In the ninth inning of Tuesday's game between the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees, the A's closer Andrew Bailey came on to close out a 6-3 lead and promptly got into trouble. Jorge Posada homered to make the game 6-4. Russell Martin doubled, and Brett Gardner reached on an error. Derek Jeter bunted to move the runners over, and Curtis Granderson walked to fill the bases. After Mark Teixeira fouled out, Robinson Cano came to the plate and worked the count to 3-2.
Bailey threw a fastball on the outside corner at the knees, and home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom called it ball four, sending Cano to first and scoring Martin to cut the Oakland lead to 6-5. Three pitches later, Nick Swisher flied out to the warning track to end the game and make any impact of Cederstrom's call moot, but Cano's ball four was nonetheless subject of no little discussion on Twitter.
The PITCHf/x tracking system indicated that Bailey's 3-2 fastball crossed the front of home plate at a height of 1.80 feet and 8.65 inches from the center of the plate horizontally. Umpires typically call strikes on left-handed batters down to about 1.75 feet high. Of the 1,283 pitches taken by left-handed batters over the last two seasons that were within one inch of the location of this pitch, 74 percent of them were called strikes. Cederstrom called 11 of 17 of those pitches strikes over the last two seasons.
Historically, Cederstrom is about an average umpire in strike zone accuracy, with 89.8 percent correct calls versus the measurement of the PITCHf/x system from 2008-2011, as compared to 89.6 percent correct for the average umpire. He also grades out close to neutral with respect to favoring the pitcher versus the batter in the size of his zone.
Umpires typically call a slightly smaller strike zone with two strikes, the reasons for which are still a matter of debate and research, but on a 3-2 count, umpires called 28 of 48 pitches within one inch as strikes. So we see that this was a borderline pitch, but one that is more often called a strike than a ball.
The pitch location relative to the catcher's target can be a factor in whether the umpire calls the pitch a strike. Bailey did a very good job of hitting the target set by Kurt Suzuki for this pitch. The pitch was just a hair down and in from where Suzuki set up on the outside corner. You can see here where Suzuki's glove was set as Bailey released the pitch and where he moved the glove to receive the pitch.
Normally, we would expect a pitcher hitting the target on the corner to get a favorable strike call. I am not sure why he did not get it. One negative thing I noticed was that Suzuki framed the ball by pulling it back up toward the strike zone. Umpires typically do not like that behavior.
As Tom House explained in The Diamond Appraised, catchers can affect the size of the strike zone:
That's the other area where a catcher is critical: He's your line of communication with the umpire. No umpire will ever admit this, but of course the catcher influences the ball-strike calls. And there are some pretty reliable rules for how to do it:1. Receive the ball – don't reach or grab for it. This will make it look as though the pitch is right where you wanted it. No pitch you have to reach for will ever look like a strike, even if it is.2. Move predictably and deliberately; don't jump around.3. Maintain a tempo. Don't let the game drag with constant trips to the mound or by being slow to set up (Of course, there are some exceptions. Pudge Fisk, you are one of my best friends, but you are the slowest lug in the game!)4. If you question a call, do it with your head still and facing the pitcher. Don't drop your head in frustration, turn around to yell, or hold the ball where you caught it extra long to prove it was a strike. Umps hate to be shown up, and they'll get even if you do it.5. Frame the strike zone, but don't try to frame obvious balls.6. Catch the low strike with the glove up, and you'll probably get the call; roll the glove over, and you'll lose it.
This pitch probably should have been called strike three on Cano to end the game, but it was a genuinely close call. Bailey made an almost perfect pitch. Suzuki may not have done Cederstrom or Bailey any favors with his framing of the pitch, but I cannot say how Cederstrom would have called it had Suzuki held his glove in place.