Wide strike zone a trend in MLB playoffs

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Maddon Tossed

As another MLB postseason gets underway, we welcome back some of the game’s great traditions: sprawling sellout crowds, three-man rotations, and elimination games.  Even the cable networks step up their game for the playoffs, introducing strike zone radars like TBS’s “Pitch Trax.” The idea is that everyone is held to a higher standard in the playoffs – even the umpires.

But are the umpires meeting those high standards?  If you believe TBS’s often unreliable Pitch Trax, you’d have to say no.

By Josh Weinstock

It’s rare to watch a postseason at-bat in which strike-zone graphic and umpire agree on every pitch.  The discrepancies have usually come with pitches around the outside edge to hitters.

Take, for example, a 9th inning strike two pitch to Braves OF Jason Heyward in Game 3 of the NLDS.  Pitch Trax called it ball three, which would have set up a hitters count.  Home plate ump Paul Emmel called it a strike, which set up a Heyward strikeout on the next pitch.  The Braves lost a heartbreaker, and the questionable strike looms in the minds of fans and players alike.

With almost unfaltering consistency, pitches missing an inch or two outside on the Pitch Trax radar have been called strikes.  At first I was suspicious.  Pitch Trax appeared to be positioned an inch or two off, explaining these frequent inconsistencies.  But keep in mind that our view of home plate on TBS playoff broadcasts is shifted slightly to the right.  Without a view from directly behind home plate, our best guess at a fair strike zone is basically what Pitch Trax shows us.  Sure it’s off from time to time – but not as often as home plate umpires around the league would have you think.

So perhaps the fault lies with some of baseball’s best umps…a number of players and managers seems to think so, at least.  After Roy Halladay’s historic no-hitter against the Reds to open the NLDS, shortstop Orlando Cabrera had this to say: “He was getting every pitch.  We had no chance. We had to swing.”  Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was tossed from a game over a strike zone dispute, while Joe Maddon and Bobby Cox have both gotten the axe over questionable calls.  It’s tough taking sides, but careful observation points to an unusually wide strike zone for pitchers.

Then again, in a season dubbed “the year of the pitcher,” is it fair to call a wide strike zone unusual?  The MLB earned run average dropped from 4.31 in 2009 to a stunning 4.07 in 2010.  In fact, the league’s overall ERA has dropped every year since 2006, a trend that many attributed to controls on steroids usage.  A closer look shows that league strikeout totals have gone up each year since 2006, while walk totals have generally decreased.  Essentially, pitchers are getting more close calls than ever before.

So what’s the explanation?  Why the sudden little-league style leniency for pitchers?  Maybe the recent offense-dominated era in baseball needed to be curbed.  Maybe it’s all in our heads, and umpires are calling the same pitches strikes that they called 10 years ago.  The newfangled technologies that transform fans into umpires – like Pitch Trax – must be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, it falls to us, the loyal baseball-watchers across the nation, to protect the integrity of the game.  So keep watching the playoffs, keep watching the strike zone, and remember – it’s not easy calling balls and strikes with a million people dissecting your every move.  It’s easy to criticize an umpire’s decision, but it’s another thing doing the man’s job.

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