Whenever an umpire gets involved in a game, it’s a bad thing. And so it was in yesterday’s contest between the braves and Nationals as Alex Wood had a sharp disagreement with umpire CB Bucknor over – at least – the pitch that walked Jayson Werth to force in the game’s first run.
As we break this down, though, I’ll say this right up front: ultimately is doesn’t matter who was right. Bucknor got the final say, and it is Wood’s job to (a) maintain his edge/composure/professionalism/etc; (b) stay in the game; (c) figure out – between himself and Brian McCann – how to best get the hitters out… which includes taking Bucknor’s track record into account. He will have to get this under control regardless of whatever circumstances may present themselves, for a rattled pitcher will not last long in this league. And unfortunately, adversity presents itself in many forms: one of those forms wears black slacks and light blue shirts.
First: Alex Wood. 22-year-old Alex Wood has maintained good control this year, walking an average of 3.24 men per 9 innings – which (oddly enough) exactly matches his ERA at the moment. He also is striking out 9 batters per nine over the 75 innings he has pitched so far this year. Those are pretty good numbers, and shows that he has decent control. Yesterday was his 11th start, which was a definite improvement over his other September appearances (giving up 4 and 7 runs to Philadelphia and Miami, respectively. It was also the seventh start in which he yielded 0 or 1 earned runs. Not half bad for a guy plucked straight from AA. Wednesday, he walked 2 and struck out just 3 – not quite finishing the 5th inning. It was, of course, that 2nd walk that we’re talking about today.
C.B. Bucknor. In a 2011 Sports Illustrated survey of players, Bucknor was voted the second worst umpire in baseball. That’s actually an improvement… kinda. In 2003, he was first in a similar survey, garnering 20.7% of the vote. He was also first in 2006 and 2010. There are several names of umpires that constantly come up on these lists – Joe West, Angel Hernandez, Wally Bell, and (‘Balking’) Bob Davidson – to name a few. Bucknor and Joe West seem to fight it out for that First of the Worst spot every year.
In looking at Bucknor’s stats for this year, he actually ranks as a top umpire for pitchers: 4th highest strikeouts called per game; 5th lowest walks per game, 9th lowest runs scored per game. Perhaps this is part of the reason Wood was so shocked when that last pitch to Werth was called ‘ball four.’
A video of the entire pitch can be seen in this video, from mlb.com. Here is a still frame of the ball – roughly as it would have crossed the plate:
Unfortunately, we’re on an angle, but perhaps this will help:
This shows McCann’s setup – directly behind home plate – as Wood came to the set position.
So armed with that information, let’s superimpose the two pictures and see what we can learn.
Again, this is tricky, but the yellow lines indicate the edges of the plate – on that angle. The ball can be seen just before it reaches McCann’s glove. The yellow dot indicates the ball’s final destination. So yes: the pitch was inside (even considering that camera angle). Werth apparently didn’t have any qualms about it (though he probably should have). He didn’t act fooled on the pitch, and my guess is that he truly decided not to swing at it. That’s actually kind of surprising given both the game situation and that he’s been carrying the Nationals with his bat over the entire second half.
So why did Wood think it should be called a strike? One possible reason was simple annoyance at himself: failing to get out of the inning unscathed. I could understand this since the Braves had not been able to hit themselves out of a wet paper bag lately: one run could be the only help the Nationals needed yesterday on their way toward a sweep. It’s unfortunate if he was thinking this way, because a team with this much firepower should never have a pitcher thinking in those terms. However, such has perhaps been the case lately with the Braves dropping nine of the previous thirteen games, and scoring precious few runs in the process.
Let’s Check Another Chart
This graphic represents CB Bucknor’s calls from yesterday when right-handed hitters are up. The source is brooksbaseball.net. Pretend you’re the umpire, looking at the pitcher. This chart represents the actuallocation of pitches thrown yesterday, when righty batters are up. Everything green was called a ball; everything red was called a strike. The solid outlined rectangle represents the actual strikezone – a composite based on the ‘average’ hitter. The dashed lines represent the strike zones of a typical umpire (not just Bucknor).
Honestly, it looks from this that Bucknor called a pretty decent game. Pitchers got the benefit of calls ‘on the black’, and aside from two low strike calls (Wood being the beneficiary of both), everything called a strike was in the hashed box, at least.
But did Wood get squeezed – seeing too many balls called? There are four green triangles on or between the solid line and the hashed line – pitches that would be inside to a right-handed hitter. It is unfortunate that we do not know exactly when each pitch recorded here was thrown. Frankly, based on the video evidence, I don’t think the disputed pitch was any of these four ‘squeezed’ pitches. I think the key pitch to Werth was a bit further inside than those. Note that Wood put several pitches well inside yesterday – and I don’t believe there was a control issue as this particular pitch in question hit the target exactly. Maybe that was also part of Wood’s argument: that hitting the glove should merit some favor.
Bucknor’s track record (lots of strikeouts; fewer walks) suggests that Wood probably should have expected to get strike calls on those four green triangles I mentioned. He apparently did get one call low and inside (unless it was one of his comrades – that’s unclear), and the Nationals got 2 strike calls inside to righties. But insofar as this particular pitch goes – I honestly don’t think Wood had a beef.
The pitching has been carrying the Braves for most of the second half of the season – apart from the win streak when the bats woke up for a while. The Nationals, in particular, seem to bring out the emotions in players, too. Alex Wood will probably learn his lesson from this one – certainly he does not want the reputation of blowing up at calls. That message tends to get around the league fast, to the detriment of the player. But pitcher frustration – if that’s what it was – will continue to crop up if the offense doesn’t show up. Perhaps this incident on Wednesday woke up a sleeping giant, though: the Braves got 3 runs immediately after Wood was ejected, and 2 more later on.
We can only hope.