Did you see yesterday’s Yankee game?

Yesterday’s Yankee vs. Mariners game was a fun one.  Great weather, long balls, two great teams, multiple pitchers who make you say “wow” when they throw.

But I think there was something else at play that made it a great game.

Yesterday’s game was great in no small part, because of Marvin Hudson.  Put a pin in that, I’ll come back to Mr. Hudson in a minute.  First, a brief history review:

When baseball was invented, the pitcher was put in place to throw the ball to the batter so a ball could be put into play.  The strike zone was invented to force the pitcher to throw a pitch that the batter could put into play.

Somewhere along the line, the role of the pitcher became to throw unhittable pitches.  But pitchers can only throw unhittable pitches if they receive conspirative help from the home plate umpire.  If unhittable pitches are called balls, eventually a pitch will have to be thrown over the plate that can be hit and put into play.  If unhittable pitches are called strikes as they very often are, there will be a drastic increase in both called strike threes and swings and misses leading to a reduction in balls put in play.  (To say nothing of the increase in pitches taken, leading to longer at bats and longer games.)

Now, here we are, 2018.  Baseball fans, writers, announcers, are all complaining about fewer balls being put in play, resulting in fewer baserunners and fewer fielding plays – i.e., less “action”.  (More on this later…) Those who work in the Matrix of MLB, proving that the NFL doesn’t have a monopoly on inventing stupid terms, have named this “three true outcomes” baseball – nothing but HR, K, BB.  Just when you thought “high leverage” was a dumb term…

The reason there are fewer balls in play, fewer base runners and fewer fielding plays – i.e., less action  and longer games – is because umpires are calling unhittable pitches strikes.  Period.

There is this myth that a larger strike zone speeds up action and games.  “Make the batters swing the bat!” has always been the old codger mantra.

Problem is, that isn’t what happens.  That may have worked in previous generations but it doesn’t today because batters have better information now and are acting accordingly.

Batters in 2018 know that if a ball is one half inch off the plate down and away that they have a 50/50 chance of having a ball called.  But if they swing at that pitch they have a 99% chance of either missing it or hitting a ball weakly.

Choice A: take a 50/50 shot that you’ll get another chance and a better pitch to drive.

Choice B: swing at a pitch that you know you can’t do anything with.

That’s not a difficult decision at all.  Choice A may lead to more strikeouts, as umpires will still call some unhittable pitches strikes, but it will also lead to more opportunities to both hit the ball hard and draw walks.

The players are doing the right thing.  More K’s will actually lead to more runs.

Their chances are simply better with hoping the umpire calls it their way and that they either get another pitch they can drive, or they can draw a walk.  It makes more sense to roll the dice with the umpire than to flail at something you know you aren’t going to hit hard.  Of course sometimes you lose the gamble, but guess what – baseball is hard.

The result of all this, is more pitches taken, longer at bats, and longer games with fewer balls put in play.

But…stay with me:  If only hittable pitches were called strikes, more hittable pitches will be thrown, fewer pitches will be taken, more will be hit, resulting in more base running, fielding and hits – and oh, shorter games with fewer pitches.

Now back to Marvin Hudson.

Marvin Hudson, the home plate umpire in yesterday’s game, is 15th out of 88 umpires in NSOR.  (How’s that for a stat!)  That’s short for non-strikeout rate – i.e., the percentage of outs on balls put in play vs. outs by strikeouts when he’s behind the plate.

In other words, Marvin Hudson doesn’t call unhittable pitches strikes.  This forces pitchers to throw the ball over the plate, which results in a more watchable baseball game.

If you were watching the game yesterday, you saw this in action.  Virtually every at bat had a pitch that was an inch off the plate that Hudson called a ball.  We saw home runs, we saw great fielding plays, we saw hard hit balls, we saw bloop hits, we saw good base running.

And the game was completed in 2:51.  Or, as only a condescending ass would say, a “manageable” 2:51.

“But Jon, there were 20 Ks in the game”, you say?

Yes, because if you didn’t notice, the guys on the hill yesterday were bad mother effers.  If I had told you that a game in which Severino, Paxton, Robertson, Betances, Chapman and Rumbelow all pitched would have only 20 strikeouts, you’d take the “over” on that every day.

Now, there are two points on which I need to be clear:

  1. This is assuming pace of play and average game time are problems – I’m not sure they are.  Baseball is as good (better?) as it’s been in my lifetime.  Seriously – some of the teams in the World Series between ’06 and ’11 would be 3rd or 4th best in either the AL East or AL West.  Yes, attendance is down.  But I’d attribute that more to half the league not even trying to win than to anything else.
  2. As great as Marvin Hudson and other umpires are, they are human and we’re asking them to do an inhuman task. We still need robot umpires now.

Combine robot umpires who can enforce the hittable pitch strike zone while eliminating teams’ incentive to suck and watch baseball’s problems, real or imagined, disappear.

I’ll be applying for Commissioner soon.


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