Jose vs. The Umps

Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays

Jose Bautista: whiner or victim? Obviously it looks bad when he’s constantly complaining, especially when he gets one wrong and melts down on national TV. But he’s got a pretty good eye and doesn’t seem like a delusional egomaniac, so in the long run is he right more often than not, or has his rise to stardom blinded him to the fact that he gets good and bad calls just like everyone else?

An article was written in the Star a while back where they used some  umpire data and came to the conclusion that Bautista had gotten “20 more incorrect strike calls” since 2010, but there are some problems with such a surface analysis:

a) If you go by the rulebook strike zone, everyone gets a ton of “incorrect” strikes because the zone bulges out at the belt. As a power hitter, Bautista takes more pitches than the average hitter, and as a good one he is going to see a lot more pitches on the fringe of the strike zone. If you don’t adjust for how the zone is actually called, it will appear as if a quality power hitter is getting more bad calls than he actually is.

b) Extra strikes are only part of the picture. What if he also had 40 more incorrect ball calls over that time? It would be a sign of particularly erratic umpiring, not a bias against or in his favour.

c) The zone shrinks and expands by the count, so if a hitter is pitched carefully and winds up in a lot of 3-0, 3-1 counts, he will see a larger zone, but not any worse than other players when in those counts.

I use the made-up stat SAA (Strikes Above Average) to deal with umpires. It compares every pitch compared to the real, not the rulebook zone — i.e, the line where just as many pitches have been called strikes as balls by umpires over the last million or so calls in the majors. Then I subtract how many ‘extra balls’ (i.e. a pitch called a ball that has been called a ball for the rest of the league less than 50% of the time) a player received from the number of ‘extra strikes’ to get the net effect, subtract the league average, and then divide by the total number of calls made on that batter. The result is the net +/- of umpire calls compared to the average calls for those pitches. For the rest of this article, I will refer to SAA per 10 pitches (roughly one game of calls).

Here are Jose’s numbers as far as my Pitch F/X database goes back, since 2009:


Year SAA
2009 0.04
2010 0.18
2011 0.19
2012 0.41
2012 0.40

It really has gotten progressively worse for Bautista – 0.40 calls per 10 might not seem like a lot, but it is when you consider so many calls are not close. Jose sees an average of 2.5 calls per at bat, so that’s one bad call every 10 AB. Imagine if for an entire season, you did not get a single call in your favour and one every two games you got a stinker– a pitch called a strike that for the rest of the league would typically be a ball. At the end of the season you would have almost 80 calls that for the rest of the league would have gone the other way. Yeah, you might start mouthing off a bit.

Some of this effect is probably due to Bautista’s emergence, and how that affects point c) above (for example, Miguel Cabrera works the count so well he has a SAA consistently around .20-.30 and you don’t see him exploding). But it’s not all in his mind — Bautista really is one of the most put-upon players in the league. Here’s his ranking over the last two years compared to the league leaders (at least 1000 calls):

Name SAA
1) Jose Altuve 0.72
2) Mike Aviles 0.61
3) Paul Goldenschmidt 0.59
4) Hunter Pence 0.58
5) Drew Stubbs 0.53
6) Martin Prado 0.49
7) Matt Holliday 0.47
8) Brandon Phillips 0.45
9) Cameron Maybin 0.43
10) Derek Jeter 0.43
11) Jonny Gomes 0.43
12) Ryan Zimmerman 0.42
13) Jose Bautista 0.41

So much for the supposed love affair between Derek Jeter and the umps…

Now just for fun (and in an attempt to show that this isn’t all just random fluctuation), here’s how some of the other Blue Jays have done in terms of calls from the umpires since 2009. Interestingly, Encarnacion has gotten better calls as he has transformed into an elite power hitter just as Bautista has gone in the other direction.

Jays SAA

As for why this is happening, we’re still left with a chicken-and-egg situation. Do the umpires hate Jose because he mouths off, or does he mouth off because they hate him?

Either way, I think it makes Bautista’s theatrics a lot more understandable when you know that Bautista’s zone really is significantly larger than anyone else’s on the team and most players in the league, and that his bad-call rate has doubled since he started hitting bombs. Maybe he should just suck it up for the sake of umpire relations — but when so much of his craft is based on knowing the zone and laying off marginal pitches until he gets one he can drive, that kind of drastic change really would be a tough pill to swallow.

Comments (59)

  1. Well that’s interesting

  2. #jonhalethebest

  3. c) The zone shrinks and expands by the count, so if a hitter is pitched carefully and winds up in a lot of 3-0, 3-1 counts, he will see a larger zone, but not any worse than other players when in those counts.

    this is one of the fundamental problems with baseball. It is absolutely accepted that an umpire can change the rule book at will. The zone should be the zone regardless.

    • Its funny. They talk about video replays for foul/fair, etc.

      For me, my biggest concern is balls and strikes.

      Although, shit, Beurhle would not be in the bigs.

      • and Casey Janssen would be a shitty closer (probably).

        • Ha ha ha. Its amazing how much my opinion changes on the issue. When Beurhle’s pitching, I’m in favor of umps. Likewise with Jansen. However, when Bautista gets K’d on a bad call, I’m all for roboumps.

