Friday, February 10, 2017

Umpire Calling Tendencies vs the Shrinking Zone

How do umpires currently call pitches at the bottom of the proposed shrinking strike zone? Statistics are more than plentiful, with a sample size of several thousand. Now that MLB's proposal to change the strike zone for the first time since 1996 is at the MLBPA's desk, it behooves us to form a little analytical projection: how will changing the zone affect umpire tendencies when it comes to the pitch at the knees? And how reliable is the strategy of using current trends to predict future results under a new regime of strike zone regulations?
Visual representation of current strike zone.

Short answer: Changing the definition of baseball's strike zone would disrupt and destroy a growing trend amongst umpires of calling the low strike (which is to say, calling a pitch located within the current strike zone a strike, or a QOC = Correct call). In other words, umpires are continually getting better and changing the rules might disrupt that trend. Longterm effects are unknown due to projected forecast bias, but one would surmise that the low strike at the knee tops, at least initially, would be called at a greater rate, than the current rate of knee-hollow strike calls. Alternately, one could surmise that the probability of incorrectly calling a low pitch, located below the knee top, a strike, would also increase.

ESPN Stats & Info has run the numbers for pitchers, but only the UEFL has the analysis when it comes to the people actually tasked with making those calls.

For instance, the percentage of taken pitches called a strike in the bottom two inches of the strike zone was about 24% in 2011, rising to nearly 50% in both 2015 and 2016; with such stats on called strikes, it's no wonder that MLB would conclude that raising the strike zone will help offensive production.

It's as if the umpires are properly and more consistently making the calls on the rulebook definition of the "low" strike, yet the players aren't adjusting (e.g., by swinging at them) that the rule is being enforced at a greater rate—now that umpires are getting better at their jobs—MLB wants to change its parameters.

To recap, the proposal would raise the lower limit of the strike zone from the hollow to the top of the batter's knee as the batter is prepared to swing at the pitch, or, about a two-inch swing, on average.

Using data from recent years, with the hollow-of-the-knee rule in effect, ESPN found that raising the zone by two inches (retroactively, of course) would have increased the league's aggregate batting average (as relates solely to the bottom two inches of the strike zone) from .238 to .270, slugging percentage from .348 to .415, and decreased the amount of called strikes by over three percent. Pitchers Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Wade Miley—who all heavily work the bottom of the zone—would have lost the most in regard to called strikes.

We talked about it the other day in regards to the proposed extra-inning tie breaker mitigation strategy: raising the strike zone thus becomes yet another way to increase offense, scoring, and "action," due to batter's greater tendency to swing at pitches at the knee tops, as opposed to knee hollows. Otherwise, they'd just as easily take the low ball for more favorable counts and, potentially, walks.

Complicating matters, added offense would probably do little to help baseball in its quest to reduce game times, but that's a separate discussion to be had.

Umpire strike call tendencies at the low heart in-zone.
Umpire Statistics and the Low Strike
Naturally, the aforementioned and following analysis, is conducted in a vacuum, without regard to real-world Pitch f/x error and other confounding strike zone analysis issues. It is presented as such.

According to aggregate data over the years, raising the strike zone by two inches would affect Phil Cuzzi the most and Kerwin Danley the least: Cuzzi, at 92.0%, statistically holds the highest probability of calling the lowest strike (again, this is plotted on a pitch that is within the rulebook strike zone, meaning QOC = Correct), while Danley's statistical probability of 72.5% is the lowest.

At the proposed lower bound, two inches higher than the current boundary, the stats are much the same: Danley still has the lowest probability (85.6%) and Cuzzi is fourth-highest (97.0%, behind Will Little [97.04%], Eric Cooper [97.1%], and Doug Eddings [97.5%]. These points are all taken at the heart of home plate (e.g., the center point of plate).

Recall that the strike zone (as graphically indicated above) is realistically called in an elliptic manner, as opposed to a rectangular one: thus, we should expect that results on the lower bound corners (corresponding to a knee-high pitch over the inner or outer edge of home plate) would be different than that at the heart of the plate.

