Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Latin Ejection Lesson - Stay with the Pitch

A Serie Latinoamericana ejection that preceded Los Caimanes de Barranquilla (Colombia)'s comeback victory over Argentina's Falcones de Cordoba reminds us all to stick with the pitch and batter's strike zone as well. With one out and none on in the bottom of the 8th inning, Colombia batter Robinson Cabrera took a 1-2 pitch from Argentina pitcher Carlos Parra for a called third strike, Cabrera tagged out by catcher Omar Prieto after the uncaught third strike while arguing the call, having been ejected for spiking his helmet in protest. Shortly thereafter, Cabrera was joined by his manager and two base coaches in arguing with the home plate umpire. At the time of the ejection, Argentina was leading, 4-3. Colombia ultimately won the contest, 5-4.

With replays indicating Cabrera greatly reduced his stance height as the pitch crossed the plate (the pitch was above the hollow of the knee as it traversed the strike zone [see accompanying image with superimposed pitch trajectory]), let this Latin America ejection be a simple reminder to all: a batter dropping down to meet a perceivably low pitch increases the risk that the baseball will wind up at or above the knees, while an umpire must remain vigilant throughout the entire pitch in order to judge its location relative to the batter.

In the major leagues, HP Umpire Tim Timmons' 2013 ejection of Red Sox DH David Ortiz illustrates a similar principle (and another problem with the computerized zone on the vertical axis, but I digress). As Orioles pitcher Jairo Asencio delivered a 3-0 pitch to Ortiz, Big Papi gave up on the pitch, stood upright, and backed away from home plate as the baseball passed through. By maneuvering in this manner, Ortiz effectively increased the height of his strike zone, such that Asencio's pitch, which may have otherwise been too high had Ortiz remained in his stance, crossed home plate at the height of the standing Ortiz's belt (indicated by the graphic's red line). Timmons thus ruled the pitch a strike, Ortiz argued, ultimately struck out, and destroyed a Camden Yards dugout phone in anger, culminating in a most predictable ejection from MLB's then-biggest hothead player.
Related PostMLB Ejection 105: Tim Timmons (5; David Ortiz) (7/28/13).
Related PostDetermining The League's Biggest Hothead (It's Big Papi) (6/11/15).

We recall that the vertical strike zone falls between "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."

It is determined from "the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball."

There is debate as to what this actually means, as in when exactly *the moment* occurs when the stance height shall be taken—or if it remains variable throughout the entire pitch sequence up until the pitch's arrival at home plate.

As far as the spirit and history of the rule is concerned, consider that in 1963, the strike zone's time-of-capture was changed from the preceding, "when [the batter] assumes his natural stance" to "The umpire shall determine the Strike Zone according to the batter's usual stance when he swings at a pitch." In 1988, we arrived at the modern "prepared to swing at a pitched ball" phrasing (1988 also changed the upper boundary of the zone, or as NL umpire supervisor Ed Vargo once said, "the nipple line, but they didn't want to put 'nipple line' in the rule book"). In 1996, the zone's lower limit moved from the top of the knees to the bottom (hollow) of the knees.

The effective natural-stance to prepared-to-swing change is rather rudimentary.

Natural Stance (Obsolete/Old Rule): A batter's "natural stance" is generally a consistent crouch regardless of the pitch and requires the umpire to calculate where this "natural stance" exists for each pitch, regardless of where the batter physically stands when the baseball gets to home plate. For example, a batter squaring to bunt rarely is in "his natural stance," which could theoretically make pitch-calling complicated (and somewhat nonsensical). The "natural stance" principle is used in most modern computerized pitch tracking applications (which is another reason why the computers are deficient). Finally, 1969's "as he swings"—which serves as the basis for capture (implicitly, this means the umpire should judge the zone as the pitch is actually crossing home plate)—has one glaring error: the batter can't possibly swing at any callable pitches, for by swinging, the pitches are no longer callable (e.g., a swing takes away the ball vs. called strike judgment call).

Prepared to Swing (Modern Rule): By removing the "natural stance" and "as he swings" terminology, the umpire is now free to call the strike zone relative to the batter's actual physical position as the pitch arrives, with no implication of an actual swing (though, again, this complicates bunt attempts and situations, like Ortiz's, when the batter gives up on the pitch). Both "natural stance" and "prepared to swing" are designed to prevent batters from doing things like deliberately ducking to the ground in order to minimize their strike zone height, but only "prepared to swing" allows the umpire to make modifications on the fly that may deviate from the static image conjured up by a "natural stance."

Conclusion: Umpires should bear in mind that a strike zone's lower and upper limits are never truly finalized until the pitch arrives at home plate. Common sense and fair play principles should dictate how to adjudicate the strike zone when the batter is on the move, with greater consideration reserved for ensuring the batter isn't trying to "game" the system by deliberately ducking or jumping away from a pitch that would otherwise be ruled a strike.

Wrap: Argentina vs. Colombia (Serie Latinoamericana), 1/28/19 | Video as follows:
Alternate Link: Cabrera strikes out looking on a pitch at the knees, throws helmet & is ejected (COL)


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