          Fuck, I don’t know how I’ll react if all those scenarios meet up.

        • Just to play devil’s advocate…that is certainly true the way the game is now — but if the zone was to change to a 100% rulebook robo-zone, control pitchers would just have to adjust (just as much as hitters would) and then they might even be more effective. You wouldn’t get half the questionable strike calls at the belt, but all of a sudden the four corners would open way up, and those pitches that most hitters can’t cover as well as they do the belt-high, slightly outside ones. Cutters and two seamers just off the plate would be much less effective, but corner-hunting with straight stuff would become absolutely devastating compared to what everyone is used to now. It would be total chaos for a while and then I’m not sure if the end result would be better for the game than the pretty crappy strike calling we have now…the bulgey oval human zone has it’s advantages because it’s what hitters can actually reach.

    • It seems to me like Rasmus gets screwed over by the “lefty strikezone” quite a bit. He sees a ton of pitches per PA (4.21, 10th in the AL) but I can remember a few occasions where he works his way to 3-2 count, the pitcher drops one outside off the plate and the ump rings him up.

      • I was thinking a similar thing. The last five games I feel like I have noticed a lot of called strikes on lefties that looked clearly outside (ex. Maicer’s K on Sunday). It is kind of frustrating.

        • Shit, you’re right.

          Sorry. I hope everything is okay with Mr Stoeten. If you’re just being lazy fuck off, but if something is wrong in your personal life or with your health,I’m sorry I’ve been so critical.

          I am such a bad person and screw so much shit up.

        • can you imagine if in other sports the officials could just change the rules at will?
          that 3 pointer wasn’t very deep, let’s give him 2 for that one.

          • It’s a lot more like the difference between a “first-quarter foul” and a “fourth-quarter foul.”

            The refs do the same thing on borderline threes as umps do on borderline homers (replay).

    • I find it absurd that I can “see” the balls and strikes more accurately, on my phone, while golfing, than the umpire can.

      Literally give them an iphone FFS and let them wait 2 or 3 seconds and look at it on the screen on any close ones. Might add a whole 3 seconds per at bat vs the normal reset time. So 4 minutes extra time per game and way less arguing.

  4. Okay, I take back my comments re: your phoning in the previous post.

    You are a god!

    • Unfortunately this excellent post was brought to us by Mr Hale and Stoeten is probably off grooming his beard somewhere.

  5. Who’s Paul Goldenschmidt?

  6. Well I’ll be an umpire’s uncle.

  7. Righthanders above the line, lefties below the line, switch hitters on the line.

    • He’s right

    • I noticed this as well.

      Did you adjust properly for the lefty strikezone, or is this another phenomenon on top of that?

    • This is most likely due to the ‘accepted’ zone when a LHB is at the plate. The normalized strike zone for lefties is already a few inches larger on the outside part of the plate, so lots of outside strikes won’t be considered ‘blown calls’

      • For sure. Seeing as the author of this post adjusted for the bulge and count adjustments, I assume he adjusted or least attempted to adjust for the lefty zone. The small sample of Jays hitters is enough though to make me curious if that adjustment was done correctly

        • yes, he states his methods pretty clearly, the 50% margin compared to the rest of the league would roll that outter lefty buldge up nicely

          • I actually didn’t adjust for the counts — it’s probably doable but the sample sizes would get nasty and start to throw off the results. I assume that’s why Rasmus and Arencibia are so low because they don’t tend to get into hitters’ (i.e. big strike zone) counts. The lefty-right difference in the strike zone is taken into account for sure, though. It’s pretty huge.

  8. The umps seem to be doing a solid job calling balls and strikes all considered.

    • Rubbish. The ‘ol “they are right 99% of the time” has proven to be a fallacy even more so with balls and stikes. This year alone, I have seen enuf blown ball and stike calls to fill a cave, and I am not talking about ones that are just out of the zone ( these could go either way) but strikes being called like by that showboat ump on Lawrie, for eaxmple, where it was clear to everyone ( even Buck) that one was way too high and another way too low.
      Ithink certain umps, not all, are terrible on ball and strike calls ( hello, Dan Delino, come on down). Maybe they should only ump 1,2,3B only-sort of a quality control issue

  9. Interesting post. I’m glad it’s not all in Bautista’s head.

  10. Thank you internet. We would not be getting sports journalism like this if it wasn’t for you.

  11. I have been watching the ICC Championship and the level of replay technology used for cricket is astonishing and it does not take long at all. It makes me sad coming back to MLB games where it makes the game look old and behind the times.

    • I caught some of that too, and yeah, the technology is pretty remarkable.

    • It’s great and everything, and more accurate than just having the umpires.

      Hotspot uses heat sensing technology to depict edges and nicks off the bat, they use the snickometer to detect faint edges as well, and hawkeye is help for lbws which illustrates the flight of the ball. But these decisions are for wickets – game turning decisions, which a regular strike or ball most of the time is not. It’s more similar to compare that to the home run review or whatever.