And they are. Over the inner edge of home plate located closest to the right-handed batter's box (the left side of the screen on the Visual Representation graphic), at the current lower bound—the so-called true corner, where only a fraction of the baseball comes into contact with the planar edge of home plate—it is Ron Kulpa who holds the highest called strike probability (49.0%) and Jeff Nelson the lowest (19.9%). Over the corresponding left-handed coordinate, Vic Carapazza is the highest (22.0%) and Mark Carlson the lowest (2.6%). After raising the measurement site by a normalized two inches, it's still Kulpa (73.0%) and Nelson (42.8%) at the right box, and Carapazza (39.1%) and Carlson (8.6%) at the left.

In other words, while the percentages and probabilities change, by and large, the umpire names do not, though different umpires would be affected in different ways at different horizontal points along the front edge of home plate. The trend shown on the Umpire Low-In Zone Strike Call Probability graphic is generally consistent, given a static horizontal coordinate at the heart of home plate.

The Normalized Strike Zone and Bias Function
It is important to note that the vertical strike zone, which is at issue here, is variable from batter-to-batter, so the analysis must be conducted using a normalized strike zone (e.g., the standard BrooksBaseball strike zone, which is non-normalized [e.g., true to real dimensions] does not suffice); the zone used must stretch and consolidate pitches to match a constant strike zone that assumes each batter's lower and upper bounds are located at precisely the same graphical coordinates.

Changing rules will change ump mindsets, too.
Thus, when we discuss "two inches higher," we're speaking in terms of normalized averages: for the purpose of calculation, our normalized strike zone is exactly two-feet tall (1.50 to 3.50 normalized units), such that a two-inch reduction of the strike zone corresponds to a one-twelfth (8.3%) decrease in size. Thus, with a current lower bound of 1.50 units, we're looking at a proposed lower bound of 1.67 units.

Again, these are normalized—or symbolic—dimensions, not real ones. Two inches, or 8.3%, is a best-guess estimate, rather than a wholly accurate figure. As such, the percentages and other numbers mentioned above are only accurate as relative to the current zone (hollow of the knee), since Pitch f/x and computer modeling programs are only configured to calculate the current zone values. All of this "two inches higher" analysis is simply a projection based on an estimate...

A new thought will be, "how low is too low?"
...Which is subject to forecast bias if the strike zone downsize plan actually comes to pass, as quite presumably, umpires will not call top-of-knee pitches the same under the "new rules" as they do, presently, under the current rules. Succinctly, at present, a pitch at the top of the knee is more easily called a strike, since it is fully and unequivocally within the strike zone by two vertical inches. If the rule were to change, however, this same pitch would be "borderline," meaning that umpires would treat it quite differently than the "sure-thing" such a pitch represents under the current ruleset.

Therefore, because umpires will have to contend with a new lower boundary at this new knee-top location (and the corresponding psychological hurdle that comes with it), strike call probabilities at the knee tops, all else equal, will drop. This is the crux of why using present-day knee-top numbers to project future results is unreliable to some unknown degree.

The question is, "by how much will that percentage decrease?" and this is the unknown answer that will inject forecast bias into any calculation in regards to the "two inches higher" argument.

Accordingly, while using "two inches higher" to compare hollow-of and knee-top calls in the present-day may induce provocative statistical differences, due to the anticipated forecast bias that will result from changing the lower K-Zone boundary—and by extension, the umpire's entire psychological and philosophical construct of "how low should I go?"—using present-day data to project called strike probability in the future knee-top era is, ultimately, susceptible to an unknown degree of error and unpredictability, as we have no triangulated camera measurement data to cite or compare from 1995, when the rulebook last placed the lower limit of the strike zone at the kneetops.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

MiLB to Test Extra-Inning Run Scoring Procedure

First WBC and now MLB. Baseball will test an extra inning tie breaker mitigation strategy by forcing teams into a situation that should logically lead to more runs being scored during the sport's overtime period: start all extra frames with a runner on second and none out.

As hockey attempted to increase the potential for sudden-death scoring by changing its overtime period from a four-on-four to three-on-three format two years ago, baseball too is considering a tilt in the favor of extra inning offense by starting play with a free runner on second base.

Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre told Yahoo! of several reasons for such a move: to shorten the length of games, relieve pitcher fatigue, and even compensate for modern players' 'me first' attitude: "What really initiated it is sitting in the dugout in the 15th inning and realizing everybody is going to the plate trying to hit a home run and everyone is trying to end the game themselves."

Bryce Harper is ejected during an extra inning.
Professional baseball will apparently test its newest game-shortening effort in the minors and rookie-level Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues, which begin their shortened seasons in the summer.

The proposal has not yet been sent to the Major League players' union, which means it is not yet ready for consideration or adoption at the sport's highest level.

The 2017 World Baseball Classic already added the extra inning tiebreaker strategy to its rule changes, though WBC's modification will place baserunners at both first and second base, and will begin in the 11th, as opposed to 10th, inning of play.

Unlike the international rule, 2017's MLB/MiLB test will only add a runner to second base (not first), and may begin in the 10th, as opposed to 11th, inning. Strategy-wise, this would eliminate the potential for a force play at third base, unless the defensive team elects to walk the batter to set up the first-and-second situation...possibly by making use of the new intentional walk shortcut, pending players' union approval.

2017 World Baseball Classic Rules Mods Released

New rules for the 2017 World Baseball Classic will take effect at the quadrennial tournament in March. In general, the WBC uses the same Official Baseball Rules employed by the Major Leagues, but the international tournament modified the following OBR regulations to meet the specific needs of the worldwide pre-season showcase:

Game Play
>> Extra Inning Run Generation: In an effort to manufacture runs late in tied ballgames that have exceeded regulation, the WBC will place baserunners at first and second base to begin the 11th and any subsequent extra inning. The runner at first base will be the player in the batting order immediately preceding the batter, and the runner on second will be the player preceding the runner at first base.
Example: With the score tied after 10 innings of play, A7 (the player listed seventh in Team A's batting order) leads off the top of the 11th inning with A6 (listed sixth in the order) at first base and A5 (listed fifth) at second base, with none out.

Clint Fagan at 2012's WBC qualifier.
>> Video Replay Review: Due, in part, to technical and logistical limitation of some venues not ordinarily used by MLB, instant replay in the First and Second Rounds of the tournament will be effected in the same "limited replay" variety used by Major League Baseball from 2008-2013: The umpire crew chief may only review plays involving home runs or potential home runs (fair HR/foul, in play/HR, fan interference/HR, etc.), and the crew chief will conduct the review in the stadium himself with the assistance of a crewmate. For the Championship Round, taking place at Dodger Stadium, an MLB park, "expanded replay" (2014-present) will be used with the exception of manager challenges.
Example, Rounds 1/2: Batter A1 hits a fly ball above the height of the left field foul pole, ruled a foul ball. The crew chief and third base umpire retreat to a field-adjacent video monitor or room and determine the call on the field was correct. Foul ball.
Example, Championship: Same play as above. The crew chief and third base umpire will don headsets and speak with a Replay Official, who will make the final ruling.
Example, Rounds 1/2: Batter A1 hits a fly ball to outfielder F9 who attempts a diving catch, after which umpire U1 rules the ball was trapped (A1 safe at first base). This play is not reviewable.
Example, Championship: Same play as above. The crew chief and first base umpire will don headsets and speak with a Replay Official, who will make the final ruling.

Rosters and Tiebreakers
>> Tie-Breakers: Because both the first and second place teams advance after the First and Second Rounds, no game is necessary if only two teams are tied for best record. Instead, the Pool Winner shall be the team that defeated the other team in that round. If there is a three-way tie, the same statistical procedure shall be used to rank the three, such that one of the teams will be deemed the Pool Winner. The teams ranked second and third will then play a tie-breaker game to determine the second-place winner. Additional tiebreakers, in order, are:
- 1) Fewest runs allowed divided by number of innings played on defense (Runs per Innings).
- 2) Fewest earned runs allowed divided by number of defensive innings (Team ERA).
- 3) Highest team batting average.
- 4) "Drawing of lots," or the WBC-controlled coin flip.
Example: Team Korea and Team Israel are the only teams tied for Pool Winner designation at the conclusion of the First Round; whichever team won the pair's head-to-head matchup will be the Pool Winner.

