"I saw the pitch, and, of course, I don't have the chance to do it again, but had I had a chance to do it again, I wouldn't call that pitch a strike."
That was what home plate umpire Marty Foster had to say after Monday night's Rangers-Rays game in Arlington, which Texas won 5-4 when Foster called Ben Zobrist out looking on a full count curveball that landed in the righthanded batter's box stranding the tying run on base. The pitch, a low-80s curveball from Rangers closer Joe Nathan, didn't appear to approach the strike zone during any part of it's flight starting near the outside edge and tailing down and away. Foster was clearly the only observer who thought it was a strike, and, per the quote above, when he got a second look at it after the game, he changed his mind, as well. Take a look at the video below and see for yourself:
[mlbvideo id="26131335" width="400" height="224" /]
Said Nathan, who picked up his 300th career save with that call, "I thought it was ball four. I thought [Zobrist] might offer at it, and when he didn't, I was already thinking about what we'd have to do with Longoria now." Yes, if Foster had gotten the call right, Tampa Bay would have had its best hitter, who was 3-for-3 with a walk to that point in the game, at the plate with the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run on first base.
"My only thought," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, "is that cannot happen in a major league baseball game. That kind of call cannot occur. I don't even want to say under those circumstances, last inning, the last out of the game. I don't even want to go there. That call cannot be made in a major league baseball game."
And yet, it seems, that call, though egregious by the rule-book definition of the strike zone, was not that far outside of the zone that Foster regularly calls. Here, from BrooksBaseball.net, is a look at all of the pitches Foster called against left-handed batters on Monday night.
The above shows the strike zone from the umpire's perspective. The green pitches are balls. The red pitches are called strikes. The solid black box in the middle is the rule-book strike zone (with normalized height since the top and bottom of the zone varies from batter to batter). The final pitch of the game is that red square in the lower left. Now, you see that larger gray box that extends nearly a half a foot out to the left of the rule-book strikezone? That's the strike zone that Foster "generally" calls against lefthanded batters, per Brooks Baseball's research. Even by that standard the final pitch of the game was several inches outside and low, but compared to Foster's typical zone against lefties, it wasn't nearly as large of a miss.
That's not a defense of Foster, however. Quite the opposite. Not only did he blow a crucial call in the clutch on Monday that might have cost the Rays a win in a season that they are expected to be in a very tight race for a playoff spot, but Foster regularly calls pitches outside the strikezone strikes. On the above chart alone, there are four other pitches that were several inches outside to Rays lefties that were called strikes, and here's a look at what he did against righthanded batters:
There are almost as many called strikes outside the rule-book strike zone there as there are inside of it, including a handful of pitches that were outside Foster's usual strike zone against righties which is completely different than the strike zone he calls against lefties (something that, sadly, is not uncommon).
Now, one of the things you'll often hear hitters say about umpires is that they can cope with an idiosyncratic strike zone as long as it's consistent. Foster is known as an umpire with a large zone, and per the two charts above, righties should know that with Foster behind the plate, they have to cover a couple extra inches off the corners and lefties should know that they have to watch the outside corner. On Monday night, though, even a strong working knowledge of Foster's typical zone (be it from prior experience or watching film) wasn't going to help the hitters in this game, particularly a switch-hitter like Zobrist, who had been batting righthanded against lefty Michael Kirkman in his previous at-bat.
Of course, even if Foster had been consistent with his typical zone, the fact that he regularly calls pitches a half a foot outside to lefties strikes should be considered flat-out unacceptable by Major League Baseball. Foster isn't the worst umpire in baseball, and won't be as long as Angel Hernandez and CB Bucknor are still working games, but he has had a number of run-ins with players -- most famously when he allegedly told Derek Jeter that he was out at third base not because he was tagged but because the ball beat him to the bag -- and those strike zone plots above speak for themselves. There's no guarantee that Foster's blown call cost the Rays Monday night's game because Longoria is 0-for-2 in his career against Nathan, but Maddon is right in that a call like that shouldn't be allowed to happen in a major league game. Blown calls happen, but Monday night's happened in part because MLB has allowed Foster to regularly call strikes well outside the rule book zone, something you wouldn't think would still happen given that baseball has been observing and grading umpires' strike zone's electronically for more than a decade, first with QuesTec and, since 2009, with Zone Evaluation.