Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Did Chris Johnson Have a Gripe?

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Atlanta third baseman Chris Johnson was ejected in the first inning of Saturday’s loss to the Miami Marlins over an at bat that consisted of three called strikes against him.  It was apparent that Johnson did not agree with any of the three pitch calls made by home plate umpire Jim Joyce.  It’s also apparent that starting pitcher Alex Wood also had a few issues with calls made by Joyce early on in the game.

But who was right?

It is unfortunate that we do not have complete pitch-by-pitch video evidence to review after the fact, but there are a couple of views on the third strike we have available.

First off, here is the video of the ejection sequence, courtesy of mlb.com.  Reportedly, Johnson left the plate (whilst punishing the turf with his bat and helmet) saying something like ‘none of those pitches were a strike’.  I can tell you from the radio broadcast that there was at least one punctuated adjective included as well.  Joyce then responded, asking “Are you talking to me?”  When the answer was in the affirmative, that’s when Chris was excused from further participation in the contest.

From that video, here is the third strike, via an angled front view.

Not conclusive.  Johnson checked his swing, but the pitch itself was called a strike – there was no ruling on the swing, which appeared to be safely stopped.

Here’s a rear view, just as the ball is reaching the catcher’s mitt.

Note the alignment of the ball with the chalk stripe of the LH batter’s box.  That’s pretty conclusive:  the pitch was a solid 3-4 inches outside of the 18-inch plate.  So Chris was right.  And furthermore, the reports I have heard (mostly from the announcers) seems to indicate that strikes 1 and 2 were no closer.

 

But was this pitch “too close to take?”

That opinion can vary, but I’ll suggest that the umpire’s own reputation should be a part of that decision.  With good umpires, you can expect better calls.  All indications are that Jeff Joyce is a good one, and we have some evidence of that, too:

This chart is from brooksbaseball.net, which has ball/strike call charts on every game, every umpire.  Here’s how to read it:  picture that you are the umpire, sitting behind the catcher.  This is Joyce’s calls chart with right-handed batters for Saturday’s game.  The triangles represent pitches thrown by the Marlins.  Red ones were called strikes; green called balls.  The solid black line represents the actual strike zone, and the hashed line is the “effective” strike zone… adjusted by the manner in which Joyce’s calls fell during the game.  The chart does not differentiate between fastballs and other pitches, but in this case it hardly matters:  Eovaldi throws about 70% fastballs.

Things I notice:

  • Outside the strike zone (toward the LH batter’s box), things get a little fuzzy (between the black and hashed lines).  Some close pitches were called balls, some are strikes.  This is to be expected given Joyce’s positioning on the inside corner, which puts him on an angle when looking at outside pitches*.
  • It’s fair to suggest that at least a couple of the pitches to Johnson – including strike three – were among the red triangles furthest to the right on this chart.  But you can also argue that at least one was also in the “fuzzy” area.
  • Oh – the middle of that hashed line is three inches outside the ‘real’ strike zone – 1.0 feet from the center of the plate.
  • Joyce only missed a couple of strike calls within the (proper) zone, but those were actually thrown by Miami… Jim Powell and Don Sutton‘s radio call of “right down the middle for Ball 2″ notwithstanding (about an Alex Wood pitch in the first inning).  Wood did not get any strike calls in the ‘Chris Johnson Fuzzy Zone’, however.
  • Turns out that Braves’ pitchers got the benefit of a couple of bad calls on inside pitches called for strikes (note the leftmost red squares).

* - this begs a different question, that being whether an umpire should set up on the outside corner for any batter for a better view.  It’s clear that during this game, both pitchers were working the outside part of the plate… and beyond.  That is the usual case, but not always (see the next chart below).

 

Let’s also look as Jeff Joyce’s previous game:  August 6th, Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals:

Notice the hashed lines.  Jeff Joyce has a wide strike zone.  This is a consistent part of how he calls games.  Now Chris may have very well been a victim of multiple such “wide” pitches (which would be unusual), but if I’m catcher Jeff Mathis and pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, and I get a call on an outside pitch to a hitter like Johnson, then yeah – you bet I’m gonna go right back out there again… especially given the runners in scoring position.  Obviously, it worked for them.

Did Chris fails to heed a scouting report on Joyce?  Entirely possible.  But certainly, he allowed his annoyance with one pitch – then another – to impact his entire at bat.  And that continued to the point of getting him thrown out.  You could argue that Mathis and Eovaldi ‘played’ him, and it worked in spades.

 

Regardless of whose side you take here, one thing is abundantly clear:  Johnson not only failed to even advance either of the runners in what turned out to be the best scoring opportunity that Braves would have during the entire game, but in removing himself from the contest, it effectively took an offensive threat (the leading hitter in the National League) out of the middle of the lineup and inserted Paul Janish – a defensive star, but an offensive black hole.  This was, of course, underscored heavily as Janish struck out to end the game after Evan Gattis provided a glimmer of hope with a two-out single.  To be fair to Janish, the entire rest of the team only had 3 hits on the day, but having him in the 5-hole certainly did not help.

 

So was Johnson right?  Yes, technically, but sometimes being right just isn’t enough.  It was a Pyrrhic victory at best.  And the Braves lost the war that day.

I’m guessing that Johnson and manager Fredi Gonzalez had a few words of their own about the situation, and Chris clearly understood the situation he put his team in.  Just how well understood?  Check this out:

That’s a mouth-taped Chris Johnson just before the start of Sunday’s game, with Fredi Gonzalez gesturing to Jeff Joyce and pointing out to him that Johnson had been muzzled for the game.  Good move on their part for multiple reasons, not the least of which including the fact that Johnson and Joyce would be standing beside one another out at third base the whole afternoon!  Apparently, the gesture had the intended effect:  laughs all around.

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Tags: Atlanta Braves Chris Johnson Ejection

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