      But the best thing cricket has implemented, is that if at anytime the two umpires on the field are unsure about something, they just walkie talkie their way up to the 3rd umpire in the booth, who reviews the decision in slow motion, so close catches, runouts, no-balls, whatever. This type of common sense is needed in MLB for decisions umps are really not sure about, particularly on the basepaths. It’s rather quick as well, the amount of time wasted hearing managers argue can quickly be sorted out with a quick review upstairs.

      Last thing, no matter how accurate technology may be, very rarely it screws up, and that’s when you get all these cricketing purists come out in drone and complain, so something similar will happen in baseball.

      • All you have to do is look to hockey. People would rather their team be penalized or wrong than win on false pretenses. There will always be morons but logical ones will shut them up quick enough.

  12. How do you estimate “real” strike zones in your analysis?

    • There is a history of what umps usually call strikes and balls. It says so in the article. What may be a border line pitch by pitch f/x images, still is a strike for umps.

      • Yeah. It ought to depend on the ump, the catcher, the game, and the handedness of the hitter. For a single game, you don’t have a big enough sample size to estimate the strike zone with any degree of accuracy, so you need to do something across games. How?

        • I look at LHB/RHB separately because the zones are very different based on the handedness of the batter. And then average it over all the games (and catchers) since 2009. So yeah, this doesn’t take into account if Jose is facing some crazy ump or great framer of a catcher, but we’re comparing to league and longterm averages anyway.

          • Hmm.

            Suppose Jose’s just better than league-average at seeing whether a pitch is a ball or a strike compared to the average strike zone. Then he’s going to foul off borderline strikes more and look at borderline balls more. So he *should* have a higher-than-average getting-jobbed rate. Just by virtue of giving umps more opportunities than average to call balls strikes than to call strikes balls.

            • Actually, you point out that he’s been getting jobbed since last year. He’s been good since 2010. But I’m still not ready to attribute this to Jose getting jobbed by the umpires. :)

              Have his swing patterns changed? Have strike zones changed?

            • But even with more borderline pitches, in an unbiased world as many should go in his favour as against him, compared to the league average strike zone. That’s one of the things that is wrong with the numbers I mentioned at the start, but under this analysis you only get an “extra” strike if a pitch outside the average zone is called against you, and every one that is inside the ‘average’ zone doesn’t get called, it swings the other way.

  13. as long as the umps are getting it wrong to both teams i dont give a shit

    as a Coach i have come to terms with the fact that there are somethings you just can’t account for, IE Human error,

    so until Robcop is behind the plate, this will be beat to death every other week or so.

    • This is the other problem with baseball. Not only do we know for a fact that umpires willfully change the rules, the general public is actually ok with. Embracing mediocrity

      • Not ok with it. But I’m not going to get worked up when playing a sport because of something I can’t control.

        That overturned strike/foul tip call may have been the first time I saw an ump over turn a call like that in a while, in any sport, without video reply. I think the way gibby approached it may have been the reason why.

        Please don’t think I’m ok with it, its just part of the game, always has been, always will until robocop is free from his movie deal to start calling games.

    • So LB, guess you didn’t read the article?

      • I did. But it didn’t give a reason for it, the chicken and the egg so to speak, I believe was given. But its also a non stat, its a very weel research article, and it does look like he gets shafted, but there are some career .300 hitters above him on that list… what does that say?

        Its human error, and weather or not its based on emotion or not, does still make it human error, you can’t control it. Its just something we all need to deal with. If this wasn’t our slugger, would we care this much?

  14. I know he gets burned sometimes by shitty calls – but hell’s sakes, the umps are just human, too.
    Yes, I get pissed off when some guy makes my day more difficult when he fucks up – but I don’t go off on him, either.
    Bottom line – yeah, you have a legitimate gripe on occasion – but you’re not doing yourself any favours by showing the guy up. It’s like correcting your teacher when she/he makes a spelling error or arithmetic mistake – yes, you might be right…but by showing the guy up, you’re pretty much guaranteed ZERO slack in the future.

    • I’m with you 100%

      Love that Jeter is on that list. He shits on umps more then anyone, but everyone said it worked in his favour, guess not. As I said above, emotion causes human error when your talking balls and strikes

  15. My first thought was that EE was a bad ball chaser all along, while Bautista was a patient hitter to begin with, but the stats oly back that up a little bit. That said, Eddie is continuing to develop his batting eye while Bautista has kind of reached his tipping point.

  16. Question: Shouldn’t this analysis focus more specifically on the incidents when Jose explodes/whines? It’s not like he’s saying he’s always getting called badly, and it’s not like he doesn’t take it like a man when he knows he’s beat. So here’s the question: How often does he explode, and is right to complain? Keep in mind, he may not be complaining about the entire sequences of pitches during an AB. Usually there are 1 or 2 pitches during an AB, or in a game for that matter, that set him off. Is he complaining when he deserves too?

  17. [...] an interesting guest piece for Drunk Jays Fans Jon Hale looked at the calls Jose Bautista has been getting and concludes the Jays’ slugger may be getting the raw end of [...]

  18. Awesome, some very great points! I appreciate you writing this post and the remainder of your web-site is superb!

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