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Oct 11, 2014 4:03 AM

Ball-strike calls get lots of postseason attention

The Associated Press

John Lackey slings a slider, and it ducks under Pablo Sandoval's front kneecap and darts past the inside edge of home plate.

The animated graphic on TV shows the ball barely touching the box.

OK, Mr. Umpire: Ball or strike?

The strike zone is getting plenty of attention this postseason. And with no replays allowed, ball-strike calls are sparking all sorts of disputes.

Lorenzo Cain of the Royals got flustered when Tim Timmons rang him up. Matt Kemp of the Dodgers sounded off after Dale Scott called him out. Asdrubal Cabrera of the Nationals slammed his bat and helmet and was ejected by Vic Carapazza.

"We don't have the box out there when we're pitching," Kansas City left-hander Danny Duffy said. "These umps are in 'The Show' for a reason. Everyone's got a pretty good idea of the zone, and I'm sure the umpire behind the plate has a better idea than we do."

"You just try to throw wherever you think the zone is," he said.

Twenty years ago, several veteran umpires were known to have their own definition of the strike zone. Some were low-ball umps, others called higher strikes.

A decade ago, there was this thought: Take away pitches above the belt and below the knee, but add a little extra on the outside corner, a spot where hitters could still make contact.

These days, when Major League Baseball grades every pitch and often gives umpires a report 12 hours after their plate jobs, strike zones have become much more consistent.

And in an era where most every call is subject to a video review, MLB has remained adamant that the balls-and-strikes job will be done by a person, not a machine, and those decisions cannot be challenged.

Not that there haven't been disputes. Since replay rulings can't be argued, some managers have blown off steam squawking about pitches.

So, what exactly is a strike?

The rule book says it's a pitch where "any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone."

There are some umpires, however, who look for a little more. Say, half the ball in the zone for the half the time it crosses the plate 17 inches wide, 17 inches deep.

Now, try pinpointing Yordano Ventura's 100 mph heater or Tim Hudson's dipping sinker in less than a half-second.

"Hopefully they swing the bat before he has to call the pitch," Baltimore reliever Tommy Hunter said. "Some guys have different depth perception."

"That's just the human element of the game. You've got to find out where it is. You have to judge how much the umpire is going to give you up and down, inside and outside," he said.

As for that TV box, well, it all depends.

"That's accurate to a point, but some guys are 6-6 and others are 5-10. They're not going to have the same strike zone, but on TV it's the same strike zone," Hunter said. "You've got to take it with a grain of salt. Maybe it was a strike, maybe it wasn't."

A couple different firms have provided those strike zone boxes during the postseason, MLB has its own company that creates them.

For all the sophisticated cameras and advanced math used to project a zone, there's another key element the catcher.

All-Star Yadier Molina of the Cardinals routinely gets called strikes for his pitcher because of how he catches the ball. That's especially true on outside pitches, because umpires usually set up on the inside corner, giving them a clear, unobstructed view.

How a catcher frames a pitch can make all the difference. If he's too obvious in trying to pull his glove in a couple of inches, he might convince an umpire that it was too wide. If he keeps his glove steady, it'll look like the pitcher hit his target and is more likely to result in a called strike.

Frequently, a hitter's reaction will give a good indication of whether a pitch was a strike or not. Several this postseason looked real close and were taken for balls, with the batter, pitcher and catcher never flinching while the crowd howled for a strike.

Other pitches, those started arguments. Especially ones wide on the TV box that wound being called strike three.

"I think it's as accurate as it can be," Royals slugger Billy Butler said. "It's not 100 percent accurate, but the strike zone is a hard thing to judge."

"That's the reason why the best umpires in the world, they have human error, they make mistakes just like we do. It's a tough thing to judge, but that thing is not 100 percent," he said.


AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg contributed to this report.


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