Overall, the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals are off to a hot start, as shown by their 14-6 record. Most will understandably point to the team's stellar pitching, but the offense really has been pretty good as well. As expected, Matt Carpenter (192 wRC+) and Matt Holliday (170 wRC+) have been the team's two best hitters. While neither will be able to keep up their respective pace (fortunately, they don't have to and will still be considered very good), some help from home plate umpires would be very much appreciated. Hitting against major league pitching is one of the hardest things to do in sports. Most will agree with that. When a home plate umpire expands the strike zone in the pitcher's favor, this task becomes exponentially harder.
Carlos Ruiz, generally an average pitch framer, does an incredible job selling Aaron Harang's pitch by catching the outside of the ball, bringing it in slightly, and then freezing it until home plate umpire Jeff Nelson began ringing up Carpenter for strike three. It is not hard to see what Carpenter thought of the call. Though he was hitting in the two-hole for the second straight game, taking this pitch should have allowed him to work another one of those first-inning 3-2 walks that we grew accustomed to while he was in the leadoff spot. Last night's reaction by Carpenter was pretty similar to ball four called strike three in Milwaukee last Saturday. I tweeted a screenshot of that "strike" to ESPN's Keith Law, and though brief, here was his very clear response.
Called strikes versus Carpenter in 2015 (from the catcher's point of view)
As you can see with Carpenter's chart, the third baseman has been riddled with "strikes" low, outside, and off the plate. One look at a BrooksBaseball strike zone map shows that an umpire's "typical" strike zone does indeed expand outward to cover some of these pitches. However, does this necessarily make it correct to continuously benefit the pitcher, especially with all the talk of offense being down to the point where bunting is being considered a weapon by some? Even with a well-timed swing, Carpenter likely could not solidly hit the overwhelming majority of these called strikes. Some have been nearly a foot and a half beyond the strike zone. The best he could do is flare the pitch to left field, which is not something a good hitter enjoys doing.
Thus, now that we are well aware of the expanded zone outward to left-handed batters, it puts into perspective just how bad last night's inside strike three call was on Carpenter. With umpires already expanding the zone as far as they do outward, logically, they should be shrinking the inside corner. By doing this, they would essentially be shifting the strike zone away from lefties instead of making it any bigger. Take a look at pitch #6 via BrooksBaseball:
Upon further review, this actually happened another time last night, too—on the first pitch of Carpenter's fifth inning at bat which resulted in a fielder's choice to first base. Carpenter is already an established hitter, so I am not worried about him expanding his zone, but should occurrences like these happen to a rookie, I really think it could be detrimental to their development as a professional.
Called strikes versus Holliday in 2015 (from the catcher's point of view)
While the volume of called strikes is bigger for Carpenter (not unexpected given his patient plate approach), this chart makes me believe that Holliday has an even stronger case against the accuracy of called strikes. Of course, as shown by the same BrooksBaseball strike zone map, the "typical" strike zone is expanded both inside and outside to right-handed batters. While it technically encompasses the same area as the lefty zone, having both corners expanded can be especially tough on even the best hitters, especially if a flamethrower is on the mound (i.e. not Harang).
So far in 2015, Holliday has taken 16 strikes on pitches in the actual strike zone and 20 "strikes" on pitches outside of the strike zone. This shows that when Holliday is given a pitch to hit, he is swinging at it, which is always a good sign when you are talking about a hitter of his quality. Not much complaining can be done about a hitter with a .371/.500/.452 slash line, but he is due for some regression, so let's hope this does not come in the form of him expanding the zone to "keep up" with home plate umpires.
After writing an entire post on how Carpenter and Holliday are battling home plate umpires, you could reasonably surmise that my conclusion is that I want RoboUmps. To be honest, that is not the case, at all. Good people make a living off being umpires, and I do not want to take that away from them. Also, there is something about having an umpire behind home plate that would be missed should a computer take over. Instead, my proposal is to have umpires held more publicly accountable for their strike zones, however that may be.
Entering his third season as a starter with the Cardinals, it is clear that Carpenter has a unique command of the strike zone. Numerous articles have been written about this, with some saying he knows strike zones better than umpires. If he is taking a borderline pitch, there is a pretty good chance it is a ball. If umpires are able to be deceived by pitch framing, the same should be said about knowing who is at the plate taking the pitch.
Credit to Daren Willman's Baseball Savant for the data and @mstreeter06 for the GIF.