In a recent bout of strike zone curiosity, I started looking into umpire accuracy metrics to try to visualize the baseball world at our doorstep: a world in which balls and strikes are called by robot umpires. While referring to an electronic strike zone as “robot umpires” no doubt adds an unnecessary measure of Asimovian flourish, the reality of baseball’s future is bearing down on us. Electronic strike zones are coming to baseball.
Then again, COVID-19 threw a wrench into all pockets of predicting baseball’s future, and there’s no longer any certainty in, well, just about anything. So there will be no more crystal ball voyeurism from me today, no more speculation, only a cold, hard look at the past.
Of course, the issue of umpire accuracy is hardly reserved for the future. Until electronic strike zones are implemented, the human models making the calls behind the plate remain incapable of ridding themselves entirely of human error – try as they might. Sometimes a ball misses the plate, and they call it a strike. Sometimes it crosses the dish, and the arm stays at the umpire’s side. The question for today is this: which pitcher got the most extra strikes in 2019?
With my previous look into Statcast pitch data, I looked for clusters of pitchers that would illuminate certain things about how umpires called balls and strikes. Today is about passing along some of the trivia. Statcast data, after all, holds a ton of information, including whether or not each ball or strike was correctly called. Using machine learning, we can pretty cleanly find those pitchers who benefited the most from gifted strikes, as well as those who were hurt the most by stolen strikes.
And that brings us to Adam Warren of the San Diego Padres (frequently and presently a member of the New York Yankees). Of the pitchers who threw as many as 200 pitches in the majors in 2019, it wasn’t close: Warren benefited more than any other pitcher in 2019 from umpires gifting extra strikes.
To be perfectly clear, a gifted strike here is a pitch that lands outside the strike zone that the umpire calls a strike. This alone does not make Warren the luckiest pitcher in baseball. Nor does it make him the umpires’ favorite (though it probably gets him a look). In a vacuum, that Warren led the league in percentage of called strikes that were gifted means only this: no pitcher had a higher percentage of their called strikes come from pitches that missed the zone.
This was important for Warren because, even with the added help, only 31.4% of his pitches landed in the zone (league average was 39.4%). And while batters swung and missed at a relatively average rate when Warren was throwing strikes, batter O-Contract% – the percentage of times a batter makes contact when swinging at a ball outside the zone – was just 61.9%, much lower than the 67.3% average. So the more Warren got batters to chase, the more effective he became (surprise, surprise). Still, he only registered 7.85 K/9 versus 3.77 BB/9.
For context, MLB pitchers – on average – had ~16% of their called strikes come on pitches outside the zone. Warren, by contrast, received a gifted strike on almost 42% of his strike calls. This was an extreme outlier. The second-place finisher for highest percentage of gifted strikes was Michel Baez at ~30% – interestingly, also of the Padres (and the conspiracy is on!). Not for nothing, but Warren also fits the profile of the type of pitcher more prone to getting extra calls. He averaged just 86.4 mph this season (fastball clocking at 91.4 mph), he’s right-handed, and both his fastball and curve register in the bottom quartile for spin rate.
If he were a starter, he’d fit the mold exactly. Of course, sample size is likely a culprit here in Warren’s numbers being so far outside the norm. Warren wasn’t exactly a spotlight pitcher in 2019. He threw 555 pitches for the Padres across 25 games, 28 2/3 innings. He ended the year 4-1 with a 5.34 ERA/6.91 FIP making his season worth -0.2 bWAR/-0.8 fWAR. This is not to say he will be a total disaster if he suits up for the Yankees sometime this season, nor is it to say he’ll receive the same measure of umpire error if he does. Though Warren has been received favorably by umpires in the past, his overall average percentage of gifted strikes over the past 5 seasons is just under 28%. That still puts him two standard deviations above the mean, but nowhere near the outlier of his 2019.