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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fangraphs: Let’s Consider Eric Gregg and Livian Hernandez in the 1997 NLCS

A lot of analytical baseball articles today will make some sort of reference to catcher pitch-framing. References to pitch-framing will often make references to Jose Molina, and they will less often but still somewhat often make references to Livan Hernandez. References to Livan Hernandez often lead to recollections of the 1997 NLCS, and Eric Gregg’s strike zone in Game 5. Consensus is that Gregg’s zone was extremely favorable to Hernandez, and it was a big reason why the Marlins were able to get past the Braves and advance to the World Series.

Of course, that which is unusual has a tendency to become exaggerated, made extraordinary over time. Gregg’s Game 5 strike zone is today remembered as one of the worst umpiring performances ever in the game. One hyperbolic example of many:

  Umpire Eric Gregg’s strike zone in this 1997 NL playoff matchup had viewers outraged. Pitches that sailed high over the heads of players were called strikes.

I’m pretty sure that never happened, although I’m not completely sure, since I don’t have access to a time machine, since I probably wouldn’t even know how to operate a time machine, and since I’m willing to believe in government cover-ups. Anyhow, Game 5, of course, came well before the era of PITCHf/x. It was four days before Bryce Harper‘s fifth birthday. There’s little we can do now to objectively evaluate Gregg’s actual strike zone. But there are some things we can do, and I think this is worthy of a reflection. Especially while the clip I found on YouTube still exists. Too late, Major League Baseball. You can take down the video, but I’ve already made the .gifs.

Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 17, 2013 at 10:03 PM | 35 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: braves, egregious crimes against humanity, framing pitches, marlins, umpiring

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   1. Robert in Manhattan Beach Posted: January 18, 2013 at 12:08 AM (#4349641)
Pretty much jives with my memory. Pitches a foot outside to lefties were strikes on that night. My favorite is the first .gif where Charles Johnson doesn't even attempt to frame it because the pitch is so far outside and it's called a strike anyway.
   2. Transmission Posted: January 18, 2013 at 12:28 AM (#4349646)
There's one toward the end where McGriff is already giving up on the pitch and turning around to see if Gregg is going to call it a strike, too, before Johnson's even close to catching it.
   3. The Yankee Clapper Posted: January 18, 2013 at 12:32 AM (#4349649)
My recollection was that it was a terribly wide strike zone, but called the same for both teams. Unfair to both - the new neutrality.
   4. shoelesjoe Posted: January 18, 2013 at 12:32 AM (#4349650)
I always thought that if a home plate ump had money on a game the end result would look a lot like what happened that day.
   5. Shredder Posted: January 18, 2013 at 12:49 AM (#4349652)
My recollection was that it was a terribly wide strike zone, but called the same for both teams. Unfair to both - the new neutrality.
Maybe if we're only paying attention to where the ball crosses the plate, or where the catcher pulls it in. But the starters in that game were not exactly carbon copies. The problem with Gregg's strike zone in that game wasn't just that it was big. It may very well have been big for both pitchers. But the big disadvantage to the Braves was the sweeping curve from the righty Hernandez combined with a big zone. Maddux used to move the ball all over the place. He might throw a pitch that started on the edge of the zone, and ended up six inches off. Even if an ump calls that a strike, a left handed hitter has a fighting chance to at least make contact. Hernandez was throwing pitches that, on TV, looked like they started two feet outside the zone, and ended up about 6-8 inches off. If that's called a strike, a left handed hitter doesn't even have a chance to even make contact unless he's standing on the plate. Pitch data may show those two pitches finishing in the same spot, but a lefty can at least spoil that Maddux pitch. Lefties against Livan had no chance that day. Chipper would have been MUCH better off going up there from the right side.
   6. Walt Davis Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:11 AM (#4349656)
I think he was aiming for the living room lamp.

