April 4, 2019

WEEI Watch: Doesn't The Rule Book Applies To Every Player Equally?

Oakland reliever Lou Trivino's ninth pitch to Mookie Betts in the top of the sixth inning on Thursday afternoon was called strike three by plate umpire Nic Lentz.

Betts could not believe it. And high above Betts and Lentz, in the visitors' radio broadcast booth, Joe Castiglione, the long-time voice of the Red Sox, was beside himself.
Josh Lewin: See if Bradley runs 3-2 with one out. He extends the lead, there he goes. The pitch, taken, called strike three, the ball dropped, and Mookie Betts is hopping mad. That ball was high up and was called a strike.

Joe Castiglione: He can't believe it. I thought it was up and in and the catcher boxed it around because it was so close to hitting Mookie.

Lewin: He jumped out of the way, did Mookie Betts. But Nic Lentz called it a strike anyway. They do get the stolen base out of the deal. That's Alex Cora doing the yelling that you're hearing right now. Cora's about maybe 30 feet to the left of Nic Lentz and Lentz is letting him have his say, at least for now. Alex turns on his heels, storms back to that dugout. No Ron Kulpa moments here.

Castiglione: How can you call out the best player in baseball on a pitch like that?

Lewin: It was at the very top of the zone and in.

Castiglione: And inside.

Lewin: Yeah. If you're looking at a map of the U.S., that ball was in Maine. And Mookie was called out. It stays 6-3 for now. That's a shame because he was working awfully hard up there, as you mentioned, Joe. Just fouling off really tough pitches all around the yard [On 2-1, Betts fouled off four pitches, before taking ball 3 and strike 3.] Benintendi has to keep the inning hot. The pitch from Trivino is up and outside.

Castiglione: That was one of the worst calls we've seen from a home plate umpire.

Lewin: You don't see that high strike called that often, anyway. But to a reigning MVP, in a big part of the game, that is surprising.
Question: How can you call the best player in baseball out on a pitch like that?

Answer: "Because that pitch was a strike."

And here is the pitch from MLB's Gameday:

There was no question that the pitch was a strike. Betts was frustrated, of course, but Castiglione and Lewin should have had more information. They should have had access to Gameday, rather than relying solely on their view from above the plate and the batter's reaction.

When Betts next batted, in the top of the ninth, Castiglione again reminded viewers that Betts had been "called out on a terrible pitch that should have been ball four". As we can see, he was wrong. I'm betting that if Trivino faces Betts when the Athletics visit Fenway Park at the end of this month, Castiglione will mention this strikeout.

But besides being blind when you are supposed to act as the eyes of the fans listening to the game on the radio, there is something else that bothers me about Castiglione's and Lewin's comments: Why does it matter if Betts is (or is not) the best player in baseball? Why shouldn't the reigning MVP get called out on an actual strike - a pitch that wasn't even all that close, according to Brooks?

Doesn't the rule book apply to every player on an equal basis?

This goes to my biggest complaint with major league baseball in 2019: the refusal to have all pitches called electronically (i.e., by "robots"). Why do I want this so badly? Because I want to watch baseball games in which the players possess the greatest control over the outcome of the contest. And it's highly debatable whether they currently have the most control.

How many times has each of us heard that star pitchers often get a larger strike zone (as if they need the help), that the best hitters get the benefit of the doubt on pitches they take, and the umpire's call on any borderline (or perhaps not-so-borderline) pitch from a veteran to a rookie batter will always go in the veteran's favour? (These kinds of sentiments may be less common than they once were, but they still exist.)

It's nonsense. And it's unfair.

The rule book does not care (or even notice) whether you are making the first plate appearance of your career or your 8,000th plate appearance. The strike zone is the strike zone. And if an umpire can't abide by that simple rule, then he needs to find another line of work. The rule book does not specify a certain strike zone for first-year players or for players batting under .220. Why would an announcer say "How can you call the best player in baseball out on a pitch like that?" rather than simply "How can you call that pitch a strike?"

There is nothing in the rule book about changing the angles of the foul lines to widen or narrow the playing field depending on whether the number of games a batter has played is above or below 500. Veteran runners who are slow are not called safe as long as they got within one step of the bag when the first baseman caught the ball (the new neighbourhood play?). A rookie hitting a sinking line drive that a veteran outfielder traps on a short hop is not called out because the rookie "hasn't paid his dues".

When we talk about an umpire's "personal strike zone" or we say Umpire X is a "pitcher's umpire", what we are saying is that he is ignoring the official rule book and creating his own personal rules for that particular game. He supposedly is doing the best he can (which can be a decidedly low bar in some cases), but it often seems in the moment like he's making it up as he goes along.

Announcers also say that as long as an umpire is consistent, if he calls pitches in certain spots the same way all night long, then that's okay. But why would being "consistently" wrong be something to praise? If a pitch is out of the strike zone and the umpire keeps calling it a strike, that is not a good thing. ... Anyway, as we all should know by now, umpires cannot be consistent. It's not humanly possible. We can all point to many examples of umpires not being consistent inning to inning or batter to batter - or even with two consecutive pitches.

That ninth pitch to Mookie Betts was a strike whether he was hitting .450 or .150, whether he was making his debut or playing in his 17th season. It was a strike whether he won the MVP last season or whether he was about to get released after the game.

It was discouraging to hear Castiglione and Lewin talk like Betts deserved special treatment because he is more talented than his peers. (Also, I know Red Sox announcers are going to boost the team, but there is no way on earth Betts (who I love unconditionally and am terrified is going to leave after 2020) is better than Mike Trout.) It was also discouraging to know they apparently have no access during the game to other websites with accurate information.

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