Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Yanks Are Getting SCREWED! Or Are They?

Good morning my friends. Or afternoon, if you're reading this later. Or evening. OR 2087, IF YOU'RE AN ALIEN.*

*In 2087, only aliens can read. They took it from us, guys. It made us too powerful.

Today, we're on the look-out to see if the Yanks are getting completely jobbed by the umpires. There's a new tool on the already-awesome Brooks Baseball site called a "StrikeZone Map." Loosely, it documents called balls and called strikes for every game in major league baseball. Let's take a look at the Yankees-Red Sox map from Sunday night (a 4-0 Red Sox win), and then we'll look at how to read it:

Here's the deal with this map:

1 - As you see from the key, squares are Boston pitches, triangles are Yankee pitches. Again, these are pitches thrown by that team.

2 - Called strikes are red, called balls are green.

3 - Foul balls, balls in play, and swings and misses are not documented here. That would screw up the results.

4 - This from the umpire's perspective. So on tv, what we see as the left corner (from the pitcher's perspective) is actually on the right here.

5 - "Normalized" means that instead of just having an arbitrary box for every player, Brooks adjusted the strike zone for each player's height. Obviously, a player standing 6'8" will have a different zone than a diminutive weasel like Dustin Pedroia, who can't be thrown a strike unless the pitcher skips the ball in the dirt just in front of home plate.

That being said, what do we see here? Well, first off, plate umpire Mike Winters doesn't call the low strike. In general, his strike zone seems skewed to the right side of the plate. But between the teams, we can quantify the 'fairness factor' by looking at the bad calls and splitting them into 4 specific categories:

1) Boston called strikes that should have been balls: 11
2) Boston called balls that should have been strikes: 3
3) Yankee called strikes that should have been balls: 9
4) Yankee called balls that should have been strikes: 8

(Note: any time an icon touches the box on the chart, I'm treating it like a ball that touches the corner: strike)

Boston's game +/- (category 1 is good for them, category 2 is bad) was +8. The Yankee game +/- (category 3 is good, category 4 is bad) was +1.

For the game, Boston had a +7 advantage in the Fairness Factor. Here's what that might tell us:

A - Josh Beckett made smarter use of the strike zone. We can see on that plot that Boston had fewer low pitches in general. Did Beckett see early on that the low strike was a non-starter, or is he just generally less reliant on the low pitch than CC?

B - Those of us who thought the Yanks were getting hosed on calls were right.

C - It's impossible to say exactly how that affects the game (beyond the fact that they had a nice edge in favorable ball/strike calls). In my opinion, the Yanks were more prone to swinging at bad pitches because they were conscious of the awful strike zone, but I have no way to prove that. Still, it can only have a net negative effect beyond the actual numbers.

So, that being said, I thought it would be fun to keep a running tally for the year. Here's my arbitrary categorization rubric for the Fairness Factor. This is subject to change based on the results I find:

Majorly Screwed: -6 or greater
Minorly Screwed: Between -3 and -5
Basically Even: Between -2 and +2
Minorly Favored: Between +2 and +5
Majorly Favored: +6 or greater

To catch up, I went back and checked on the first few Yankee games. Here's how we stack up on the year:

Majorly Screwed: 3
Minorly Screwed: 1
Basically Even: 2
Minorly Favored: 2
Majorly Favored: 1

And the overall Fairness Factor for the Yankees this season is: -13. That's an average of -1.4 per game, which fits into the 'basically even' category. But, as you see, that average rarely plays out within a single game. Instead, it seems to be a balancing of extremes so far.

Fairness Factor has correlated to wins and losses in exactly 4 of 8 games. So, you know...it doesn't seem to mean much. Yet. But it's still fun.

Everything largely evened out on the season until I got all the way back to opening day, and viewed this monstrosity by Dale Scott:

Well done, Dale. It's one thing to give Detroit 7 outside strikes. It's another when Yankee pitchers threw 6 pitches in the same spot or closer and didn't receive the benefit of the call. You suck.

That game was -11 against the Yanks, the biggest margin so far in either direction.

If the powers-that-be think I'm not pursuing this project to the end of the season, they've got another thing coming. This is a revolution, baby.


Baltimore comes to town tonight. Normally this is an occasion for great merrymaking and ribald commentary, but the Orioles are actually leading the AL East right now. We need to sweep them before the trash talking begins. Unfortunately, that's mathematically impossible; Hughes is pitching tomorrow.

AJ takes the mound tonight. At this point, he's become the starting pitcher I look forward to the most. I love CC's consistency, and he's most definitely our horse, but AJ's got that wild man quality that keeps you at the edge of your seat. And unlike last year, he doesn't seem to be a walking, talking, human mess. It's actually reasonable to expect positive results in 2011. That's always nice.

The big question for the Yankees right now is how long can Girardi reasonably keep Gardner and Jeter at the top of the order? They were automatic outs against Boston, and it's a huge drain on our offense to have nobody on base when murderer's row comes up. And if they move down, what's the next best option? Swisher batting second? Granderson leading off?

These questions desperately need resolution. Otherwise, the Yankee offense is half-castrated.


I would like to tell a quick story of extreme embarrassment before I go.

