The Detroit Tigers faced off against the Oakland A’s last night in a win-or-go-home Game 5, the last game of the first round of the baseball playoffs. The Tigers won, the A’s went home. The Tigers won exactly how one would imagine: Miguel Cabrera belted a two run homer, they strung enough hits together in another inning to tack on a third run and Justin Verlander pitched a brilliant game.
One thing though: Verlander got a little help not afforded to A’s pitcher Sonny Gray. I happened to be at the game, and I happened to be smack in the middle of the centerfield bleachers. “We have a better angle than people watching on TV,” a friend said, and he probably was right. From our choice spot we could observe Verlander’s brilliance…and his propensity for getting outside strikes. It definitely seemed like home plate umpire Todd Hallion was giving Verlander an extra inch or two that Gray was not getting. Was this a case of hometeam goggles skewing our vision? Actually no, and I have the chart to prove it.
From the fantastic Brooks Baseball, here is last night’s strike zone to left-handed hitters. This plot shows only balls and called strikes (it does not include any pitches that the hitter swung at). Detroit’s pitches (almost entirely Verlander) are triangles, and A’s pitches are squares. Green shapes are balls, red are strikes. The middle box is the strike zone, and the dotted box shows the typical zone called by all umpires.
Now, direct your attention to the left of the strike zone. This is from the umpire/catcher’s perspective, so the left line is the outside edge for left-handed hitters (the results against righties weren’t notable for this analysis). First, we see a lot of triangles: Verlander was exploiting that outside edge all night. He was also getting a little extra help. He got every call to the right of the dashed line, one call right on the line and three just to the left of it. Two of his pitches just to the left of the dashed line were called balls.
How about the A’s? They weren’t as adept at working the outside of the zone, but when they did, they got squeezed. Two pitches to the right of Verlander strikes were called balls and two more just a smidgen to the left of several Verlander strikes were as well. There were also some discrepancies on high-low strikes, but these tell a less straightforward story.
It’s typical for a pitcher with expert control, veteran status and a great resume like Verlander to get a few calls that a rookie like Gray doesn’t. And that sucks. The Tigers won fair and square last night, but Verlander getting those extra calls meant he got better counts, more outs, and the A’s hitters had to guard a bigger strike zone. A couple of extra base runners might have given the A's a run against Verlander, upped his pitch count, maybe the Tigers go to their bullpen earlier.... Evening out those calls probably wouldn't have changed the outcome of the game, but this one was close enough to wonder.