Was The Tigers Beef With Jerry Meals Legitimate?


The Tigers were jawing with umpire Jerry Meals last night for what seemed like most of the game. It isn’t actually uncommon to see a strike zone that is (consciously or unconsciously) biased in favor of the home team. Was it?………… Some key called strikes DID have a disproportionate impact…

In olden days, we’d basically have to guess. That or rely on our own eyes – biased by the angle the TV cameras shoot from (or if we actually went on a road trip to Cleveland, by the distance from the bleachers). Now we have pitch data plots from www.brooksbaseball.net. Check it out sometime.

One of the many things that you can see is what zone the umpire appeared to be calling over the course of the game – and as anyone who knows anything about baseball can tell you, the strike zone is defined at the umpires whim not by any silly old rule book. For everybody, Meals seemed to be calling a perfectly normal top and bottom to the zone. However, he was calling a narrower than usual strikezone and one that was defined differently for left and right-handed batters – righties were getting pitches on the outside part of the zone called but not on the inside , lefties were getting the inside part of the zone called but not the outside.

I, for one, don’t like the fact that umpires zones differ from one another and from what the rules of baseball require. I don’t think that an ability to quickly figure out what pitches the ump is calling strikes that day should be necessary to succeed as a baseball player. That’s why I would prefer an automated system with censors that detect where the ball went and the home plate umpires job reduced to relaying the call from the booth. But that’s neither here or there – the question of the day isn’t whether Meals’ zone was ‘bad’ it’s whether Meals’ zone was ‘biased’.

And that’s another thing we can see from a plot at www.brooksbaseball.net… we get every pitch called (not those on which contact was made) identified by position, by the pitching team and whether it was called a ball or strike. Next we can break down the argument of bias into two parts: 1. were the Indians getting blatant balls called strikes (while the Tigers were not) and were the Tigers getting blatant strikes called balls (while the Indians were not)? 2. were the Indians getting more strike calls on borderline pitches that painted the edge of the zone?

First for part one… The Tribe did get two pitches called strikes that were outside any reasonable strike zone (not just Meals’ shrunken zone) while the Tigers got none. Both teams had one obvious strike called a ball. Unfortunately, I know of no way to determine from the data when those two strikes occurred and how much impact they had on the game. Obviously a single strike CAN mean the difference between a win and a loss, so a strike zone need not be consistently biased to create an advantage for one team as long as it is biased in key situations.

Next for part two… The Indians threw only 5 (called) borderline* pitches over the course of the entire game. All 5 of those were called strikes. Most strikes that the Tigers were taking were getting a lot of plate. The Tigers, on the other hand, threw a lot of borderline pitches – painting the zone is something that guys like Doug Fister make a living doing. The Tigers threw 11 (called) borderline pitches, only 2 of which were called strikes.

Was Jerry Meals strike zone biased? Yes. Yes, it was. If any Tiger were to say so in a press conference, he’d probably be fined… I wonder what the punishment would be for referring reporters to Brooks Baseball.

* For the record – I’m defining a pitch as borderline if any part of the pitch icon is touching Mike Fast’s Fastmap border for that game on Brooks Baseball.