Kun Young Park at the 2016 qualifier.
>> Designated Pitcher Pool: Each team will identify a list of 10 pitchers eligible to participate in one or more consecutive rounds (e.g., a pitcher may not participate in the First and Championship, but not the Second Round). This list is independent of any roster submitted to WBC ahead of the tournament, but in order to use the pool list, the submitted roster must include a minimum of one and maximum of two pitchers from the pool list (if no pool pitchers are included on the roster, the pool list may not be used for the tournament). If a pitcher is removed from a roster at any time, the pitcher may not be used again in the tournament. Pitchers from the pool list, if used, may replace pitchers on the WBC roster after each individual round of the tournament.
Example (Legal): Team Canada names Pitchers 1-10 to its Designated Pitcher Pool list, and adds Pitchers 1 and 2 to its First Round roster. At the conclusion of this round, it replaces Pitcher 1 with Pitcher 3, such that Pitchers 2 and 3 compete for Canada in the Second Round. At the conclusion of the second round, Canada replaces Pitcher 3 with Pitcher 4, such that Pitchers 2 and 4 compete in the Championship Round. Legal.
Example (Illegal): Team USA names Pitchers 1-10 to its Designated Pitcher Pool list, and adds Pitchers 1 and 2 to its First Round roster, replacing them with Pitchers 3 and 4 for the Second Round. Team USA attempts to reintroduce Pitcher 1 in the Championship Round. Illegal, since Pitcher 1 may only compete in consecutive rounds.
Example (Illegal): Team Korea names Pitchers 1-10 to its Designated Pitcher Pool list, includes Pitchers 11 and 12 on its First Round roster, and attempts to replace Pitcher 11 with Pitcher 1 for the Second Round. Team is prohibited from using the Designated Pitcher Pool, since it did not include any pitchers from this pool on its submitted roster for the First Round.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

MLB Considering Intentional Walk, Strike Zone Changes

MLB has proposed changing the strike zone and intentional walk procedures, according to a source. Major League Baseball's purported proposal to the players' union is an echo of concepts from years gone by, as baseball tried the same thing with its strike zone in February 2015, sending the matter to the Playing Rules Committee in an attempt to interject more offense into a game that has recently favored pitchers.

The strike zone currently is defined as:
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.
And it previously looked like:
1887: Batsman's knee - shoulders;
1907: Batsman's knee - shoulders (Adopted by both National and American Leagues)
1950: Top of the knee when batter assumes a natural stance - armpits;
*NOTE: 1957 was the Adoption of Rule 2.00 [Strike] referencing Rule 2.00 [Strike Zone]*
1963: Top of knees when batter assumes a natural stance - top of shoulders;
1969: Top of knees when batter assumes a natural stance - armpits;
1988: Top of knees when prepared to swing - midpoint between top of shoulders and top of pants;
1996: Hollow of the knees when prepared to swing at pitch - midpoint b/w top of shoulders/pants.
*NOTE: 2014 renumbered Rule 2.00 [Strike Zone] to Definition of Terms [Strike Zone]*
Key: Green = Strike Zone Expansion; Red = Strike Zone Shrinkage; Yellow = Stayed the same.

The 2016 strike zone proposal would favor the offense by raising the lower bound of the strike zone to the top of the knees while keeping the upper limit at the midpoint.

Meanwhile, the no-pitch intentional walk previously made an appearance during the 2014 Arizona Fall League, when the League tested several pace of game proposals, including the since-adopted batter's box rule (except without the penalty of a dead ball strike) and inning/pitching change intermission clocks.

Needless to say, elimination of the four thrown balls requirement would eliminate: increased pitch counts; the potential for a wild pitch or passed ball, a pitcher or catcher's balk, a batter swinging at a poorly placed intentional ball, a stolen base; and the 30-seconds to one minute it takes to intentionally walk a batter.

The two proposals now stand for a players' union vote and, if they pass in a timely manner, could realistically be implemented in 2017. If they don't pass in time for Spring Training or the season, there likely would be no change made for the beginning of the 2017 season.