The one on Klesko and the next-to-last are my favorites. The one to Klesko didn't even have that much movement on it.
   7. MuttsIdolCochrane Posted: January 18, 2013 at 06:07 AM (#4349674)
Wah! The best aspect of those tomahawk fans' complaints is the fact that for years the Braves got amazing help from the home plate umps. Most if not all fans in the 1990's were aware of and regularly (often unhappily) accepted the situation. If you've ever watched a Glavine or Maddux game from behind the plate there seemed to be a consistent expansion of the zone for them, and not for the opposing pitcher. When hoisted on their own petard, all we heard was whining, from the Atlanta fans and the team. It is like the Yankees losing to the Dodgers in the World Series, then complaining that the Dodgers payroll was too high. To quote the Jesus, "Laughable, man".
   8. Lassus Posted: January 18, 2013 at 07:06 AM (#4349683)
It did seem somewhat karmic to an outside observer.
   9. Barnaby Jones Posted: January 18, 2013 at 09:05 AM (#4349717)
I find it hard to consider a Mets fan an outside observer.
   10. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: January 18, 2013 at 09:18 AM (#4349724)
Maybe if we're only paying attention to where the ball crosses the plate, or where the catcher pulls it in. But the starters in that game were not exactly carbon copies. The problem with Gregg's strike zone in that game wasn't just that it was big. It may very well have been big for both pitchers. But the big disadvantage to the Braves was the sweeping curve from the righty Hernandez combined with a big zone. Maddux used to move the ball all over the place. He might throw a pitch that started on the edge of the zone, and ended up six inches off. Even if an ump calls that a strike, a left handed hitter has a fighting chance to at least make contact. Hernandez was throwing pitches that, on TV, looked like they started two feet outside the zone, and ended up about 6-8 inches off. If that's called a strike, a left handed hitter doesn't even have a chance to even make contact unless he's standing on the plate. Pitch data may show those two pitches finishing in the same spot, but a lefty can at least spoil that Maddux pitch. Lefties against Livan had no chance that day. Chipper would have been MUCH better off going up there from the right side.

I'm sure Maddux was capable of throwing the same kind of curve if he wanted to.

As long as the zone is the same for both teams, you can't claim unfairness.

Shitty umpiring? Sure. But unfair? No.

It's up to the pitcher to exploit the shitty zone, and the hitters to adjust their approach.
   11. spike Posted: January 18, 2013 at 10:04 AM (#4349782)
Wah! The best aspect of those tomahawk fans' complaints is the fact that for years the Braves got amazing help from the home plate umps

The complaint is that the game was fundamentally changed arbitrarily for both teams. I don't mind the Marlins winning the game so much as Gregg creating an alternate reality. It cheats both teams - instead of the clean victory Florida deserved to compete for, the result is permanently smudged - I'll wager this isn't the first time you've retorted to someone on the topic. Fans of baseball should be pissed about that. And it was clear while it was going on, and yet nothing could be done. It was a despicable performance by Gregg, and people were/are absolutely right to point it out.
   12. cercopithecus aethiops Posted: January 18, 2013 at 10:07 AM (#4349788)
Umpire Eric Gregg’s strike zone in this 1997 NL playoff matchup had viewers outraged. Pitches that sailed high over the heads of players were called strikes.


No, that was Leslie Nielsen in 1988.
   13. Nasty Nate Posted: January 18, 2013 at 10:12 AM (#4349797)
Do we know if the game was called the same for both teams?

The article implies that part of the issue was that this bogus embarrassment of a strike zone seemed to be in play for lefty hitters. On that day, only 3 of the Marlins hit from the left side. The Braves had 6-7 (I think).

I was always baffled that hitters stood so far away from the plate in the late 1980's and early 1990's and consistently got killed by outside corner pitches - especially when the umps extended the zone outward like Gregg here. Then later in the decade the hitters started moving closer to the plate, with good results.
   14. CFBF Is A Golden Spider Duck Posted: January 18, 2013 at 10:34 AM (#4349830)
I missed most of this game, for whatever reason (I thought it was a weekday affair, but it was a Sunday). I did tune in just in time to see Hernandez ring up McGriff to end the game on a pitch that my memory told me was obscene. And apparently my memory is not far off.
   15. MuttsIdolCochrane Posted: January 18, 2013 at 11:10 AM (#4349863)
The complaint is that the game was fundamentally changed arbitrarily for both teams. I don't mind the Marlins winning the game so much as Gregg creating an alternate reality. It cheats both teams - instead of the clean victory Florida deserved to compete for, the result is permanently smudged - I'll wager this isn't the first time you've retorted to someone on the topic. Fans of baseball should be pissed about that. And it was clear while it was going on, and yet nothing could be done. It was a despicable performance by Gregg, and people were/are absolutely right to point it out.

Fundamentally changed is probably a bit strong (for that matter so are permanently smudged and despicable) but at that time most non-Atlanta fans saw and appreciated the irony and the reap what you sow aspect of the situation, and hardly thought that the result was tainted or unfair. Tell the truth; you have tomahawk chopped in your life.
   16. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 11:27 AM (#4349876)
Shitty umpiring? Sure. But unfair? No.


