Saturday, September 13, 2008

Martis's Good Luck and Strike Zone 'Generosity'

As the title suggests, this is really two posts in one. I started looking at Martis and all the unsustainable factors in his short-term success, and ended up thinking a bunch about umpires. So fair warning this is going to wander a bit.

As happy as I am for
Shairon Martis, I'm starting to get the feeling about that we're once again setting unrealistically high expectations for a kid, setting him up for almost sure-fire disappointment. Mark Zuckerman called him "dazzling" and "spectacular." Chico Harlan saw "flashes of dominance."

I agree he was better than his first start, and Nationals fans should feel good about how his first two big league starts have gone.
You don't strike out nine major league hitters in a game if you don't have something going for you. He has a 2.70 ERA after two major league starts, and no one can take that away from him. Last night he had guys falling all over themselves trying to hit that change up. None of what I'd read about him identified the change as a plus pitch, but as Sutton said last night, that's often the last pitch that young pitchers master.

I'm as excited about the Wowin' Curacaoan as the next guy. After all, what a nickname! And if he sucked, I couldn't use it.

But we should try not to go overboard. It's starting to look like Ryan Zimmerman, Shawn Hill, Collin Balester, and Chad Cordero all over again, guys who are very good pieces to have around, but whom fans get frustrated with because they are merely good, not great.

Because as good as he's been, he's also been very lucky. Last night, he left the bases loaded with no outs in the sixth. Charlie Manning and Steve Shell teamed up to end the inning with only one run allowed, a fantastic performance. If all three runs had been allowed to score, Martis's ERA would stand at 4.50. As I've pointed out a couple times, he allowed baserunners every inning in his first start against the Braves, and just one big hit could have blown that game open.

Add up all the numbers so far, and he's got a 79% strand rate (70% is typical), .229 BABIP (.290 is typical), and a 4.61 fielding independent ERA. He's not this good, and our expectations shouldn't be skyrocketing.

But the thing that I think actually helped him the most last night was Chad Fairchild's strike zone. If you're interested in seeing closer what I'm talking about, you can click through the pitch-by-pitch on MLB Gameday and see exactly where each pitch ended up. (Gameday lets you click around and see the play from various angles, but I think the best view is from directly behind the pitcher's rubber, a little below pitcher's eye level.)

By my count, there were six called strikes that were off the plate:
--Strike one and strike two to Ramirez in the first (one off the plate outside, another off the plate inside--it makes it pretty tough for hitters when the pitcher is getting the call on both sides)
--Strike three to Willingham in the second
--Strike two to Ross in the second
--Strike one to Hermida in the third
--Strike one to Hermida in the fifth (this pitch in particular is a terrible call)

Six pitches might not seem like much, but it's actually a lot. If you flip any of those pitches, it would change those at bats and could change the game.

That got me thinking about the track record of the homeplate ump, Chad Fairchild. I went over to the Baseball Prospectus Umpire Reports and calculated the percentage of pitches that every ump in MLB has called strikes over the last 3 seasons (this actually didn't take very long--just a little copying and pasting into MS Excel).

I'm sure there's a ton of statistical noise in here, but I figured that on the whole there may be some trends among umps who tend to call bigger and smaller strike zones. Looking at the umps who called at least 300 innings, here's what I found:
--The overall range for called strikes is between around 42% to 46%. This actually I thought was a surprisingly large spread, but that's not based on anything except my gut.
--This year, Phil Cuzzi is leading the league with 45.95% pitches called strikes, while Paul Schrieber has called the fewest strikes at 42.18%.
--In '07, Doug Eddings had the biggest strike zone with 46.57% strikes, while Greg Gibson has the smallest at 42.33%.
--In '06, John Hirschbeck had the biggest zone at 45.58%, while Jerry Crawford was the stingiest ump in all three years calling just 41.91% strikes.

I also found some degree of year-to-year consistency among some umps. Umps like Laz Diaz, Doug Eddings, and John Hirshbeck showed up all three years toward the top of the list for the highest percentage of pitches called strikes, while Jerry Crawford, Tim McClelland, and Greg Gibson, among others were consistently among the smallest strike zones.

Then of course, some guys seem to bounce around a lot. Our guy from last night, Chad Fairchild, was among this "bounce around" group. This year, he's actually been one of the league's stingier; of the 73 umps with 300+ innings called, he's way down at #65 for the fewest called strikes, 43.19%. Last year, on the other hand, he was way up at 25th of 73 with 44.41% strikes.