Monday, February 6, 2017

2017 Season MLB Umpire Crews - Pre-Season Edition

Here are the umpire crews for MLB's 2017 season, with 76 umpires on the staff spread over 19 umpiring crews. Visit the UEFL's Umpire Roster and Profiles page for a sortable list of all MLB and MiLB call-up umpires (which will be sortable by 2017 crew). This is an unofficial and preliminary pre-season look at the 2017 MLB umpire crew list and is subject to change prior to or during Spring Training or the regular season. Stay tuned for information regarding registration for the 2017 UEFL season.

2017 MLB Umpire Crews (By Umpiring Crew Chief Seniority)

Crew #Crew ChiefUmpire 2Umpire 3Umpire 4
Crew 112 Davis, Gerry11 Randazzo, Tony30 Drake, Rob[New Hire MLBU]
Crew 232 DeMuth, Dana39 Nauert, Paul68 Guccione, Chris[New Hire MLBU]
Crew 35 Scott, Dale77 Reynolds, Jim91 Knight, Brian94 Barrett, Lance
Crew 422 West, Joe21 Wendelstedt, Hunter49 Fletcher, Andy64 Porter, Alan
Crew 538 Cederstrom, Gary56 Cooper, Eric80 Johnson, Adrian[New Hire MLBU]
Crew 624 Layne, Jerry51 Hudson, Marvin2 Bellino, Dan83 Estabrook, Mike
Crew 79 Gorman, Brian58 Iassogna, Dan16 DiMuro, Mike73 Gibson, Tripp
Crew 88 Kellogg, Jeff95 Timmons, Tim92 Hoye, James93 Little, Will
Crew 920 Hallion, Tom10 Cuzzi, Phil19 Carapazza, Vic90 Ripperger, Mark
Crew 1033 Winters, Mike14 Wegner, Mark60 Foster, Marty76 Muchlinski, Mike
Crew 1125 Culbreth, Fieldin6 Carlson, Mark54 Bucknor, CB79 Gonzalez, Manny
Crew 1265 Barrett, Ted55 Hernandez, Angel23 Barksdale, Lance74 Tumpane, John
Crew 1345 Nelson, Jeff63 Diaz, Laz88 Eddings, Doug89 Blaser, Cory
Crew 1426 Miller, Bill44 Danley, Kerwin13 Tichenor, Todd[New Hire MLBU]
Crew 1541 Meals, Jerry46 Kulpa, Ron15 Hickox, Ed98 Conroy, Chris
Crew 1627 Vanover, Larry72 Marquez, Alfonso4 Fairchild, Chad86 Rackley, David
Crew 1757 Everitt, Mike52 Welke, Bill1 Dreckman, Bruce71 Baker, Jordan
Crew 1850 Emmel, Paul7 O'Nora, Brian87 Barry, Scott81 Wolcott, Quinn
Crew 1934 Holbrook, Sam53 Gibson, Greg28 Wolf, Jim70 Reyburn, DJ
DL/RetN/AObtained byClose Call SportsUEFL
New MLB Umpires ([New Hire MLBU]): Adam Hamari, Gabe Morales, Pat Hoberg, Carlos Torres.

Notes and Observations
Mike Winters and Jeff Nelson's crews are the only two that remain unchanged from 2016 to 2017.
≫ Longtime 1-2 combos Scott-Iassogna, West-Danley, and Layne-Wendelstedt have been split.
≫ Former crewmates and small-tall duo Jerry Meals and Jordan Baker are on separate crews.
≫ Retirement Recap: Bob Davidson, John HirschbeckJim Joyce, Tim Welke.

Statistical Promotions or Leftward Lateral Movement:
≫ From Umpire 2 (or Interim) to Crew Chief: Paul Emmel, Mike Everitt, Sam Holbrook.
≫ From Umpire 3 to Umpire 2 (Backup Crew Chief): Paul Nauert*, Tim Timmons.
≫ From Umpire 4 to Umpire 3: Dan Bellino, Chad Fairchild, Adrian Johnson, Todd Tichenor.
*NOTE: Paul Nauert was an Umpire 2 in 2015, and an Umpire 3 in 2016.

Statistical Rightward Lateral Movement:
≫ From Umpire 3 to Umpire 4: Alan Porter (switched crews).