Part of baseball, like much of war, depends on deception and raises ethical questions. (Reader advisory: If any discussion of baseball bores you, skip this column.)
I’d say it was right for Americans and Brits in WWII to set up a pretend army under George Patton to make Hitler think D-Day was going to happen somewhere other than it did, but it’s wrong for armies to paint red crosses on buildings so they’ll be thought of as hospitals rather than arms depots.
I’d say it’s wrong for soccer players to flop when they’re barely touched, pretending an opponent has fouled them, but I’m OK (I think) with catchers in baseball framing borderline pitches to make umpires think balls just out of the strike zone should be called strikes.
The Wall Street Journal’s Brian Costa this morning had a highly informative article in praise of Jose Molina, a 38-year-old, 250-pound catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays who’s a poor hitter and “runs as if wading through a pool of pudding.” His one virtue is a semi-vice: He’s the best in baseball at fooling umpires.
Umpires call as strikes nearly one-in-seven pitches thrown to Molina that are outside the strike zone. (Yes, analytics firms track every pitch thrown in the major leagues.) Rays pitcher David Price: “He’s able to catch it clean, frame it and make it look like a strike. We love him for it.”
Should the rest of us love Molina? As Costa wrote about the area from the batter’s shoulders to his knees, “In theory, the strike zone isn’t subject to manipulation. … But in practice, it is a judgment each umpire must make with his eyes, which leads to considerable variance.”
Baseball Prospectus says Molina’s pitch framing saved his team 50 runs last year, even though he played only half the time. Molina does it by studying pitchers and umpires: Some of the latter are “more lenient at one particular edge of the zone”—for example, calling a pitch just below the knees a strike. Molina subtly moves his glove to play to an umpire’s prejudices.
The team that “cheats” overall the most in this way is, of course, the dreaded New York Yankees: Their catchers fool umpires into calling strikes that should not be almost one-eighth of the time. The result in practice is that a batter will have, say, two strikes on him instead of one, and batters with two strikes bat only .178 on average, while batters with only one strike average well over .300.
I don’t castigate catchers for their framing work because strike zones at the margin do represent umpires’ judgment calls. Catchers are like real estate agents who show prospective buyers the advantages of a house, but tell the truth about wild pitches: Even Jose Molina can’t get a strike on a pitch that’s a foot off the mark.
The Journal’s Costa notes major league baseball’s opportunity to transcend subjectivity: “The PITCHf/x tracking system, which is installed in every ballpark, allows for precise measurements, but umpires don’t have such technology at their disposal behind the plate.” Some fans think umps should. Others resist that in the belief that yelling, “Kill the umpire” should remain a fan’s privilege. I haven’t made up my mind: What do you think?