Details: I'm taking a sports writing class in school right now with a former SI writer who may or may not want to be mentioned by name on a blog this crass. It's a fantastic class, one of my favorites of all time, and the other students (mostly undergrads) are great too. They all hate Duke, and me by extension, but other than that...nice folks.

Anyway, last Wednesday we played kickball as part of class, and the assignment for Thursday was to e-mail the professor a blog post about the game. He divided the teams by in-state versus out-of-state, and our squad won 21-8. For the post, I decided to write a rhyming poem in the "Casey At The Bat" style.

Now, a couple things. First, Casey At The Bat parodies have been done to death. I'm not sure why I chose it. Second, were there a couple clever lines? Maybe. But just maybe.

The prof sent me an e-mail saying something along the lines of, 'this will be read in class.' I experienced a shiver of anxiety, but it was relatively small since I assumed he would be reading it, with his nice, easy baritone. He's got one of those voices that makes even mediocre writing sound like Shakespeare when read aloud.

Unfortunately, it emerged yesterday that a few of us would be reading our blog posts ourselves. My voice, already not the world's most powerful instrument, was suffering from a late Saturday excursion and was more hollow than usual. Also, I had to go last.

So I spent the whole class listening to everyone else's blog posts. A lot of them got huge laughs, and deservedly so. When it was my turn, I briefly considered faking some kind of illness. Instead, I went the opposite way: no disclaimers, no whining, just read it and let the consequences follow.

And holy shit, guys, if you've never had the experience of reading your own poetry aloud, pat yourselves on the fucking back. It is brutal. When I lose my voice, I either sound like a 90-year-old mafia don with a tracheotomy, or, when I try to raise the volume, like a squeaky pubescent teen. Picture that voice reading a rhyming poem about a kickball game, forced to pause after every single laugh line, and progressively realizing that for the first time in this life, I actually underestimated how shitty the experience was going to be. There were a few token laughs from the nicer people in class, but overall it was an unmitigated disaster. I finished to complete silence, and my friend Nick, sitting to my left, just said "wow."

If this had happened 20 years earlier, it might have socially devastated me. Now, I think it's pretty hilarious. It will probably be the one and only time I read a poem in front of an audience, and the result was as awkward as expected. And yet, I came through it. Another badge of endurance in an unpolished life.

Did I lose the respect of some people? Maybe. Did I fail to entertain? Yeah, I did. Was there any upside? No, there wasn't. Would I give anything to undo it? I would murder your entire family to reverse time.

But guess what? It happened. It's in the books. And if that doesn't count for something, then what are we even doing here?



  1. Shane, you'll have to take your strike analysis to another couple levels. Start with "first pitch" - it sets the tone for the at bat. You're getting jobbed when the Ump is inconsistent between teams with the first pitch. Add in "locating" - a pitcher who has established command gets more calls (one example is the catcher setting up outside, pitcher throwing inside - even if a perfect strike, it's normally called a ball). Then there's "nasty" or "filthy" - the batter is fooled (but takes), Ump is fooled, and only the Catcher isn't (he's usually tugged it in just a bit during the catch).

    At the end of the day, there's a ton of human factor involved, but Umps don't "job" teams or pitchers. Now we could go all telestrator (i.e., professional tennis) and remove the human factor from the call (an absolute must in tennis). This would render your charts above perfect. But an at-bat is a complex 4-way negotiation (pitcher/catcher/batter/Umpire) that makes the baseball experience what it is (warts and all). There's a reason that neither batters nor pitchers want the Ump replaced with an electronic strike zone, and as an occasionally outraged fan, I still don't want it to happen either.

  2. Nice job with the ump analysis. Too bad we can't bring the wonders of modern technology to focus on the "jobbing" every team that plays Duke gets from the refs on the charge vs. blocking question, eh Shane?

  3. Wow, Anon. Good one! Succinct, fact-based, the perfect snappy retort to Shane's analysis. Everyone could hear the SNAP from where you said it! I guess that'll make Shane think twice before he posts anything again. Some may even be moved to stop reading his stuff. Let's hope so...

  4. Nobody cares about the Yankees in the triangle area. We love our Blue Devils and just to let you know, we are in Braves country. Most of this area hates the Yankees. Go Braves and especially Go Duke!!

  5. Dan, I'm not into conspiracy theory. I just thought it would be interesting to track balls and strikes, see if it evens out over the course of a year, and see if correlates to winning. Just a little fun, doesn't have to be perfect.

    Anon, in all seriousness that would be awesome to track that. But you have to admit, this year's flop king was ole Flopsy Zeller.

    Anon #2, I hear you, but this isn't a Triangle Blog. At least not yet. It's a Duke and Yankees blog. Admittedly, more successful with the former (which has more than a little to do with the name), but, you know, it is what it is.


  6. I've never understood the attitude that sanfran and other baseball fans have. Why do you like the imperfections of the game? Wouldn't a completely objective game be better? Taking the human factor out of refereeing and umpiring would help prove who the better team is every game (or at least the team that deserved to win each particular game).

  7. Marco Polo - I don't understand my attitude either, so I sure wouldn't try to convince anyone else it's the correct one. I like that baseball does a better job of sanctioning "opinion" than any other sport, and for some reason I find this quirkiness really appealing. Go figure.