Judging the Royals

Want to know why umpires miss pitches? Here’s part of the answer

MLB umpire Marty Foster
MLB umpire Marty Foster AP

In the ninth inning of Sunday’s 5-4 win over the Twins, Royals reliever Brandon Maurer had the tying run on second base and one down.

A lousy bloop single could tie the game, so every pitch mattered.

The Twins pinch hit for rookie Niko Goodrum, a guy with five big-league at-bats; his replacement was Ehire Adrianza, a guy with 412 big-league at-bats.

After four pitches the count was 2-2 and that’s when Maurer threw strike three; a 98.6 mph fastball well within the strike zone, but home plate umpire Marty Foster called it a ball.

Foster’s been around for decades; how did he miss such a crucial pitch?

Keep it between the shin guards

They may not be completely accurate, but we now have strike zone grids which let us see which pitches crossed the strike zone and which pitches missed entirely. But umpires don’t get to see those strike zones until the game’s over, so in the heat of battle they tend to use some rules of thumb to help make calls.

And one of those rules of thumb is a pitch caught between the catcher’s shin guards looks more like a strike than a pitch caught outside the catcher’s shin guards.

If the crowd, and more importantly the guys in the dugouts, sees the catcher lurch to his left or right to receive a pitch, that pitch doesn’t look like a strike. Call it a strike anyway and the umpire is going to hear about it.

On the 2-2 pitch to Adrianza, Salvador Perez was set up away and had to reach back across his body to receive the pitch, outside his right shin guard. Even though the pitch was in the zone, Foster used the old-school method of calling strikes and called the pitch a ball.

And it works the other way as well: if a catcher sets up off the plate, but the pitcher keeps the pitch between the shin guards and hits the mitt, a ball might be called a strike.

It might not be right, but all too often, that’s how it’s done.

“In the slot” positioning

In the old days umpires used “balloon” chest protectors, worn outside their uniforms and held in front of them like a miniature mattress. With a balloon chest protector, umpires were more likely to set up directly behind the catcher.

These days, with form-fitting chest protectors worn inside their uniforms, umpires tend to position themselves “in the slot.”

The slot is the space between the catcher and the hitter and that position gives the umpire a great view of the inside corner, but not the outside corner down-and-away; the catcher blocks the umpire’s view.

According to MLB’s Gameday, 306 pitches were thrown on Sunday and according to me, Foster missed 13 of them, which for my money isn’t all that bad; we’ve all seen worse.

But the majority of those missed pitches — balls called strikes or strikes called balls — came on pitches down-and-away; pitches Foster had a hard time seeing when positioned in the slot.

Big catchers

Twins catcher Chris Gimenez is listed at 6 feet 2 and weighs 230 pounds; Royals catcher Salvador Perez is listed at 6-3 and weighs 240 pounds — and yes, teams aren’t always scrupulously honest about a player’s weight.

Let’s just say Gimenez and Perez are big catchers and big catchers make it hard on umpires.

If the catcher can’t get down low enough, something Perez has struggled with, the umpire has a hard time seeing the bottom of the strike zone; a fair number of Foster’s 13 missed pitches were at the bottom of the zone.

Star treatment

Foster missed 13 pitches and four of those missed pitches came with Twins first baseman Joe Mauer at the plate. All four pitches could have been called strikes, but were called balls instead.

When framing reports became a big deal — reports on which catchers got balls called strikes and strikes called balls — a Royals coach had a very good question:

Would an umpire ring up Miguel Cabrera on a 3-2 borderline strike in a game played in Detroit?

That exact situation occurred not so long ago and the answer was no.

Everybody in baseball knows star players get treated differently than rookies and that makes framing reports suspect. On Sunday, 306 pitches were thrown, 13 were missed and four of those missed pitches went in favor of a star player while playing in his home park?

It’s doubtful whether those missed calls with Mauer at the plate had anything to do with Salvador Perez and the way he received those pitches; framing reports do not tell the whole story.

All’s well that ends well

Luckily for the Royals that missed pitch to Ehire Adrianza did not change the ball game.

One pitch later Adrianza hit a soft fly ball to left field and Alex Gordon made a terrific sliding catch; a sliding catch that bailed out himself (it was his error that put a runner on second base), Brandon Maurer, his Royals teammates and umpire Marty Foster.

If that soft fly ball fell in and the Twins went on to win the game, Foster’s missed pitch would have gotten a lot more attention.