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On Aaron Judge and Computerized Strike Calling

I read the other day that Major League Baseball is considering a wacky, fanless season in Arizona with a bunch of pandemic-driven rule changes. This proposal, and the possible rule changes, have caused a great deal of discussion among writers, bloggers, podcasters, and fans of the sport.

I’d like to focus on one specific possible rule change or game modification that, should they actually implement this, could impact one player very specifically.

I am talking about the idea that “robot umpires” might be used to call balls and strikes to help promote social distancing. Interesting.

This possibility leads me to recall a 2018 article on Aaron Judge that discussed the unfairness of strike calling against him. The umps were unable to get their heads around the fact that because he was taller, his knees were higher off of the ground. So many of us bemoaned the fact that low balls were being called strikes against Judge. It was frustrating to watch. Game after game Aaron Judge was put in less that ideal hitting circumstances because of the poor calls from the home plate umpires.

The most important section of the article were the following paragraphs:

“Judge has seen 160 pitches in the borderline, 50-50 area at the bottom of the zone (according to Baseball Savant’s detailed zone) and 71 have been called as strikes, for a 44.3% strike rate. The league average is 22.8%.”

“As for the total borderline zone, Judge has had strikes called there at a 32.5% rate compared to an MLB average of 23.1%.”

“Imagine if Judge had Jose Altuve’s strike zone? Pitchers have thrown Altuve 62 pitches in the borderline lower portion of the zone and only four have been called for strikes.”

And now we see again why this poor umpiring was driving Yankees fans crazy. The stats show how poorly the umpires were doing in relation to calling accurate pitches with Judge at the plate. Aaron Judge broke their model and they did not know how to fix it. The result was poor calls against him. We could extrapolate and state that those poor calls, for such a lengthy period, could have (and possibly did) impact on his season and the Yankees’ season as a whole.

Imagine if Aaron Judge had the luxury of laying off that low pitch as Altuve does. How much would this impact his ability to drive the ball, get on base, and etc.?

I have not found research to determine if the umpiring in this regard has gotten better. I don’t know if the umpires have figured out Judge’s knees since then. But if they have not, with a properly called strike zone, from a computer (or a person if the umps could get this right) Judge could be in for a significant bump in his performance in 2020 if things ever get going.

At least, it’s something to hope for on this rainy quarantined day in Southern California.


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