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April 6, 2013
Jose Bautista's One-Way War with Umpires
And the kicker:
Bautista has a history of being demonstrative about calls he disagrees with. Here’s Buster Olney describing an incident this spring:
Probably Bautista has always been like this, and we’ve just become aware of it in the past few seasons, which is when we’ve become aware of most of the things we know about Jose Bautista. But his tendency to blow up at umpires has made enough news lately that Blue Jays manager John Gibbons talked to him this spring about toning it down, for fear of reprisals. Evidently, that talk didn't take.
Bautista’s latest comments came after the Jays’ 4-1 loss to the Indians on Tuesday, in which he objected to two calls made by home plate umpire Jeff Nelson. The first was a 3-0 strike call in the third:
Bautista flipped his bat back toward the dugout and began to trot toward first base before Nelson signaled for the strike. He'd end up on first anyway after drawing an official ball four two pitches later.
In the fifth, Nelson rung Bautista up on a 3-2 slider, and Bautista made his feelings felt on his way back to the dugout:
So, did Bautist have a beef? Here’s the pitch plot for the third-inning plate appearance:
The fourth-pitch strike that bothered Bautista was outside, but barely. Pitches in that location are called strikes fairly often regardless of the count. But three years ago, John Walsh found that the called strike zone is about 15 percent bigger on 3-0 than it is across all counts. Here’s his heatmap of called strike percentage on 3-0:
Based on that image, 3-0 pitches located where Justin Masterson’s was are called strikes about 75 percent of the time.
As for the fifth-inning pitch:
That one was probably less likely to be called a strike than the 3-0 pitch in the third, but it was within the rulebook strike zone, the standard Bautista says he wants umpires to adhere to. Neither call was worth getting worked up about. And this isn’t the first time that Bautista has complained about an okay call that went the pitcher’s way.
Bautista does have a point: umpires don’t adhere to the rulebook definition of the strike zone. The rulebook strike zone is a rectangle; the called strike zone is more of an ellipse. The rulebook strike zone’s size doesn’t depend on the count; the called strike zone is almost 50 percent bigger on 3-0 than it is on 0-2. I can understand why an ellipse that shrinks and expands from pitch to pitch would be frustrating if you’ve been told to expect a rectangle that’s always the same size. Batters have a lot riding on their ability to distinguish between balls and strikes, and umpires who turn the strike zone into a moving target don’t make that difficult task any easier.
But Bautista has been in the big leagues for almost 10 years, and he’s seen almost 16,000 pitches. By now, you’d think he’d have come to terms with what constitutes a strike. So his why is he so angry at umpires? Is he getting squeezed more than most batters?
Actually, the stats suggest that umpires have been less inclined to call strikes on Bautista. From 2010-12, Bautista has had fewer pitches outside the zone—the actual zone, not the rulebook one—called strikes, and more pitches inside the zone called balls, than the typical batter:
Bautista is at war with umpires, but they don’t seem to be at war with him.
Is there any evidence that Bautista—and by extension, the Blue Jays—have been paying a price for his outbursts? Not really, although it’s hard to say for sure. Bautista has been getting breaks a little less often over the past two seasons, though that’s not necessarily because umpires are exacting their revenge. Even last year, the calls against him weren’t way out of line with the typical batter’s:
Ultimately, Bautista’s blow-ups aren’t a big deal. He’s hyper-competitive, as many successful athletes are, and he’s more inclined to get upset about the occasional questionable call than the typical player. If his competitive drive is part of what makes him a productive player, then the downside—an occasional outburst about a borderline call—probably isn’t too high a price for Toronto to pay.
But someone should stick up for the umpires. Because it doesn’t look like they’ve gone out of their way to earn Bautista’s ire.
Thanks to Ryan Lind for research assistance and Andrew Koo for tipping me off to Bautista's complaints.