So what does all that tell us about Shairon Martis? Well, nothing really. Fairchild had a big strike zone last night regardless of what the stats say about his past track record. Maybe he has a girlfriend in Miami and wanted to get the game over quick. But I thought I'd share since I looked all that up.

In case you're interested, here are the top 15 and bottom 15 umps in the league for strike percentage this season:

Top 15
Umpire Pitches Strikes Strike %
Phil Cuzzi 8408 3864 45.96%
Tim Welke 8794 4031 45.84%
Marty Foster 8489 3880 45.71%
Laz Diaz 9329 4263 45.70%
Paul Emmel 8390 3829 45.64%
Doug Eddings 9419 4283 45.47%
Dan Iassogna 8578 3892 45.37%
Jeff Nelson 8820 4001 45.36%
Gary Cederstrom 9049 4091 45.21%
Brian Gorman 8377 3778 45.10%
Ted Barrett 9206 4142 44.99%
Rob Drake 9858 4432 44.96%
Jim Wolf 8922 4004 44.88%
Bill Miller 9252 4148 44.83%
Brian O'Nora 8760 3925 44.81%

Bottom 15
UMP Pitches Strikes Strike %
Paul Schrieber 8548 3606 42.19%
Jerry Crawford 6059 2557 42.20%
Tim McClelland 9153 3902 42.63%
Ed Rapuano 9211 3960 42.99%
Jerry Layne 8213 3535 43.04%
Gary Darling 8777 3783 43.10%
Chad Fairchild 10211 4410 43.19%
Derryl Cousins 9334 4037 43.25%
Jerry Meals 9031 3918 43.38%
Marvin Hudson 9116 3960 43.44%
Ed Montague 7439 3236 43.50%
Larry Vanover 8557 3725 43.53%
Angel Hernandez 8746 3808 43.54%
Greg Gibson 9765 4252 43.54%
Jeff Kellogg 9262 4035 43.57%


Will said...

Where's Tim Timmons?! He's my favorite ump of them all!

You know who sucks? C.B. Buckner.

Steven said...

Bucknor is right middle of the pack this year--33 out of 72. However last year he was way down at 71 out of 73, one of the smallest zones in the league. Then he was 39th of 73 in 06.

Timmons from biggest to smallest is #30/72 this year, was #54/72 last year, and #57/72 last year.

If consistency is good, then your assessment of Bucknor and Timmons seem to be backed up by the data, although again I think there's a ton of statistical noise here, so I would take all this with a big grain of salt.

Send me an email at and I'll send you the whole spreadsheet.

Will said...

By the way, is Shairon Martis pronounced Shy-rin Mar-tiss or Shy-rone Mar-tese? The first just doesn't sound good in my opinion.

Steven said...

Hendo's the expert on this one.

But I believe it's "SHY-ron MAR-tiss." Not "mar-TEECE."

And "Wowin' Curacaoan" is pronounced "Wow-in kur-o-SOW-in." Not "kur-o-COW-in."

Hendo said...

As for his last name, the Nats' press notes say "mar-TISS," as did Bowden in the pre-game show the other night.

The Nats' broadcasters all say "MAR-tis." Before you cry "majority rules!" think of all the broadcasters you've heard refer to his nation as "kuh-RAH-ko" (although I think the Nats' all get it right).

As for his first name, I've never heard anything but "SHY-ron."

As for the strike zone, I saw the same game as Steven and cannot disagree with the facts. It is just barely possible that Martis and Nieves earned themselves a little bigger strike zone by not complaining and by, as I believe Sutton noted, framing the pitches well (i.e., holding the mitt still after the catch, not pulling it into the zone to try to buy a cheap strike call).

It is also just barely possible that, as Steven suggests, Fairchild had a date.

Steven said...

Hendo--as you say, ump variability is part of the game, and catchers and pitchers can do things to help themselves get more calls. I would go further and say that Mar-TISS may have seen the wide K zone on the first AB and taken advanage of it all game like a savvy vet.

I'm just saying it's not something one should expect to continue, and it'll make a difference, potentially a big one.

Hendo said...

Agreed... to depend on getting a big strike zone would be foolish indeed. We'll see on Wednesday whether the breaks even out.

On an entirely unrelated note, wasn't one of the umps wearing glasses the other night? I'm sure it's been going on for years, but it's honestly the first time I've ever noticed it. All joking aside, my impression was that MLB didn't hire umps who needed glasses.