False. It's not necessarily the case that it was *intentionally* unfair, but it was definitely unfair from a practical level. As Nate points out @13, the lineup construction and the styles of pitching clearly benefited Hernandez. As the article points out, Maddux didn't see any sort of spike in his called strike ration, where Hernandez did. This wasn't due to Livian just being "on" that day. It was completely a product of Gregg's absurd zone.
   17. spike Posted: January 18, 2013 at 11:51 AM (#4349907)
Fundamentally changed is probably a bit strong (for that matter so are permanently smudged and despicable) but at that time most non-Atlanta fans saw and appreciated the irony and the reap what you sow aspect of the situation, and hardly thought that the result was tainted or unfair. Tell the truth; you have tomahawk chopped in your life.

I am a lifelong Braves fan, and would be the first to acknowledge that Glavine made a living on the outside corner. But the calls were not his to make - your complaint is with the folks who had the job of calling balls and strikes, not the guy throwing the pitch. How exactly did the Braves "sow" anything? And again, the if the issue is that the strike zone needs to be called correctly, shouldn't the solution be to you know do that, instead of just injecting some personal karmic retribution in an LCS championship game by creating an entirely ridiculous strike zone? I'm glad you found the result emotionally pleasing, but it doesn't seem to be a long term way to fix the problem, then or now.
   18. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 12:16 PM (#4349925)
I am a lifelong Braves fan, and would be the first to acknowledge that Glavine made a living on the outside corner. But the calls were not his to make - your complaint is with the folks who had the job of calling balls and strikes, not the guy throwing the pitch.


The claim that this was just the Braves "reaping what they sowed" is revisionist history. First, as spike points out, the guy that lived on the "outer edge" was Glavine, not Maddux. Glavine lived on a very specific part of the outer edge; low and away to right handed batters; he routinely worked that corner over and over again, until the umpire started calling balls an inch or two off the plate strikes. You can see this somewhat in Glavine's first inning troubles, where he is "establishing his zone" and the umpire is still not calling the low and away strike.

Greg Maddux never lived in one zone of the plate like that. He pitched everywhere, with pinpoint precision, and he never relied on umpires getting tired of calling balls to get calls. Maddux's signature pitch was a cut fastball that started in to a left handed batter, then tailed back toward the plate, sort of like a screw-ball motion, and caught the corner right as the batter was raising his arms high to avoid getting scraped by the pitch "inside." There was nothing about that pitch, or Maddux's game in general, that relied on umpires eventually caving to the will of the pitcher, the way Glavine just beat them down inning after inning on that outside corner. Maddux was dominant because the ball went exactly where Greg Maddux threw it 90% of the time.

And of course, John Smoltz, nor Kevin Millwood, nor Denny Neagle, nor Steve Avery, nor any of a plethora of relievers got undue calls off the plate the way Glavine did. So when fans of other teams complain about the "Braves' strike zone" of the 1990s, they're really taking the pitching strategy of one HOF pitcher - Tom Glavine - and writing it large and falsely across the entire team.
   19. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: January 18, 2013 at 12:35 PM (#4349945)
False. It's not necessarily the case that it was *intentionally* unfair, but it was definitely unfair from a practical level. As Nate points out @13, the lineup construction and the styles of pitching clearly benefited Hernandez. As the article points out, Maddux didn't see any sort of spike in his called strike ration, where Hernandez did. This wasn't due to Livian just being "on" that day. It was completely a product of Gregg's absurd zone.

That doesn't constitute unfairness. The Braves were free to replace their LHB. Maddux was free to throw outside curveballs to LHB.

Under your logic, a game played in Fenway park between one team with lots of RHB, and another team comprising mostly lefties is unfair to the LH team.

Rules or conditions that apply to everyone equally can not be rightly called unfair. The fact that different players or team can exploit the rules or conditions better or worse is just a fact of sports.
   20. Petunia inquires about ponies Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:20 PM (#4349993)
Yeah, but nobody shows up for a game at Fenway wondering where the fences will be that day, only to have the field dimensions revealed gradually over the first couple innings, either.
   21. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:23 PM (#4349998)
That doesn't constitute unfairness. The Braves were free to replace their LHB. Maddux was free to throw outside curveballs to LHB.


