Last night both CC Sabathia and Yankee manager displayed issues with Home Plate Umpire Gerry Davis’ strike zone, although in very different ways. Sabathia gestured towards home plate after his difficult first inning and asked Davis how much his pitches were missing by, to which Davis replied by holding two fingers barely apart, implying that it was less than an inch. Asking a home plate umpire about his zone can be a subtle way of letting him know you think you’re getting squeezed, in the hope he’ll be more generous going forward. as the game progressed, it was clear that no adjustment was going to be forthcoming from home plate umpire Gerry Davis. After the game, Yankee manager Joe Girardi took a more direct approach, saying this:
“I thought the zone was small tonight,” manager Joe Girardi said. “No disrespect to anyone, but that’s what I thought. That’s what I saw.”
That wasn’t even the first time he said it last night, he said this during his in-game interview after the 4th inning:
“He’s thrown a lot of pitches and I think he’s made some good pitches and some borderline pitches that he hasn’t gotten tonight,”
If this is what the typically ultra-reserved Yankee manager is saying publicly, we can only imagine what was being said in the Yankee clubhouse among the players and coaches. Much grousing went on during the game on fan sites and in the Twitterverse, and sitting at home I was no exception. It appeared to me that Davis was very tight on the inner half to Lefty batters, and fairly generous on the inner half to righty batters. Called the lower strike more than the high one, which is standard fare these days. I thought he was fairly consistent, with a few gross aberrations I can only describe as make-up calls.
One common rebuttal that doesn’t always fly with me is that one shouldn’t complain if the zone “was the same for both sides”. Russel Martin confirmed that he felt his pitcher was getting squeezed, but like me thought the zone was “consistent”. That may or may not be true, but getting a skewed strike zone certainly affects some pitchers more than others. Take the Game 2 match up as an example. Dan Cooper had a very generous strike zone, calling pitches on both sides of the plate and in the lower half for strikes. The pitching match up was Max Scherzer vs Freddy Garcia. Scherzer is a hard-thrower who looks to get ahead with his fastball and put you away down in the zone with his change or slider. Strike one and getting ahead of batters is the key to his game plan. By contrast, Freddy Garcia is a cagey veteran who mixes up his pitches and wants batters to put the ball in play. A generous strike zone won’t help him as much, he’s trying to throw balls that look like strikes and get batters to swing. A good night for Freddy has the ball hitting catcher’s glove as little as possible. Similarly, getting squeezed on the left hand side of the batters box will affect someone like CC more than Verlander. For starters, one pitcher is left handed and the other right handed. CC wants to throw his fastball in on the hands to left batters and back door the slider to righty batters. That’s how he generates outs, by setting batters up with his arsenal of pitches. By contrast, Verlander has such raw overpowering stuff he only has to be around the zone to be effective. Hitters have very little time to decide if a 100 MPH fastball is a strike or not, so anything close and they’re swinging. When you throw like Verlander, the home plate umpire simply isn’t going to affect your game all that much. To his credit, CC didn’t let the zone affect where he threw his pitches last night. If he wasn’t getting the calls, he simply let batters take their walks and went after the next one. That’s why his walks and pitch count were so high, and why the usually durable Sabathia only lasted into the 6th inning.
But even with that being true, this stuff with umpires and strike zones goes on all the time in virtually every game all season long. We just pay more attention to it in the playoffs, because the stakes are much higher than they are on a Tuesday night game in July. Bad umpiring isn’t unique to the playoffs, it simply highlights what goes on all year long to a wider audience. Most often during the regular season, players and managers will downplay the effects umpires have on their pitchers, opting to put the blame on themselves. Nobody looks good when they’re finger pointing after a bad outing, so even when complaints are valid they tend to brushed aside. They also know that this stuff tends to even out over the course of a long season. If AJ Burnett draws Dan Cooper and throws a 2 hit shutout, nobody in the Yankee clubhouse will be complaining. However, in a short series bad umpiring can be decisive. But again, I never heard anyone complain about Jeffery Maier, Mauer’s double that wasn’t with Phil Cuzzi, or all the many other bad calls and generous strike zones that resulted in Yankee playoff wins. This is baseball in 2011, and if we’re going to be fair we have to take the good with the bad until a better system comes along.
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