Nothing You Couldn’t Have Guessed

Jeff Sullivan · April 15, 2013 at 8:46 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


9 Responses to “Nothing You Couldn’t Have Guessed”

  1. Westside guy on April 15th, 2013 9:15 pm

    Random thoughts…

    Thanks for the article Jeff!

    I need to pay closer attention to catchers. Because of my low opinion of Montero, I find myself really noticing his flaws – the closed eyes when he receives a pitch, the way he flinches on a lot of pitches (and even shies away from them at times), and so on. But I haven’t looked for these things with other catchers, whether on our team or on the opposing team; so I’m not being all that fair to the guy I guess.

    I know Capps and Willits talked about Capps’ delivery possibly being an issue with regard to the umpiring. I also wonder if, in general, the simple fact that the Mariners have so many young pitchers works against them with the umps. Did you happen to look at how this broke down by pitcher, or would that just involve too much noise?

  2. Jeff Sullivan on April 15th, 2013 9:39 pm

    Too much noise, at this point.

  3. WTF_Ms on April 15th, 2013 9:51 pm

    Unlike Westy, I paid attention to the Rangers’ catchers, and Pierzynski in particular was very good at NOT flinching, and very good at pulling pitches back into the zone. In summary, Montero is horrible. Almost anyone else would do a better job back there.

  4. MrZDevotee on April 16th, 2013 12:34 am

    It is definitely noticeable when Montero doesn’t even make an effort to frame a pitch. If he thinks it’s a ball, he’ll almost swat at it and just toss it back out to the pitcher instead, basically never giving the umpire a chance to even consider “could I have maybe called that a strike” because the ball is gone already– versus guys that will hold a ball on the edge of the plate for a very deliberate “looky here” moment. He doesn’t really seem to understand, or acknowledge it’s a talent. It’s subtle, but there are definite ways a catcher can suggest “we’d like you to think this could be a strike.” Catchers and umps HAVE that relationship, an unspoken “how ’bout here”… “can we have this”… “look at this one…” You’ll even hear ump’s call a pitch “No…” as if they’re telling the catcher “nice try, but that’s outside”. It’s incredibly fun to watch in well pitched/caught games, but Montero doesn’t really do that. If he thinks a pitch is a strike he’ll hold it, as if “I can’t believe you didn’t call that” (which is probably a NEGATIVE effect on the ump), but he seldom does the prototypical “nudge, nudge, call THIS one” grab and frame (pulling it back towards the plate to blur the impression of where it actually was).

    All that said, I’m still not convinced he can’t become a decent catcher. Because he’s so obviously trying too hard to NOT screw up. You can almost see him trying to check off the 20 things the coaches want him to do, on every pitch, but of course there’s only time to get through about six. He’s so deliberate with every second of his awkwardness. His indecision is palpable when a pitch is gonna hit the ground between his knees and he can’t figure out how to just drop down and let it bounce off him. “Wait, wha? Oh no, don’t… crap… Too late.” (Pretty sure that’s what we’d hear if he was mic’d up.)

    I was pretty down on him, but am still willing to give him time after someone else mentioned he’s only a year and 4 months older than Zunino. Catcher is a complex position, and before becoming a Mariner, he never really was expected to do it very well. Now it’s kinda “learn on the fly”, and not pretty to watch. But I don’t think it’s impossible to think he could get better, with guidance. (Jaso and Olivo weren’t exactly defensive examples of “what to do” his first year.)

  5. gopilots70 on April 16th, 2013 3:15 am

    Thanks for the great article Jeff. It is always nice when my whining in front of the TV can be backed up with statistical evidence.

    I agree with Mr. Z in that I am still hopeful that Montero will become a serviceable catcher or at least a backup catcher and DH who can hit.

    Wishful thinking perhaps, but it would be great to see.

  6. mironos on April 16th, 2013 9:54 am

    I know I’m not the first to ask this, but what are the obstacles to taking away calling balls and strikes from the umpire and giving them to a machine? Are there actual, legitimate concerns with the technology, or is really just baseball’s “that’s not what we do!” mindset.

    It just seems so weird that one of the “skills” we evaluate players on is the ability to essentially trick the umpire into making a specific call.

  7. msfanmike on April 16th, 2013 11:25 am

    There is an entire laundry list of flaws to point out in regard to Montero’s catching ability. I doubt I can quantify them all, or mention very many that haven’t previously been mentioned, but I will try nonetheless:

    He does not ‘receive’ the ball very well. He has real stiff (i.e. not soft) hands. You can’t teach soft hands. You either have them or you don’t. He pokes at the ball. He ducks his head while poking at the ball (and takes a lot of foul tips off the top of his helmet). He slides his right leg outward – even though a pitch might be down the middle of the plate. He sometimes bails out of the way of a pitch. He doesn’t block enough pitches. He frames poorly (because of all the poking at the ball) and he can’t properly frame a pitch becuase he is probably just relieved as hell to actually catch it.

    He is a WHITE HOT hot mess behind the plate.

    I never played Catcher. It is the only position I never played in an organized game. I have squatted behind many of them- as an umpire – and that job is hard enough without having a mechanically poor, ball timid, large fidgety dude who bails out of the way or blocks your view or can’t hang onto or frame a ball properly.

    He is an emergency #3 catcher moving forward. His bat is going to have to carry him and he is going to have to be a DH … assuming his bat develops to the point where he can produce at a high level, offensively. There is time for his bat to develop, but he is not even a short season A level quality catcher. He will constantly make mistakes as a C when mistake prevention matters most.

    It was an experiment worth taking, but he is destined to be a DH and a DH only. The sooner the better.

  8. MrZDevotee on April 16th, 2013 12:29 pm

    I could see a “light” system, somewhat like in Hockey that can define the strike zone with 3 infrared beams, and a pitch in the strike zone is a green light while a “ball” is a red light. Pretty simply really (must be close to what pitch FX does already).

    You still need an ump for plays at home though, so that’s probably the biggest hindrance. “There’s a guy already there, why spend millions for machines.”

    Plus, y’know, the union aspect. (Umps have a union.)

    We’d have electronic “Scabs”. *laugh* (Wouldn’t it be fun if computers got sophisticated enough that some would refuse to cross the picket lines!? They’d just keep crashing.)

    Plus, sounds silly, but in all reality you’d need a staff of IT guys to be constantly checking to make sure teams don’t hack their “strike zone” computer to be an inch bigger for the home team, an inch smaller for the visitor, and vice versa when they’re hitting. And/or, to align them constantly so that the zone is actually where it’s supposed to be. And how do you account for different size guys, different zones?

  9. mironos on April 16th, 2013 7:58 pm

    Thanks MrZ.

    I just feel like this has been done in other sports (hockey, tennis), simply because the systems are more accurate. When you’re playing with such high stakes and people’s job may depend on accuracy, the more accurate, the better.

    I also wonder if the union could really stop something like this — a lot of factory workers (who had a pretty strong union) ended up being replaced by machinery, simply because it represented progress. Not that it wouldn’t be a fight, but in the end, you’d think that progress would win out.

    But then again, it’s baseball — I have less optimism in the value they place in progress than most arenas. 🙂

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