherwise, just know that this is an approximation, and should not be taken as a conclusive judgment on the accuracy of calls.

According to the chart's approximation of the actual location of calls, the Phillies were charged with six balls that were actually inside the strike zone, and one that was touching the outer edge. The Cardinals were charged with one ball inside the strike zone. The Cardinals benefited from three strikes that, according to the chart, were outside the zone. The Phillies benefited from one.

The second graphic is an approximation of Chris Guccione's calls in Game 1. The Cardinals were charged with four balls that were either in the zone or touching the edge. The Phillies were charged with three. The Cardinals received five strikes that were outsize the zone. The Phillies received three.

So if the chart were accurate, you could say that Meals cost the Phillies a net total of six strikes, while adding a net total of two strikes.

Guccione added one strike to the Cardinals and none to the Phillies.

Depending on how much credit you give the chart, you could argue that the umpiring had some effect on the Phillies in Game 2. We are only talking about six pitches out of more than 100 thrown by Phillies pitchers. But even one pitch has the ability to affect the outcome of an at-bat, and one at-bat the ability to affect the outcome of the game. Take, for example, Lance Berkman's walk to lead off the fourth inning. The Phillies were leading 4-0 at the time. Lee was ahead of Berkman 0-2. The at-bat ended with three close pitches on the outside of Berkman's zone. If one of those pitches is actually a strike, and is called a strike, then Berkman strikes out instead of drawing a leadoff walk and maybe the complexion of what ended up being a three-run inning changes.

Hey, we'll never know. It is hard to blame the umpire for the Phillies failing to add to a 4-0 lead, despite the fact that they had six innings of at-bats against the St. Louis bullpen. Lee said after the game that he was not locating the ball the way he wanted. The story of Game 2 is not the umpire, but the starting pitcher.

The Phillies structured their payroll with the strategy that a four-run lead would be enough to win Game 2 of a playoff series. In the previous three postseasons, they lost three games in which they scored at least four runs. Two of those were in the 2009 World Series. One of those was in the 2010 NLCS. During that same timeframe, they won five games when an opponent scored at least five runs: one of those was in the 2009 World Series, the other four in series they ended up winning.

There is a reason no team has won back-to-back World Series since the Yankees dynasty of the late '90's and early 00's. No matter how much money you spend on pitchers, or how dominant those pitchers are, the line between victory and elimination often comes down to one start. And that one start is subject to a variety of factors a pitcher cannot control, from the direction a groundball is hit to the judgment of an umpire.

The Cardinals won 55.6 percent of their games during the regular season. In a five-game series, that equates to 2.78 wins. The Phillies won 63 percent of their games during the regular season. In a five-game series, that equates to 3.15 wins. That's a difference of .37, or about a third of a game. That's three innings of baseball.

Look at it that way, and you see the challenge a five-game series presents for a team like the Phillies, who measure success on postseason performance. Six months of dominance are boiled down to three innings. Three bad innings, and they are even with their opponent. As it turns out, it was three bad innings that cost them Game 2, three bad innings that evened the series, three bad innings that sent them to St. Louis needing to win at least one game to keep their season alive.

An umpire calling a strike for a ball might not be fair, but neither is judging a baseball team based on five games in October. Still, that is the way baseball works. Yesterday, despite their best-laid plans, it did not work in their favor.

Welcome to October.

 

 


 

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