Your argument is that a terrible strike zone that radically benefits one pitcher over the other isn't unfair because the opposing manager could choose to remove his starters, forfeiting their skills for the rest of the game, in order to account for the radically imbalanced strike zone? Or because the non-benefitting pitcher could go against his prepared game plan and primary pitching arsenal to attempt to throw different pitches to the absurdly defined zone?

That's insane.
   22. phredbird Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:31 PM (#4350008)
I'm sure Maddux was capable of throwing the same kind of curve if he wanted to.


he was no ichiro!

I was always baffled that hitters stood so far away from the plate in the late 1980's and early 1990's and consistently got killed by outside corner pitches - especially when the umps extended the zone outward like Gregg here. Then later in the decade the hitters started moving closer to the plate, with good results.


how does this track with aluminum bats in college and certain minors? iirc, maddux commented once that almost nobody went with power to the opposite field when he first came up, but that once college players learned they could go hard to the opposite field with aluminum without being sawed off, they started doing it even with wooden bats in the majors.
   23. Rough Carrigan Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:33 PM (#4350010)
Didn't the Braves' catchers get cited, around that time, for setting up outside the catchers' box? They were squatting half out of the catchers' box away from righthanded hitters especially for Glavine because that's where so many pitches were intended to go.
   24. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:38 PM (#4350015)
how does this track with aluminum bats in college and certain minors?


It tracks with aluminum in college, teaching hitters to stand in and foul off, as well as the influx of maple bats in the bigs. Maple bats allowed MLB hitters to get around fast enough to foul off inside pitches, while not dribbling out to 2B. They (maple) also allowed hitters to drive balls down and away hard, due to increased bat speed from the scooped out bats and the density of maple over ash.
   25. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:47 PM (#4350027)
Didn't the Braves' catchers get cited, around that time, for setting up outside the catchers' box?


Catcher's Box-Gate was in 2000, so I guess that could be "around that time" if you stretch. But there's nothing the Braves were doing with their catchers in the 90s or early 2000s that every other team wasn't doing as well. That was just Phil Garner ######## about common practice in order to try to game the game a little.

It's also worth noting that the Braves were hardly the only team with a pitcher that benefited from the wide strike zone. The expanded zone low and away was an artifact of the 1990's, not the Braves. Specifically it was a thing that umpires did when they stopped calling high strikes and needed to give pitchers some sort of out pitch option against the beefed up sluggers of that era. Any pitcher who pitched down in the zone benefited from the expanded plate and the schmoo-like, trapezoidal nature of the K-zone of the era, including such luminary non-Braves as Rick Reed and Al Leiter. Kenny Rogers lived there as well. Kevin Brown used it. Randy Johnson's devastating slider was an "in the neighborhood" pitch as often as it actually clipped the corner of the plate. And of course, there was Livian and El Duque. The only pitchers who didn't really get an advantage from the zone in the 1990s were either 1) power pitchers such as Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling or John Smoltz who lived high and hard up the ladder (and could survive that way due to their "stuff), and 2) pitchers who couldn't locate well enough to exploit like the better pitchers of the era could.
   26. Yeaarrgghhhh Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:55 PM (#4350033)
I'm not a braves fan, but those calls were absurd and gave the Marlins an unfair advantage. It's not realistic to expect Maddux to suddenly change his pitching style to mirror Hernandez or expect Cox to pull his starters just to put in RH batters. Gregg might not have intended to give the Marlins an unfair advantage, but that was the de facto result.
   27. Mike A Posted: January 18, 2013 at 01:58 PM (#4350040)
Livan had been death against RHs that year (.572 OPS against). Cox was caught in an almost impossible position since Gregg had eliminated the threat of LH batters with his strike zone. Though it would have been humorous to see the reaction if Cox had replaced McGriff with the immortal Greg Colbrunn in the third.

As a Braves fan, I can readily admit that Maddux got a ridiculous zone from Gregg as well. I don't think Gregg was biased against the Braves (though he may have been influenced some by the crowd), he was just a horrible umpire. And what we got that day didn't really resemble a baseball game, just an unfortunate spectacle.
   28. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 02:06 PM (#4350048)
As a Braves fan, I can readily admit that Maddux got a ridiculous zone from Gregg as well. I don't think Gregg was biased against the Braves (though he may have been influenced some by the crowd), he was just a horrible umpire. And what we got that day didn't really resemble a baseball game, just an unfortunate spectacle.


