I usually try to avoid making the strike zone the focus of my discussion about any particular game. It’s too easy to gripe about the zone, because there are always mistakes, and it is often a red herring if you lean on it too much in your analysis.
On the other hand, we do know that missed ball and strike calls, in the aggregate, can make for an enormous differences in a team’s performance (hence the explosion of interest in pitch-framing).
Still, I like to reserve my interest in deconstructing and grousing about the strike zone for egregious cases. Or, like last night, when it become an almost singular focus of everyone watching the game. It deserves discussion.
First thing’s first, here’s the zone as called last night, per Brooks Baseball and PITCHf/x:
Some things to understand: the hard line black box is the strike zone, and the dashed box is the zone that is typically called. With that in mind, one thing should jump out at you: Phil Cuzzi’s zone last night was not atypical, at least according to Brooks’ data.
That said, however, his zone was not objectively accurate. I count two or three strikes that were called balls, going against the Cardinals, and one of those that went against the Cubs. That’s actually not too bad. But the 11 balls that were called strikes for the Cardinals (against just three such pitches for the Cubs) is pretty bad. Again, they’re all mostly within the zone of what is typically called, but they were not, in fact, strikes.
From my perspective, there are a couple ways to look at the strike zone issue in a game like last night. On the one hand, it is absolutely correct that the umpire made a huge number of objectively incorrect calls that went against the Cubs, and only a very small number of incorrect calls that went against the Cardinals. On that basis alone, if you want to be upset, I can’t blame you. From the sound of things – mostly the things that went unsaid – the Cubs were very upset about the zone (ESPN). From their perspective, I think that’s very reasonable.
On the other hand, how the umpire was calling the zone was not unfair to one side or the other, because it was essentially consistent all night – it’s just that Cubs’ pitches were not going in that same area just outside the zone like the Cardinals’ pitches were. Had the Cubs’ pitches been there, I have little doubt they, too, would have been called strikes.
So, then, did the strike zone last night hurt the Cubs? Absolutely. No question. A tighter, more accurate zone would have forced Lackey back over the plate more, and who knows how things would have played out. Furthermore, this Cubs team is disciplined by nature, and likes to see a lot of pitches. Had some of the “strikes” been called balls, perhaps they would have felt more comfortable, and even could have worked Lackey out of the game sooner.
But do I feel some sense of the Cubs being robbed by the zone last night? It’s hard for me to get there, because it’s not like pitches on top of each other were being called differently for each team.
Or maybe I just don’t want to fixate on the strike zone as the thing that cost the Cubs the game, because that feels … cheap. If it were blatantly unfair to one side and not the other, then I’d probably be inconsolable about it this morning. As it stands, it was just a large zone. That’s all it was. That clearly helped the Cardinals more than the Cubs, but we should probably also note that the Cardinals blistered a couple of the mistake pitches they got, and the Cubs did not. Then again, if the Cubs were constantly in “protect against the wide zone” mode mentally, then maybe they were less ready to jump on mistakes. I don’t offer that as an excuse – I’m just pointing out that the zone has potentially far-reaching consequences.
Summing it all up: I think Cubs hitters are right to be perturbed about the zone, because it was objectively incorrect (even if it was called consistently), and clearly took them out of their game. I think fans are right to be perturbed about the zone, because it was objectively incorrect, and it clearly impacted the results in the game. However, I don’t think there was a kind of cosmic unfairness here that royally screwed the Cubs and totally favored the Cardinals. The zone was the zone last night, and, although it played more into the Cardinals’ hands than the Cubs, it was uniformly applied.
… or maybe I just don’t want to pissed off all day about something that was entirely out of the Cubs’ control.