Last week, I had the opportunity to spend the day with Bernie Pleskoff at SABR 47 in New York City. We were able to sit in on some panels covering a variety of topics, but one stood above the rest. The MLB Now panel and their discussion of the changing state of sabermetrics and issues in the game.
Brian Kenny, host of MLB Now on the MLB Network selected the panel and moderated the discussion. The rest of the panel included MLB Network Insider and NY Post columnist Joel Sherman, current MLB Network Studio Analyst and former major-leaguer Mark DeRosa, SABR President Vince Gennaro and Mike Petriello of MLB Advanced Media.
Kenny was excellent in moderating the dialogue and putting the panel together. He asked relevant questions and didn’t overwhelm the conversations.
The Defensive Shift
Mark DeRosa really shined in this format. DeRosa’s insight from a player’s perspective and openness to sabermetrics provided great balance to the conversation. When the discussion turned to the shift, he brought up how it has hurt left-handed hitters such as Houston Astros catcher Brian McCann.
He was spot-on with the shift hurting left-handed hitters. McCann became a different player with the New York Yankees. He, like many others, fell for the temptation to drive the ball into the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium, in part to overcome the shift.
Shifts are designed to takes hits away from batters and for the most part, they have. Is it good for the game? I don’t think so. Many people say just bunt, or hit the ball the other way. Is it possible? Sure. Is it easy? No. You’re asking a player that has hit a certain way their entire career to change and hit balls the opposite direction of their strength. It’s easier said than done.
Is The Ball Juiced?
Joel Sherman was excellent in his responses and questioning of the current state of sabermetrics. He was honest, direct and very passionate. The entire panel was on the same page when the topic of juiced baseballs came into the conversation.
He used an excellent example of how MLB outfielders usually smack their glove when they were within two feet of making a play on a ball in the outfield. Now those same outfielders are doing the same thing and the balls are carrying an extra 15-20 feet.
Are the current baseballs juiced? It’s hard not to think so. I’ve seen that Sherman’s example play out numerous times this season. When you’re watching games, watch how the outfielders react on fly balls and line drives. You be the judge.
The Strike Zone and Automation
The panel discussed the current state of the strike zone and the influence that umpires are having on the game. Many umpires aren’t calling balls and strikes per the rule book. Their missed calls are changing the complexion of at-bats. The panel’s solution was to automate the balls and strikes.
Per Rule 2.0 in the MLB Rule Book, here is the definition of the strike zone:
“The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”
Changing to an automated strike zone would remove part of the human element from the game. There are some umpires that do a good job and there are others that do not. Do changes need to be made? Absolutely. One such change would be calling balls and strikes as defined by the Major League Baseball Rule Book. Different umpires appear to have different interpretations of the defined zone. One example is the calling of strikes outside of the zone to left-handed hitters (See graph below).
The strike zone is shown with the solid box, while the dashed box is the typical strike zone. Green marks are balls and red marks are strikes. Nine strikes were called against lefties outside of the strike zone. Those calls give the pitcher a big advantage.
Below is an example of an umpire that for the most part, called the strike zone to left-handed hitters per the rule book. There was only one pitch was called a strike that was out of the zone and low. Why the discrepancy?
Umpires are human and with that will come human error. Is automating the strike zone the answer? That’s a drastic step. The first step is a solution that involves consistent calling of the strike zone and accountability to those that don’t consistently adhere to it.
Pitchers that are throwing harder than ever and umpires have only a split-second to make a call. They have a very difficult job with intense pressure. Hopefully, MLB and the Umpires Union can work together to follow the defined strike zone and curtail influencing the outcome of at-bats.
Bernie Pleskoff published a few of the other questions from the panel at the end of this week’s BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD. Be sure to check them out.
The creation of new stats and player evaluation tools will continue. Deciphering and applying the new data will be the challenge. Sabermetrics won’t replace the seeing eye test, but utilizing relevant sabermetric data to support what is seen helps paint a complete picture. It’s about finding a balance.