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Have the Twins been screwed by umpires?

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Attachment 5629Robot umpires now? You wouldn’t blame Kyle Gibson for wanting them.

A recent Wall Street Journal article took an in-depth look at Major League Baseball’s strike zone and found that some teams have benefited from an expanded zone while others suffered from shrinkage.

Brian Costa consulted with the locally-owned Inside Edge, a Minneapolis-based company who specializes in harvesting video data for teams to use, and IE’s evaluating system combined with the MLB Pitchf/x system showed that an average of nearly 9% of all pitches were called incorrectly.

While the definition of the strike zone is quiet clear however the human element influences the outcome of the calls during the game. Writes Costa:

“But in practice, it varies from umpire to umpire, game to game and even depending on the count. The data collected by Inside Edge suggests umpires are far more hesitant to call a pitch a ball or a strike if doing so would result in either a walk or a strikeout.

On 0-2 counts this year, 26% of pitches taken inside the strike zone are erroneously called balls, compared with 10.9% on all other counts. On 3-0 counts, 12% of pitches taken outside the strike zone are mistakenly called strikes, compared with 6.7% on all other counts.”
Among all the teams, Inside Edge’s data shows that the Twins have been the most wrongly discriminated against when it came to pitches inside the zone that were called balls this season. Just 44.3% of botched pitch calls that were missed were deemed favorable to the Twins. Has this negatively impacted the Twins 2013 season? As Costa’s points out, the Milwaukee Brewers, who at 55.3% have the highest amount of wrongly called pitches go in their favor, have nearly as bad of a record as the Twins. So it appears that even if the Twins had all the calls go their way, it still would not have changed the overall record much.

What is interesting is that the Twins pitchers have an overall decent amount of strike zone presence. According to Fangraphs.com’s Pitchf/x data, the Twins pitching staff has the second-highest amount of zone presence at 50.7%. Meanwhile, Inside Edge’s data suggests that Kyle Gibson has been one unlucky fellow – getting just 79.2% of in-zone pitches called a strike.

Before you pick up your pitchforks remember Gibson’s in-zone percentage is one of the lowest in the game at 41.9%. Gibson’s chaotic nature combined with his rookie status may have made it difficult for umpires to side with him on his borderline pitches. However, there may have been another factor that influenced his poor strike percentage.

While we all have seen the stories and data on Ryan Doumit’s framing issues, but Gibson was spared from having Doumit as his batterymate. Instead, Gibson has drawn Mauer for eight of his 10 starts. While Mauer has been proven to be an excellent receiver when it came to coaxing a call on the high strike, his ability to do the same with a pitch down in the zone was extremely poor. (As suggested in the WSJ piece, it may be due to his large statute which blocks out some umpires.) As a sinkerball pitcher, Gibson works down in the zone with that and a biting slider. With Mauer’s tendency of turning a low strike into a ball, it is no surprise to see a high amount of Gibson’s low pitches being called balls.

Attachment 5630
Gibson, a ground ball pitcher by trade, had his problems further exacerbated beyond the strike zone by the amount of grounders turned into hits – his .333 batting average of grounders was nearly 40% higher than the league average. Armed with a solid repertoire, Gibson figures to play a substantial role in the rotation for the Twins in 2014.
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