Nothing You Couldn’t Have Guessed
For the record, before we begin, know that it’s uncomfortable and weird to be writing content about baseball on a day like today. I can see how it could be interpreted as insensitive and tactless, and you’re free to feel however you feel, but if part of the purpose of sports is to provide a reliable constant, to be a rock in the whitewater, then we should be looking to them now more than ever. After donating blood. Donate blood. Now on to sports. Stop reading if you don’t think it’s right to be reading.
On Saturday, against the Rangers, the Mariners lost, but they lost close and they lost late. They lost because two runs scored against Carter Capps, but before those runners crossed the plate, Capps had a ball called on what he thought was a strikeout. Given that strike, things would’ve gone differently. On Sunday, against the Rangers, the Mariners won, but they barely won, and earlier a controversial ball call with Brandon Maurer on the mound helped the Rangers to take the lead. There are missed balls and strikes in every single game that gets played, but this past weekend, there were missed strikes of import. Mariners pitchers weren’t given particularly generous strike zones.
You probably feel like umpires haven’t been kind to the Mariners this season. Truth be told, probably every fan base feels that way about umpires and their team, but in the Mariners’ case, it turns out the feeling is justifiable. The season’s only just underway, but it didn’t take long for the Mariners to find their way to the bottom of a leaderboard. Or the top of a leaderboard! If you sort in the opposite order. Gotta think positively.
It’s possible, using plate-discipline data available at FanGraphs, to derive a sort of “expected strikes total”. One can then compare this against a team’s actual strikes total, to see how the zones have been. It’s not a flawless statistic, but it’s an interesting statistic that doesn’t mean nothing. So far this season, across the entire league, the average difference between strikes and expected strikes has been -2 per 1,000 called pitches. In the lead we find the Brewers, at +67 per 1,000 called pitches. At the bottom we find the Mariners, at -45 per 1,000 called pitches. That is, on a per-1,000 basis, the Mariners have been 43 strikes worse than the average, and 112 strikes worse than the Brewers.
The Mariners, as a team, are creeping up on 1,100 called pitches, in order to give you some reference for that denominator. I admit it isn’t the best denominator or the most intuitive denominator but I really like the roundy feel of a thousand. How much do numbers really mean at this point in the year? I went back to 2012 and compared April numbers against full-season numbers. The r-value came out to 0.78, and that doesn’t control for changes in personnel. Turns out these numbers matter, and they’re reflecting a skill or shortcoming. The Mariners, again, look like they’ll be given a smaller strike zone than most other teams.
Via Baseball Heat Maps, let’s compare the Brewers’ 2013 strike zone against the Mariners’ 2013 strike zone:
Now, that’s a comparison between the league’s best and the league’s worst, not the league’s average and the league’s worst. And of course, most of the Mariners’ strikes are called strikes, and most of the Brewers’ balls are called balls. But it’s about incremental differences in percentages, and the Mariners get more balls on pitches in the zone, while the Brewers get more strikes on pitches out of the zone. Something is working for the Brewers. That same thing is not working for the Mariners.
And a lot of this, predictably, presumably has to do with the catchers and with pitch-receiving. Jonathan Lucroy is an absolutely fantastic receiver, every bit as good as Jose Molina even though Molina gets a lot of the sabermetric attention. With Seattle, Jesus Montero has gotten a lot of the time behind the plate, and Montero is kind of an all-around catastrophe. The thing about receiving is that it’s very subtle, and an untrained eye won’t spot the difference between the best and the worst at it. But Montero is one of the worst at it, and here’s where that’s showing up.
Montero hasn’t caught all of the innings, and Kelly Shoppach might deserve some of the blame. Additionally, maybe the Mariners haven’t had a representative sample of umpires, and maybe the Mariners’ pitchers haven’t been doing their catchers any favors with inadequate command. The wrong thing to do would be to look at this and conclude “well Jesus Montero sucks”. It’s by also looking at the rest of Jesus Montero’s game that that conclusion can be reached.
Jesus Montero is not a good defensive catcher. John Jaso is not a good defensive catcher. Miguel Olivo is not a good defensive catcher. Josh Bard is not a good defensive catcher. Adam Moore is not a good defensive catcher. Rob Johnson is not a good defensive catcher. Kenji Johjima was not a good defensive catcher. And so on. It’s been a long time since Dan Wilson, who’s probably under-appreciated by the statistical community, and Montero is only continuing an organizational pattern. Unsurprisingly, Montero probably isn’t going to be a catcher for very long. Unsurprisingly, the Mariners are in love with Mike Zunino, because Mike Zunino might actually be a passable catcher in all facets of the game.
So if and when Zunino comes up, we could see these numbers start to change. I don’t know how Zunino is as a receiver, but it’s hard to imagine he’s worse than Montero is. The Mariners might manage to pull themselves out of last, and of course this isn’t the reason why the Mariners probably aren’t going to make the playoffs. That has more to do with the rest of the pitches thrown, and with the hitting and the defense. This is just a little factor. It’s felt like the Mariners haven’t pitched to a normal-sized strike zone. This is because the Mariners haven’t pitched to a normal-sized strike zone. And how! League’s worst. Nowhere to go but up, or down, deeper in the hole.