PxP: In the Zone

How would you describe “being in the zone”?

And answers like anything but being named Rory on any given Sunday don’t count.

There are these moments in life where everything just seems to go right, where one has the complete and utter control over everything around him, where your knotted dirty socks leave the hand so effortlessly that you just know they will bounce softly off your wife’s make up table and swoosh their way into the very middle of the laundry basket. Or whatever athletic endeavor it is that you might be pursuing.

But as easy as it feels being in the zone, it is even harder to try to describe how and why one finds his way into such a state of mind and body, where yin and yang find the perfect balance, where one is but a hovering soul over the slow-motioned events leading inevitably towards a happy end. Luckily for you, I realize that it’s not only hard to describe but also utterly boring, so not a single word more will be wasted about such esoteric poop.

Instead we turn to that other zone, the one that existed way before Jim Boeheim perfected the 3-2 one, even way before Charles Lindbergh started the chain of events that led to the no-fly one. We’ll talk about the one and only true one – the strike zone.

Ever since the 1887 rule change eliminated the “Low”, “High” and “Fair” strike zones that were chosen by each batter, not much has changed. The width of the zone remained constant over the decades and only minor changes were made to the height of it. The bottom edge was always around the knees, while the upper one ranged from top of the shoulders to the “letters”.

Current official definition can be found in the most recent issue of the official rule book (Definition of Terms – 2.00):

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

And it looks something like this:

Another thing remained constant for more than a century. Umpires called them as they saw them while batters, pitchers and managers bitched about it and that was pretty much it. But as of recently, every single pitch and its exact location as it crosses the strike zone are recorded by high speed cameras, allowing us to delve a bit deeper into the matter and see if there are any discrepancies between what strike zone is meant to be and what it really is.

In 2010 more than 690,000 pitches were thrown in the Majors, and on more than half of them all eyes turned to the man in blue behind the home plate as the ball reached the catcher’s mitt. That’s how they called them:

So, the green obviously represents the strike zone and when a pitch was thrown into it, it was called a strike 88% of the time. Additionally, 18% of pitches that Pitch F/X system saw as a ball were nevertheless called a strike by the umpires. Considering that the borderline pitches can be called either way, that the umpires are human and that it is in general pretty hard to say exactly where an object traveling at ninety miles per hour crossed an imaginary plane – this is not a bad result in itself.

So, to get a better idea how well strikes and balls are called, let’s ignore the borderline pitches. To do that I conveniently* rounded the diameter of a baseball to three inches and ignored all the pitches that were three inches or less away from the strike zone edge, either way. This way we get the pitches that are clearly strikes or clearly balls.

*By the way, there is nothing convenient whatsoever working with feet and inches. Thanks to the width of the plate being 17 inches, but also to the fact that a foot has not ten, but twelve of those, I had to scribble things like this all the time: “px < – .708 – 3*.0833″.

America, it’s OK to be wrong, but it’s about time to man up and admit that you messed up. You measure distances in multiples of 12, 3, 1760 and basically any other random number drawn at last night’s bingo party and you measure temperature with a scale based on body temperature of a certain Polish guy and the coldest winter temperature of a village he happened to live in. It’s time to move on.

Umpires do a very decent job on the pitches in the heart of the strike zone, although I am sure that it is of little comfort for a pitcher who just got hosed to know that it was probably the only such mistake of the night.

However, 9% of the pitches that were clearly outside of the rulebook zone were nevertheless called strikes. It is a number that speaks of a pattern, rather than individual mistakes. It gets interesting and rather surprising when we break it down a bit. As usual, it sucks to be a lefty.

Incredibly, the umpires have no problem whatsoever with the height of the pitch, nailing such calls almost perfectly – although they have to constantly adapt between the likes of and those of David Eckstein. It’s the width of the zone that differs from the one in the rulebook.

When righthanders come up to bat they can expect roughly one out of every ten balls to be called a strike, even though they have not crossed the plate. Although outside pitches are somewhat more likely to be called than the inside ones, the difference is not staggering.

It is with the left-handed batters.

While they rarely get called on inside balls, they will see balls turn into strikes on almost a quarter of pitches clearly outside, regardless of whether the pitcher is left-handed or right-handed. I wrote about why this happens in another article. Basically it has to do with umpires working mostly Slot these days and with catchers all being right-handed. Still, I didn’t expect the numbers to turn out this high.

Another interesting aspect of zone expansion is the pitch type. Whether it is because they have less time to see the ball and are thus more prone to make a mistake, or whether an umpire just values good old-fashioned country hardball, they will raise that arm more often if a pitch is of a faster variety:

The good thing out of this exercise is that there seems to be no doubt that umpires are impartial. No matter how I sliced it, they were not leaning in any way towards a certain franchise, a home team or anything similar. The percentages of strikes called were very constant, and in their miniscule differences actually seemed to disfavor the usual suspects like Yankees or Red Sox.

This is not to say that umpires always call them as they see them. They don’t.

In one of the most annoying rites in organized baseball, they just seem to be waiting for a batter to start towards first after a ball was thrown on a 3-0 count, only to call a strike and have him come back again. And it’s not our imagination, it’s a fact. Look how the calls on balls clearly outside of the zone differ depending on the count:

 

* * *

EDIT:

Per popular request, here is the list of ten best and ten worst umpires in calling that clear outside ball as a strike on the lefties:

Ten best:

And ten worst ones:

 

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