In baseball, balls and strikes still are in eye of the beholder

Baseball has made considerable strides from those seemingly lawless days of the 1990s, when the size and shape of the strike zone sometimes shifted with the reputation of the pitcher or hitter.

"There's no doubt umpires are doing a better job today," said Gary DiSarcina, the former Angels shortstop who now works in the team's front office. "When I came up [in the early 1990s] some umps played the name game; superstars got a lot of leeway.

"If Dennis Eckersley was on the mound, a fastball four or five inches off the plate was a strike. If Cal Ripken Jr. didn't swing at a pitch, it was a ball. If Gary DiSarcina drew a walk, Halley's Comet flew overhead that night."

Old perceptions die hard. Despite a push since 2000 for a more uniform and consistent strike zone, an effort fueled, in part, by the electronic tracking of pitches and umpires' calls, some think favoritism still exists.

St. Louis Manager Tony LaRussa accused umpire Jerry Meals during an in-game television interview of having "two different strike zones," one for Cardinals pitchers, one for Philadelphia starter Cliff Lee, in Game 2 of the National League division series last Sunday.

LaRussa was fined and acknowledged his comments "crossed the line," but after his on-air criticism of Meals, his team overcame a 4-0 deficit and won, 5-4.

"I think Tony was just sticking up for his players," Angels pitcher Dan Haren said in an email. "They were probably complaining, and Tony let the people know.

"Pitchers with the ability to nibble at the corners get the most calls because they're constantly around the zone. Cliff Lee may have the best command in the game, so when he gets a pitch two inches off the plate, the next one will be three or four inches off."

It is precisely that pitch — several inches off the plate, often called a strike — that baseball has been trying to reel in for the last decade or so.

No one is sure how or why, but when baseball lowered the upper boundary of the strike zone from the top of the shoulders to the armpits in 1969, and then to the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants in 1988, the zone morphed from a vertical rectangle to something closer to square.

The shift was even more pronounced in the National League, which evolved into a low-strike-zone league that favored pitchers. The American League became more of a high-strike-zone league that favored hitters, though the height difference was negligible.

One effect: The chest-high fastballs Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale used to blow by hitters for strikes and the two-hour complete game went the way of flannel uniforms.

"When I came in, that ball above the waist was a ball," said Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, a Dodgers catcher from 1980-1992. "The pitch on the inside corner was a ball.

"It had to be totally on the plate to get a pitch inside called a strike. And if it was outside, you probably got three or four inches outside the strike zone."

Control pitchers made a living on the fringes, and former Atlanta stars Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine built Hall of Fame-worthy careers with pinpoint control of that zone.

Neither Maddux, who went 355-227 with a 3.16 earned-run average in 23 seasons, nor Glavine, who went 305-203 with a 3.54 ERA in 22 seasons, were overpowering. But both consistently threw strikes on the outside corner. When umpires gave them calls a few inches off the plate, they'd stretch the zone even more with pitches often called strikes that were virtually impossible to hit hard.

"We always heard in Atlanta how we got strikes called and other teams didn't," Maddux said by phone from his home in Las Vegas. "But if you go back and watch the tapes, the ball two or three inches off the plate that was a strike was being called both ways.

"The difference was our guys threw seven or eight a game out there, and they threw two or three. I charted Glavine off TV all the time. If he was getting the ball off the plate, so was the other guy. You could say we got more pitches, but we made more pitches."

That didn't change the perception that those superb Braves staffs, which included John Smoltz, got the benefit of the doubt.

"The strike zone has never been as high as it is technically written in the rule book, and it's always been a little wider," said Jim Evans, who retired in 2000 after 28 years as a major league umpire and now runs an umpire training academy in Kissimmee, Fla.

"A few years ago, guys got so careless with the outside pitch it created a controversy."

The flash point may have come in 1997, when umpire Eric Gregg stretched the zone beyond its outer limits in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series between Atlanta and Florida.

Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez, a rookie who had not struck out more than eight in a game that season, took advantage of Gregg's largesse, throwing a three-hitter with 15 strikeouts.

His final pitch, a called strike to Fred McGriff in a 2-1 Florida victory, was about a foot outside.

"Any time something that ridiculous happens," DiSarcina said, "things change."

Driving that change was Sandy Alderson, the former executive vice president of operations for Major League Baseball and now the New York Mets' general manager.

After a labor dispute led to the mass resignation of 22 umpires in 1999, Alderson hired new umps and brought them together under one banner in 2000, eliminating NL and AL designations.

In 2001, Alderson had QuesTec camera systems installed in about one-third of baseball's stadiums to begin tracking and evaluating umpire accuracy in pitch calling.

QuesTec was replaced in 2006 by the Pitch-f/x zone evaluation system, which uses digital cameras to take about 25 pictures of the ball in flight between the pitcher's mound and home plate.

The new system, designed by Chicago-based Sportvision, was installed in all 30 stadiums by 2008 and has tracked every pitch thrown since, the audited data going to MLB and its umpires.

"It's a grading tool, but we use it to help umpires improve," said Peter Woodfork, who just completed his first season as senior vice president of baseball operations.

"Umps don't always know where they're missing. If they're trending one way or another — say, they're missing the pitch down and away — they can see the data and make adjustments."

Sportvision customizes the zone for every batter, using the hollow of the kneecap — determined from the hitter's stance as he is prepared to swing at a pitched ball — for the bottom of the zone and roughly two baseball diameters above the belt for the top. The width of the plate — 17 inches — is the same for everyone.

"The accuracy rate," said Hank Adams, Sportvision CEO, "is extremely high, to within half an inch."

MLB doesn't release umpire report cards, "but our objective data shows they are extremely consistent in calling balls and strikes," Woodfork said.

Mike Port, former vice president of umpiring, told the New York Times in 2009 that when it comes to calling balls and strikes, umpires are about 95% accurate.

Not one of baseball's 68 major league umpires has been fired in the last 10 years because of poor ratings behind the plate.

"No two guys are going to call 320 pitches exactly the same — some strikes will be called balls, and some balls will be called strikes," Scioscia said. "But the uniformity has been more noticeable. I think umps are on the same page, for the most part, with what is a ball and what is a strike.

"If there's any variance, it's on the high strike, but I don't think it's so out of whack we need some kind of Inquisition."

Umpires don't like the feeling that Big Brother is watching — their union filed a grievance over QuesTec in 2003 (it was resolved in 2004) — but most managers, coaches and players agree the scrutiny has pushed them to become more consistent.

One challenge has been the discrepancies between an umpire's call, where a pitch appears to a viewer, and where it hits the pitch-zone graphic used for televised games.

"I watch a lot of games on TV, and the center-field camera is a skewed view," DiSarcina said. "You're not getting the true angle an ump is getting. It's not fair to the ump to put that box up during the game. It inflames situations."

DiSarcina is partially correct. The camera angle is skewed. But the pitch-zone graphic is not. All networks — national and regional— that televise baseball use the same pitch-tracking technology Sportvision provides to MLB.

A skewed view from a center-field camera can cause what's known as a "parallax," a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight.

"This system helps you understand how a pitch can look low and outside, but when you see the strike-zone graphic, it caught the corner, and the ump got it right," said Adams, the Sportvision CEO.

"Some people think the TV graphic is wrong. Their intuition tells them the pitch wasn't where the graphic showed it to be. But the graphic is right. Our intuition is wrong because we're off-center."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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