On Tuesday night, the Rays beat the Blue Jays 4-3. All of the scoring was over by the seventh, but the real action occurred in the bottom of the ninth, when Brett Lawrie was ejected by umpire Bill Miller after arguing balls and strikes, first with loud body language, then with loud words, and finally by transforming his helmet into flying suspension bait. Lawrie probably brushes his teeth more intensely than you’ve ever done anything, so you can only imagine what he looks like when he’s called out on borderline pitches in a close game against a division rival. Actually, that’s not true—imagining it isn’t the only thing you can do. You can also watch this video:
Batting against Rays closer Fernando Rodney, Lawrie went up 3-1, then struck out on consecutive called strikes, the first of which (a 95-mph two-seamer) appeared to be out of the strike zone by a lot and the second of which (an 83-mph changeup) appeared to be out of the strike zone by a little. The second made him snap and say something not nice to Miller, which made Miller eject him, which in turn inspired Lawrie to toss the helmet that hit Miller.*
*Assuming my lip-reading skills are up to par (note: they’re not), Miller reacted to the impact with the words, “What the fuck?”—which, if you think about it, is probably how most people would react to being struck from behind by a helmet—followed by general observations on the theme of Lawrie being a lousy person. After the game, he summed up his initial comments in the more reserved statement, “That’s a bit extreme.”
On his way off the field, Miller was hit by a beer cup thrown by a Blue Jays fan, bringing the grand total of things he was hit by in or around that half-inning to two and his personal tally of f-bombs dropped in or around that half-inning (again, subject to my suspect lip-reading skills) to four.
Lawrie later called the helmet’s fateful trajectory an “unlucky bounce.” Given that Miller is a fairly large man and the helmet hit the ground about a foot from him…
…that seems like a stretch, not to mention a disappointment to Cole Hamels, who’d hoped Lawrie was trying to bring back some old-school-baseball aggression toward umpires. As the ghost of Branch Rickey reminds us, “luck is the residue of opportunity and design,” and Lawrie's design was definitely to throw his helmet too close to Miller for comfort. Regardless of where the pitches were, the helmet toss was ill-advised and will probably lead to a lengthy suspension.* That said: Where were the pitches?
*Bumping and spittle-spraying got Yadier Molina five games last August. “Hitting with a helmet” seems even higher on the hierarchy of things not to do to an umpire.
*Update* Or not. Lawrie got four games.
According to Blue Jays manager John Farrell, who was also ejected, “The bat was taken completely out of Brett’s hands, not only the 3-1 pitch but the 3-2 pitch as well. Those are not strikes.”
So, were Lawrie and Farrell right to be upset? The short answer is “yes.” So is the long answer, actually, but the long answer is a little more interesting, if you care to keep reading. Here’s how the 3-1 pitch looked from above:
On a pitch that clearly outside, we hardly have to look at any data from Brooks Baseball to be sure it was a ball, but let’s look at some anyway. This is the fifth pitch on the plot below. According to Harry Pavlidis, it was 1.2 feet from the center of the plate. A pitch that just nicks the outside of the black is 0.83 feet from center, which means this one was about five inches outside. Lawrie was right not to see it the same way Miller did.
Here’s where Molina’s glove was when he caught it.
Yeah, that looks a lot like a ball. Note the glove’s location in relation to Molina's right knee. Also note the frown on the face of the Blue Jays fan in the top left corner. His team is down by a run with two outs remaining and hasn’t put anyone on against Rodney.
Here’s where the ball was a split second later, when Miller called it a strike.
The Blue Jays fan is no longer frowning. He thinks he’s just seen Rodney put the tying run on. Now look where Molina’s glove is—instead of obscuring his knee, it’s all the way to the side of it. But Molina’s leg hasn’t moved! What witchcraft is this?
Actually, this isn’t that unusual. Molina does it almost every day. In fact, he did it to a lesser degree on the very next pitch. Refer to our strike zone plot again. This time we’re talking about pitch number six.
This one is over the plate, but it comes in a little on the high side. According to Harry, it crossed the plate 3.6 feet above the ground. The top of Lawrie’s zone, based on a Mike Fast methodology, is 3.37 feet off the ground. That means it was roughly three inches high: it should have been a ball, though it was probably a little too close to take on 3-2, especially with Miller already miffed at him for his reaction to the previous call. The top of Molina’s glove was about even with his nose when he caught it.
Flash forward very slightly, and suddenly the top of Molina’s glove is about even with his shoulder.
There, ladies and gentlemen, are your phantom few inches.
Molina played for the Blue Jays last season, so they should know as well as anyone what to expect when he’s behind the plate. Molina is a pitch-framing fool. Moving the glove into the strike zone is only part of his prowess. As Mike Fast noticed last year, Molina doesn’t drop his head when he receives pitches, and he makes only subtle movements, keeping his body stable so as not to distract the umpire. According to estimates by Mike and Max Marchi, Molina saved the Jays 10-13 runs through framing last season despite spending fewer than 400 innings behind the plate. Pitches like the ones that made Lawrie so mad explain why the Rays are paying him $1.5 million to hit under .200 and are probably getting a bargain, even aside from the benefit of his indirectly depriving the Jays of their soon-to-be-suspended third baseman. Lawrie was probably right to offer an impromptu prayer that he wouldn't have to hit again this season with Molina behind the plate.
There’s one more side note to this story. The 3-1 pitch to Lawrie wasn’t the worst strike call in this game. A worse one went against the Rays in the top of the ninth, with no outs, no one on, and a 1-2 count. This one was a full inch farther outside than the first blown call, 1.3 feet from the center of the plate. And the batter? Who else? Jose Molina.
Maybe the second outside strike in the ninth was Miller’s attempt to make amends for the first. More likely, the two calls were unrelated. If there’s such a thing as karma, the 3-1 pitch to Lawrie is what it looks like. But my money’s on Molina.
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His framing skills has got to be at least partially off-set by the fact he can't throw anymore (9 of 11 in steals against this year), is horrible at blocking pitches and can't run or hit.
It was a changeup with movement, Molina knows it's up in the zone. Dropping you knee is showing that the pitch is moving, wow, it's moving so much that you the catcher, that called the pitch and has caught Rodney before, thought it had so much movement downward that it's fooling you even.
That's my high school catcher take on it.
And, framed or not, you rarely get the called strike three on a borderline pitch that misses the catcher's target so badly.
An umpire is not looking at the catcher's glove during the pitch, but he is crouched right behind the catcher like a human shield, such that the ump's perspective changes based on the foot position of the catcher. It's an intimate relationship - if the catcher has to shift his body to catch the ball or if he stabs at a pitch, the umpire is going to sense this movement, which is typically associated with a missed target, and call "ball."
Molina is a rock behind the plate but he catches the ball with a pillow, and from the ump's perspective even missed pitches look like they found their scheduled destination with minimal turbulence. It boils down to pitch framing, which involves the body as well as the glove, as Ben noted in reference to the work of Mike Fast.
How accurate has Miller been historically behind the plate?
One might say that pitchers are thrown hard and it's difficult for umpires to determine close pitches and sometimes rely on how the catcher is set up to help make a call. That however lends the umpires to be manipulated. I am not sure what the solution is to this, but it certainly seems to be putting the hitters at a disadvantage.
Lawrie and Farrell should remember what their little league coaches tried to teach them - protect the plate when you have two strikes, if it's anywhere close then swing at it, etc. If you get caught looking at strike three, then it's your own fault, even if the pitch didn't cross the plate. An inch or two is close enough.