As I type this Friday afternoon I'm watching yesterday's game against Boston for the first time -- in the televised format, that is. I was working when Liriano took the mound Thursday evening, but I fired up the ol' Gameday (no audio -- I work in a restaurant) and watched the pitches appear in glowing red and blue when I could, quickly catching up batter by batter when I actually had to run around too much to check in for an inning or so.
Watching it this way, I had no DicknBert or Gordo/Dazzle influencing (however minimally, I hope) my perceptions of events, and no gamethreads here or elsewhere drawing my attention to this or that detail. What I saw though, gradually infuriated me. Francisco Liriano simply could not buy a borderline strike call -- and in a key turning-point at bat wasn't given an obvious strike.
While this was the merely annoying, thankfully consequence-free way it was early on, with 2 outs in the 3rd Lirano issued a critical 8 pitch "walk" to Dustin Pedroia and you presumably know the rest. As the game went on, the trend continued: If it wasn't firmly inside the official zone -- and a few times even if it was -- it was a ball. By the time the 3rd was over I checked and, sure enough, home plate was being manned by Twins' "favorite" Brian Runge.
If you watch enough gameday/look at enough pitch f/x data you know that league-wide anything so much as touching the fuzzy white Gameday line, even if only a little, will be called a strike with SOME degree of regularity (moreso if it's either belt high or center cut but a little in/out/up/down as applicable). Even if you just watch TV, think of the way pitches a little out of the FoxTrax or ESPN's tracker or whatever are regularly given as strikes, while more occasionally the pitches even two whole (invisible) square-widths removed from the little 9 square grid are given to the pitcher. These "not-officially-a-strike" strikes are called all the time and the closer ones are part of the "real" (average) strike zone, although of course a given umpire will generally give one side of the plate more than the other and the high strike more/less than the low. Almost never does a hurler categorically need to be wholly inside the official strike zone to get a called strike, let alone inside a distinct portion of that zone.
With that said, I present to you the pitch f/x strike zone chart for Thursday night. (Green are balls, Red are called strikes, Triangles are Twins, Squares are Boston). Dig those clear cut strikes by Twins pitchers (per a Liraino only chart, these are almost all Liriano pitches) toward the bottom of the zone that were all called balls ( the "normalized" chart, which attempts to correct for the hitters' heights rather than just show the absolute true location, makes a few of the low strikes very close balls of the sort that are regularly called strikes in practice). Look at the left side of the chart and note the red (called strike) squares (Boston) and green (called ball) triangles(Twins). Only ONE of the called MN strikes outside the zone was Liriano's, by the way. Most especially: look at how Liriano was effectively forced, as Bert would put it, to "leave the ball up". Not only wasn't Runge giving a borderlline low "non-strike-but-called-strike" (Liriano threw several of these -- normally these are a pitcher's best pitches), he wasn't even giving anything inside the low-quarter of the zone (including those pitches that were also strikes per the height adjusted zone, not shown here). I count 8 Liriano pitches --that's a ton-- taken by Boston hitters for low balls that would have a reasonable chance on another day/umpire to be called strikes. Remember his 4 pitch walk to Adrian Beltre? Dial up the gameday of that PA and ask yourself where exactly other than down the heart Liriano was supposed to throw the ball. Ok, you're not gonna get all of those pitches since he basically tried all 4 corners and two made Mauer move the glove too much, but not calling ANY of them?
Granted, Liriano could theoretically have done better with what he was given. As I'm watching this now, Bert is making the point that Lester worked with what he was given on Runge's left side, but hasn't really commented on the high -- or rather, the Not Low -- strike zone in general. True, the homerun fastball to Youkilis was a meatball. But the thing is, what was the context? It was 3 pitches removed from the surely incredibly frustrating Pedroia "walk", which included that very obvious green triangle "ball" pretty much smack dab in the middle of the zone as well as two other very close pitches (one on the high borderline, which you might foolishly suppose would be called if the lower quarter of the strike zone isn't going to be called). I know, I know: suck it up, deal with it, you can't let Runge's zone affect you mentally or you've already lost. But it's at minimum unfortunate that an MLB game comes down to some significant degree to something like "how well can you cope with getting absolutely no calls from an umpire with known Twins-issues?"
I guess the main thing I want to convey is this: if you watched the game and said, "oh well, Liriano's not gonna be the ace after all," realize that with a different umpire willing to call the strike-at-the-knees this could have been a very different pitching performance given the way Liriano was throwing good low maybe-strikes only to every one of them called a ball. No, it's not like Runge was giving a TON of pitches to Lester he wasn't giving to Liriano (although the left side of the chart shows there was a couple of pitch swing on the left side of the zone in Boston's favor). But Lester didn't even try to work low in the zone, while trying to do so and failing-by-umpire appears to have at least contributed to Liriano's lack of success.