Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Barksdale and Washington's Pitch Skew Problem

Umpire Lance Barksdale's #WorldSeries Game 5 was one of the few games in which pitch skew hasn't favored the Nationals' opponent this postseason (was neutral), but if Washington wants to beat Houston in the pitch skew department, best bench catcher Kurt Suzuki, whose framing quality seems to have declined dramatically as October has worn on. With a hip flexor strain possibly sidelining the Nats' backstop, Yan Gomes could again draw in for Game 6, which makes it more likely for Washington to take its first pitch skew advantage of the postseason...and it's not because the umpires are biased for or against any particular team.

Definition: Pitch skew takes all veritably incorrect ball/strike calls by a home plate umpire and attributes the call to favoring one team or another (e.g., a pitch thrown outside the strike zone called a strike favors the defensive team, etc.). At the end of the game, all favors are added up and a game skew reflects which team benefited from more errors throughout the game. A series skew simply adds up all game skews. Skews of +0 and +1 should be deemed statistically neutral and equivalent, as when an odd number of callable pitch errors exist, skew cannot be 0 and must at minimum be 1. Under this framework, every game caught by Gomes this postseason has been a statistically neutral game.

Washington, on the verge of losing three straight games at home in a best-of-four World Series, seemed rather upset with HP Umpire Lance Barksdale's strike zone during Game 5. Barksdale did indeed miss a crucial strike three call to Nats batter Victor Robles and another ball call with Houston at-bat, but his overall game score was remarkably average and his skew was +0 (neutral rating): the definition of when baseball "evens out."

Barksdale at one point purportedly told Washington catcher Yan Gomes, "you were taking off on me" after Gomes started to run off the field on a two-strike pitch that Barksdale balled. The media ran with it to suggest Barksdale called it a ball because he felt shown up or what have you when Barksdale's comment was rather elementary.

An umpire is taught to see the ball from the pitcher's hand into the catcher's glove/mitt—in basketball, referees call it Start-Develop-Finish. If the catcher jumps up and blocks the umpire before the "finish" stage, the umpire's call is made more difficult—that's why pitches in the strike zone on stolen base attempts are balled at a higher rate...because the umpire couldn't see the ball into the catcher's glove/mitt.

That's what happened here, but the public at large has not one whit of umpiring technique, much less rules knowledge, so the story was spun to one of untoward motives...and this is why umpires don't do postgame press conferences or often speak in public: the spin room isn't umpire-friendly and silence can't be misquoted, especially not after the ongoing Rob Drake debacle.
Related PostRob Drake's Twitter War, Umpires and Social Media (10/24/19).

Despite Barksdale's statistically-confirmed neutrality, fans already frustrated with dropping all three games at home decried a "biased" Game 5 performance (see umpire scapegoating). For a sport with a fanbase and populace so enamored with the concept of computerized umpires and zones, it seems rather ironic yet entirely predictable that these same fans would so quickly shun the computer—which indicates the umpire called an entirely even-handed game—in favor of emotional arguments.

History Repeats Itself: This is extremely similar to what happened when Royals pitcher Mike Montgomery accused Manny Gonzalez of personal bias in a September game against Minnesota. Montgomery, ejected for arguing balls and strikes, called for automated strike zones while claiming that HP Umpire Gonzalez was personally biased against him and gave him "that look like, 'I'm going to screw you.'"

Naturally, we fact checked the entire game and the computer returned a skew of +1...in favor of Montgomery's Kansas City Royals.

Why is it that fans and players who are so passionate about pursuing an electronic strike zone seem to suffer a case of technological illiteracy when the computer statistics don't support claims of bias and unfairness?
Related PostMontgomery Slams Ump Manny, Alleges Personal Bias (9/20/19).

DC's Pitch Skew Woes: I previously spoke of Washington's pitch skew struggles against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series such that Washington—which won the series—lost the pitch skew war in dramatic fashion to a team whose analytic-minded front office seems to take great pride in blowing out opponents on the pitch skew front, all while losing key postseason baseball games.
Related PostPostseason Pitch Skew - Dodgers Catcher Change (10/11/19).

The Nationals have two catchers: Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes. Suzuki's average pitch skew rating this postseason has been -2.9, or a skew of +2.9 pitches in favor of his opponent. Gomes' average pitch skew rating this postseason has been -0.4, or a skew of +0.4 pitches in favor of his opponent.

For instance, after suffering a cumulative pitch skew of -13 through three games of the 2019 World Series with Suzuki catching, Nats Manager Dave Martinez started Gomes for Games 4 and 5, earning a +0 (Neutral) skew for both games.

The following is a table indicating skews for Washington this postseason.

Game Opponent Skew Catcher Opp Catcher
WC Brewers +1 MIL Suzuki Grandal
NLDS 1 Dodgers +1 LA Gomes Smith
NLDS 2 Dodgers +0 Nu Suzuki Smith
NLDS 3 Dodgers +3 LA Suzuki Martin
NLDS 4 Dodgers +6 LA Suzuki Smith
NLDS 5 Dodgers +2 LA Suzuki Smith
NLCS 1 Cardinals +0 Nu Gomes Molina
NLCS 2 Cardinals +1 STL Suzuki Molina
NLCS 3 Cardinals +3 STL Suzuki Molina
NLCS 4 Cardinals +1 STL Gomes Molina
WS 1 Astros +3 HOU Suzuki Maldonado
WS 2 Astros +5 HOU Suzuki Chirinos
WS 3 Astros +5 HOU Suzuki Chirinos
WS 4 Astros +0 Nu Gomes Chirinos
WS 5 Astros +0 Nu Gomes Maldonado
As such, Washington's best bet for finally winning a pitch skew battle would be to start Gomes over Suzuki for the remainder of the World Series.

Video as follows:

Alternate Link: Washington's Pitch Skew Problem, Umpire Bias, and Lance Barksdale (CCS)


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