Something New to Blame?

Monfort

One of the recurring themes of the Colorado Rockies’ disastrous 2014 campaign has been blame. Who and/or what is to blame for the crappy on-field product this year?

There is plenty of blame to go around, of course. Depending on who you ask, General Manager Dan O’Dowd is to blame for 15 years’ worth of decision-making that’s been more bad than good. Other Quasi Pseudo Sorta General Manager Bill Geivett is to blame for mismanaging whatever it is he’s actually in charge of, and for micromanaging Manager Walt Weiss. Weiss himself is to blame for bunting too much and not letting his starting pitchers throw in sixth innings. (Or is that Geivett’s fault, too?) Owner Dick Monfort is to blame for obsessive and blind loyalty to all of the aforementioned. And let’s not forget the non-human and intangible. Blame the Baseball Gods for bad injury luck. Blame altitude for making the ball go too straight and too far. And, of course, blame the party deck for eating up all that money the team could have used to sign FILL IN ACE PITCHER NAME HERE.

Today I’d like to explore another target for blame that’s been far too underutilized thus far; and surprisingly so given the fact that this target is often the first we think of at the micro level in the heat of the moment: the damn umps. Those guys just must be screwing us over, amiright?! I mean… Come. On. Right?!         Right?

denverpost.com

denverpost.com

Well, I wanted to find out; and not just for the team in general, but for some individual players, as well. This sort of question touches on a couple of my most sensitive baseball nerve endings. One of those is the degree to which luck matters in baseball, and how to quantify it. This was the main theme of my article from earlier this month, in which I explored the correlation between our hitter’s batting averages and the rate at which they “hit the ball hard.” Imperfect umpiring is similar to batted ball luck in that it’s a factor largely outside of the hitter’s control that nonetheless impacts his results a great deal.

Another of those exposed nerve endings is imperfect umpiring itself. I have no love for the “art” of umpire-fooling that some call “framing.” Similarly, for me, a pitcher’s ability get balls called strikes based on reputation, and the fact that umpires have “personal” strike zones that teams actually scout and chart, don’t add interesting “contours” to the game, they’re just flaws. Flaws that distort actual baseball skill. Flaws we could eliminate entirely using technology that’s already been deployed to every stadium in the league. Regular visitors to Rockies Zingers may remember a piece I put together earlier in the season tracking blown ball/strike calls for Rockies pitchers. The analysis led to dual conclusions. First: umpires are certainly mistake-prone – they blow more than 1 in 10 pitch calls – and some individual Rockies pitchers were disproportionally affected by those mistakes and had reason to be irritated. But second: adding up all the unfair outcomes – both to the good and to the bad – for the entire team, the net effect came out to be almost comically neutral. This suggests the old saying really is true: it all balances out in the end.

So, with the regular season now 3/4th complete, I thought I’d check in on that idea. I used a similar methodology as I did in my previous ball/strike article – drawing on the great dataset at ESPN Stats and Info – but as a follow-on of sorts to my last article, I wanted to focus on hitters instead of pitchers this time. I also took a more holistic team-by-team view to try to get a better sense of whether it has, in fact, balanced out in the end for the Rockies. And if it hasn’t balanced out, and the imbalance is not in the Rockies’ favor, well then 2014 is totally the umps fault. Obviously.

But let’s look at the results on an individual-level first. Here are two tables; the first showing the percent of balls taken out of the zone mistakenly called strikes, an undeserved/unlucky outcome hurting the hitter, and the second showing the percent of balls taken inside the zone mistaken called balls, an undeserved/lucky outcome helping the hitter. Hitters are well served being at the top part of both lists.

Pitches Taken Out of Zone
Called Strike Relative to Average
Michael Cuddyer 4.0% 5.0% Least Screwed
Carlos Gonzalez 5.4% 3.6%
Nolan Arenado 6.5% 2.5%
Charlie Culberson 6.8% 2.2%
Wilin Rosario 7.1% 1.9%
Brandon Barnes 8.0% 1.0%
Charlie Blackmon 8.5% 0.5%
DJ LeMahieu 8.6% 0.4%
Michael McKenry 8.8% 0.2%
League Average 9.0%  
Troy Tulowitzki 9.2% -0.2%
Justin Morneau 10.1% -1.1%
Josh Rutledge 11.0% -2.0%
Drew Stubbs 12.5% -3.5%
Corey Dickerson 13.6% -4.6% Most Screwed
Pitches Taken In Zone
Called Ball Relative to Average
Brandon Barnes 21.7% 4.6% Most Charity
Drew Stubbs 18.7% 1.6%
Wilin Rosario 17.6% 0.5%
Carlos Gonzalez 17.5% 0.4%
League Average 17.1%  
Nolan Arenado 16.6% -0.5%
Troy Tulowitzki 15.2% -1.9%
DJ LeMahieu 14.9% -2.2%
Josh Rutledge 14.8% -2.3%
Justin Morneau 14.3% -2.8%
Michael McKenry 14.1% -3.0%
Charlie Blackmon 14.0% -3.1%
Charlie Culberson 13.9% -3.2%
Michael Cuddyer 13.0% -4.1%
Corey Dickerson 11.4% -5.7% Least Charity

Some interesting data points here, but before getting too deep into the commentary, let’s put these two tables together. After all, all that benefit Michael Cuddyer has received from abnormally accurate umpiring on pitches outside the zone doesn’t mean much if he’s been given less umpire charity than other players on those perfect strikes he’s wrongly let pass him by.