I agree with this. Gregg wasn't intentionally biased. He was incompetent in a manner that gave huge advantage to Livian Hernandez. He was also fat, probably drunk, and I'm not sad he's no longer with us in the world. My ire at Eric Gregg is not bounded by common decency. That said, Mike makes the valid point that what galls most of us about that game is not that it was terrible, but that it was less a baseball game and more an avant-garde piece of performance art.

I need to find out where Gregg is buried. I need to pee.
   29. smileyy Posted: January 18, 2013 at 02:36 PM (#4350071)

As long as the zone is the same for both teams, you can't claim unfairness.


Yes you can. Players spend their careers optimizing in the context of a correct interpretation of the rules. To throw those rules out, as a strike zone of this size did, brings the validity of the game into question.

So maybe it's more that you can't claim "fairness" or "unfairness" -- I don't think those concepts can even be applied when the enforcement of the rules is broken.

Edit: Coke to spike in 11...and several others.
   30. phredbird Posted: January 18, 2013 at 04:44 PM (#4350202)
They (maple) also allowed hitters to drive balls down and away hard, due to increased bat speed from the scooped out bats and the density of maple over ash.


not sure i agree entirely with this. the scoop didn't really make that much difference. batters started going to lighter bats, that's what got bat speed up. jack clark was the first guy i remember having a really light bat compared to other hitters.

on the subject of going the other way with power. again, i don't remember exactly where i read or heard this, but maddux -- or somebody, darn my old memory -- went on to point out that it wasn't so much that hitters didn't go the other way because of problems with bats per se. back in the day, everybody knew going to the opposite field hard was an easy way to pop out or break your wooden bat. so hitters tended not to do that, even coached not to do that. but with aluminum bats, foul outs didn't happen so much, and of course no broken bats. so, hitters learned how to do it effectively, and then they found out that with the wooden bats it could still be done. sure you could still pop out/break bat, but if you were good enough, it wouldn't happen so much that the upside -- XB hits -- wasn't worth it. and bats are dime a dozen in the bigs.

i think that's when you started getting hitters crowding the plate. didn't we also see the arbiters of the game clamping down on pitchers throwing at batters in the 90s and aughts? i don't remember it so much before that. part of it was about hitters and managers angry at pitchers possibly hurting their players as salaries climbed, but could it also be because hitters gradually wanted to get closer to the plate so they could go opposite field on the outside pitch?
   31. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 05:25 PM (#4350270)
i think that's when you started getting hitters crowding the plate. didn't we also see the arbiters of the game clamping down on pitchers throwing at batters in the 90s and aughts? i don't remember it so much before that. part of it was about hitters and managers angry at pitchers possibly hurting their players as salaries climbed, but could it also be because hitters gradually wanted to get closer to the plate so they could go opposite field on the outside pitch?


Yes, and we also saw a burst of body armor on batters. I, to this day, think that Barry Bonds' elbow protector had more to do with his late career power spike than any PED he may have taken.
   32. phredbird Posted: January 18, 2013 at 05:41 PM (#4350288)
I, to this day, think that Barry Bonds' elbow protector had more to do with his late career power spike than any PED he may have taken.


as much as i liked bonds, i have to say that infuriated me, esp. during the 2002 nlcs ... seriously, his elbow looked like it was over the plate.
   33. Rickey! trades in sheep and threats Posted: January 18, 2013 at 06:04 PM (#4350308)
as much as i liked bonds, i have to say that infuriated me, esp. during the 2002 nlcs ... seriously, his elbow looked like it was over the plate.


I think the primary advantage of that bit of tech was that he never took a bad swing, mechanically. His swing mechanics were *always the same.* Because he had a machine on his elbow that didn't allow him to swing any other way. It wasn't the deciding factor. There was no singular deciding factor. But I think that's as much a primary cause as anything.
   34. Robert in Manhattan Beach Posted: January 18, 2013 at 06:59 PM (#4350333)
I don't think Gregg was biased against the Braves (though he may have been influenced some by the crowd), he was just a horrible umpire. And what we got that day didn't really resemble a baseball game, just an unfortunate spectacle.

Agree with this. My experience as a Braves fan tells me they would have found a way to lose that game anyway - God knows they found just about every way to blow a playoff game over the years - but that game just turned into the spectacle of a man committing career suicide on national television.
   35. Moeball Posted: January 21, 2013 at 11:58 AM (#4351763)
Look in the dictionary for the definition of "E GREGious":

"Outstandingly bad; shocking"

Poor Eric couldn't help himself - he was born to be bad.

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