Two things I do not like about the MLB Network’s telecast of the playoff games of the surprising Houston Astros: (i) while the announcers come armed with the usual load of statistics and vignettes, their reporting and analysis of the game itself are shallow and banal, unlike those of the Root Sports team that covers the team during the regular season; and (ii) the MLB set-up, though capable of providing graphics showing the exact location of each pitch when it crosses the plate, provides those graphics only sporadically and seldom when there is a close call. Why not on every pitch?
One thing one learns from watching the pitch-location graphics during the Astros’ regular season: the “strike zone” is a very flexible concept for most umpires. Some are excellent at getting the call right, but all of them make a lot of mistakes, and most of them have a pattern when it comes to marginal calls – for example, one ump may give you the low strike but not the high one, some have a generally big strike zone or a small one, etc. I see no indication that any ump is biased in favor of one team or another, but that does not mean their calls do not affect the outcome of the game. The Astros are a classic example of the impact of variable strike-zones.
The Astros have a finesse pitching-staff. Dallas Keuchel, their ace (and a likely Cy Young winner), rarely hits above 89mph on his fastball. His game is his mastery of the movement and location of a wide variety of relatively-slow pitches. He loves a big strike zone, because it gives him more leeway to pitch away from the center of the strike zone. When he is stuck with an umpire with a small strike zone, he is handicapped, because he must essentially “groove” his pitches toward the center of the zone to get strikes, and a team loaded with contact hitters (like the Royals) can work with that. But 11 of the Astros 12 pitchers are finesse pitchers. Their only power pitcher, the only one whose fastball is nearly un-hittable even if it is thrown right at the center of the strike zone, is Lance McCullers.
Last Sunday’s debacle (at least, it was a debacle for the Astros), was a perfect demonstration of the point. McCullers pitched beautifully, well into the 7th inning, giving up only 2 runs on just 2 hits. Meanwhile, the Astros’ power offense was free-swinging away, plating 6 runs, 3 of which came on home runs. But once McCullers was pulled (because of his youth and a high pitch-count), the Royals dinked and dunked their way in the 8th inning to 6 consecutive little-bitty hits (actually 5, as one ball took a weird hop on the ‘Stros and was called an error), exhausting 3 consecutive finesse-pitching relievers for the Astros. The game was effectively over. The home plate ump did not call a bad game, as his strike zone was consistently shrunken for both teams, but his small zone, while fine with the Astros’ lone power pitcher, was a disaster for their delicate bullpen.
Tonight’s crucial game offers a potential repeat of Sunday’s disaster: another finesse pitcher going for the ‘Stros (McHugh) and another power pitcher going for the Royals (Cueto). If you are rooting for the Astros, you had better hope for a really wide and tall strike zone.
Part of the pitcher’s craft is determining , as early in the game as possible, the umpire’s strike zone on the day in in question. It’s analogous to a trial lawyer’s knowing a judge’s tendencies and tailoring his tactics accordingly. While I find the foregoing annoying – because there is, of course , a specific rule on the strike zone – it is a part of the fabric of the game.