Net Effects
Help out of Zone Help in Zone Total Help
Brandon Barnes 1.0% 4.6% 5.6%
Carlos Gonzalez 3.6% 0.4% 4.0%
Wilin Rosario 1.9% 0.5% 2.4%
Nolan Arenado 2.5% -0.5% 2.0%
Michael Cuddyer 5.0% -4.1% 0.9%
Neutral
Charlie Culberson 2.2% -3.2% -1.0%
Colorado Rockies 0.0% -1.8% -1.8%
DJ LeMahieu 0.4% -2.2% -1.8%
Drew Stubbs -3.5% 1.6% -1.9%
Troy Tulowitzki -0.2% -1.9% -2.1%
Charlie Blackmon 0.5% -3.1% -2.6%
Michael McKenry 0.2% -3.0% -2.8%
Justin Morneau -1.1% -2.8% -3.9%
Josh Rutledge -2.0% -2.3% -4.3%
Corey Dickerson -4.6% -5.7% -10.3%

So, basically, Corey Dickerson should hate the umpires, or at least hate the fact that the Robo Umps haven’t taken over yet. Rockies fans might actually see this in a positive light since Mr. Dickerson is obviously doing great even despite the umpires’ imperfections working heavily against him. He won the National League Player of the Week last week. And now that we know he’s not only beating the pitcher, but that blind umpire, too… well, let’s just count one more reason to think Dickerson is rad.

On the other end of the spectrum in almost every conceivable way is Brandon Barnes. While Mr. Barnes wasn’t in the “lucky” quadrant of my “hard hit” study, he was nevertheless beneath the overall curve. Add this bit of help from the umpires on top of that, and I’m afraid we’re looking at a seriously and artificially propped up hitter right now. And given that his wRC+ is only 83 even with that propping up, I think it’s becoming increasing necessary to right-size the Brandon Barnes love amongst the Rockies’ broadcasting crew and fan base. I think I’ll start evangelizing on this topic post-haste.

OK, so now that we have a sense of which individual players have a right to blame the umpires, let’s circle back to where we started, with the team’s overall woes. And let’s answer the question we’re all asking ourselves: the next time he makes the mistake of pulling out his iPad and interacting with fans, can Dick Monfort rightfully blame the umpires for this mess that is 2014?

Here are the same two tables we started with for individuals, but truncated to show just the Rockies, the league average, and teams at the top and bottom.

Pitches Taken Out of Zone – TEAM
Called Strike Relative to Average
Atlanta Braves 7.5% 1.5% Least Screwed
Colorado Rockies 9.0% 0.0%
League Average 9.0%  
New York Yankees 11.0% -2.0% Most Screwed
Pitches Taken In Zone – TEAM
Called Ball Relative to Average
Oakland Athletics 19.1% 2.0% Most Charity
League Average 17.1%  
Colorado Rockies 15.3% -1.8%
Arizona Diamondbacks 14.8% -2.3% Least Charity

Mmm… that second table makes me more than a little ump-angry. Let’s mash them together.

Net Effects – TEAM
Help out of Zone Help in Zone Total Help
Milwaukee Brewers 1.2% 1.6% 2.8%
Neutral  
Arizona Diamondbacks 0.5% -2.3% -1.8%
Colorado Rockies 0.0% -1.8% -1.8%
Toronto Blue Jays -1.7% -1.5% -3.2%

Ah-ha! The umps are to blame! Not only are we south of neutral, our hitters are tied for the 3rd most screwed-by-the-umps bunch in the league!

To be clear, my ump-rage to this point has been mostly false, and my ump-blaming mostly sarcastic. However, I must say that I am a bit peeved by this end result. Being only 1.8% of all taken pitches in the hole might not sound like that much; the margins in the Team-by-Team comparison are predictably smaller than with individual players – the data points are much more voluminous, and there’s that “in the end” thing going on. But being 3rd from the wrong end of a list containing 30 teams ain’t good. And that 1.8% represents 416 more blown-in-the-other-guy’s-favor calls than an average/neutral team’s offense. (Side note: the difference between the Rockies and the Brewers hitters is over 1000 blown pitch calls in the Brewers’ hitters’ favor.)

This bad call cost the Rays a game last year.  It doesn't have to be this way.  But it is, so lets break it down....

This bad call cost the Rays a game last year. It doesn’t have to be this way.   But it is.

Anyway, so how many of those blown calls were game-changing (or even at-bat-changing) events? How many runs scored have the extra 416 blown-in-the-other-team’s favor calls cost the Rockies offense? Impossible to say. There’s no way to convert those 416 extra blown calls into something like uWAR*

Also, the obvious fact needs be stated that I’ve only looked at half of the equation here. Yes, Rockies hitters as a group have been hurt disproportionally by bad umpiring this year. But if the pitchers have been disproportionally helped by an equal or greater amount, well then I suppose we’ve got nothing much to complain about in terms of the bottom line. The umpires givith, and the umpires taketh away.

To that end, check back in this space next week, where I’ll run the same analysis on the pitchers’ side. My interest is officially piqued, and I’d love to see if I can give poor Dick Monfort one more reason to chalk up 2014 to fate.

*Umpire Wins Above Replacement. If only…

About RyanHammon

I’m just a small town kid from Montana who thinks Coors Field on a sunny summer Saturday night is the best place to be on this or any other plane of existence. Sadly, I’ve given up all hope of making it as a professional second baseman, but take some solace in the opportunities I have to watch and talk about professional second baseman (and other positions, too!). In those fleeting moments when I’m not thinking about baseball, I’m probably camping in the Poudre, laughing with my wife, or chasing my toddler around my unfurnished living room.
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