BJ Upton has been hitting better lately. Of course, anything would be an improvement over a disastrous 2013, and his current position as the team's leadoff hitter is a point of some contention and/or dead horse beatings.
But if there's one thing that I think most people can agree on about BJ Upton, it's that home plate umpires don't seem to give him much leeway, or any benefit of the doubt. Of course, this could be an eye test/narrative thing, so I wanted to see to what extent BJ is really getting hosed on close pitches at the plate, and to what extent his grumbling is legitimate. Enter this fanpost and the charts below.
In order to make my life easy in answering this question, Fangraphs is generously providing me (and everyone else with mouse-clicking abilities) strike zone heat maps on both a league average and player-specific basis. If you click the link, though, you'll notice that the available filters include overall strike percentage as well as swing percentage, but not called strike percentage. Since that's largely what I'm interested in, I calculate it myself just by subtracting swings from total strikes (because each swing is a strike, and anything left over must be a called strike). By the way, if I'm somehow wrong about this for some sort of obvious reason that I'm failing to grasp, let me know. But I think the logic there is sound, even though I've worried over it more than I should (namely because I'm not sure why the Fangraphs heat maps would omit something as obvious and useful as called strike percentage).
To make life a little easier, I'm looking just at BJ Upton versus all right-handed batters for 2014. This analysis was done before the Cubs series, and though Justin Grimm got BJ looking on a non-strike called third strike late in the game yesterday, I don't think this omission skews the analysis much one way or another.
Warning: lots of percentages, colors, and kittens below. Just kidding, there are no kittens. Maybe in the comments.
First, as a baseline, let's look at how often pitches are strikes to any right-handed batter in 2014.
Total Strike % - RHB 2014 (batter viewpoint)
Since this is the batter's viewpoint, the left-hand side is inside pitches, the right-hand side is outside pitches. In general, this chart is not that strange. Pitches over the plate are nearly always strikes. Painting the corners yields a strike a little less often, but still at least half the time. One interesting thing is that going outside the zone to a righty can still yield a pretty good strike rate so long as you go around belt-high inside or outside, or keep the ball over the middle of the plate but just below the knees or just below the letters. (Note to pitchers reading this: you probably don't want to throw pitches inside and belt-high too often, because some guys will turn on those and kill them, strike or not. Similarly, just because a ball is slightly below the knees or slightly above the letters doesn't mean a hitter can't make hay with it just because it's not technically a strike.)
Swing % - RHB 2014 (batter viewpoint)
Now let's look at swings. Again, this is pretty normal and expected, aside from what it potentially shows about plate discipline of righties in this day and age. You throw it over the plate, guys are gonna swing. You throw it inside without it being too low or too high, guys are gonna swing. You throw it outside, there's still a decent chance they'll swing. You throw it below the zone and near the dirt, or above the zone but not high and tight or up and away, and guys are probably gonna swing. Guys are gonna swing. The end. 2014, everybody. Also, these percentages indicate that batters judge pitch height worse than they judge pitch horizontal location: swinging at high/low pitches is more common than inside/outside pitches, generally.
Called Strike % (total strike % net of swing %) - RHB 2014 (batter viewpoint)
Note: 0% doesn't mean actual 0%, but I've rounded. Some jerkbag umpire is probably calling strikes on pitches in the visitors' dugout occasionally, but those are too rare to show up.
So, just a small note: these are calculated by taking the proportion of total pitches that are called strikes in a zone, and subtracting the proportion that are swung at. So a 0% means that every pitch in this location that ended up being a strike was swung at, which makes sense for blatant balls. Meanwhile, something like 19% indicates that 19% of total pitches in this area were taken for strikes (and not swung at).
Basically, righty batters take called strikes around the the outside part of the zone, partly because they don't like swinging at those pitches. The umps do a decent job: not-in-zone pitches are not called strikes too often, though the percentages belt/thigh-high on the inner half could be better from a good officiating perspective. Inside pitches are more likely to be called strikes than outside pitches, even though batters swing at outside pitches less. This very well might be a chicken-and-egg thing: are batters swinging at them because they're going to be called anyway, or are umps calling them because batters are swinging at them? It's hard to say for sure, but it's definitely there, especially on inside pitches to righties.
Okay, now, let's do BJ Upton. I'm using 2013 and 2014 just to get a better set of data. It's technically not apples-to-apples with righty batters just from 2014, but a look at the data doesn't indicate much difference in pitching to righties between 2013 and the first half of 2014.
Total Strike % - BJ Upton 2013-4 (batter viewpoint)
BJ sees fewer overall strikes within the zone, but there are definitely some glaring issues. Outside pitches are consistently strikes to BJ at considerably higher rates than his counterparts, as are low pitches and some high stuff, too. Outside pitches are definitely egregious, though: an outside pitch is a strike about 35% of the time to a righty, but 46% of the time, BJ incurs a strike on an outside pitch. Some of that, though, is just due to the fact that BJ swings more than the average righty, and has one of the higher swing percentages in the majors.
Swing % - BJ Upton 2013-4 (batter viewpoint)
Yeah, okay. If you swing at half of low, non-strike pitches, you're going to have a high strike percentage there. Stop doing that, BJ. Also stop swinging at those other random sectors where the pitch is a ball and you're swinging over a third of the time. You can maybe keep some of those on the inside part, but don't do the rest. Thanks. Overall, BJ likes swinging at low pitches and low-and-outside pitches a lot more than other righties, which is not that surprising because BJ likes swinging in general, and righties are relatively averse to swinging to outside pitches and prefer inside pitches.
Called Strike % (total strike % net of swing %) - BJ Upton 2013-4 (batter viewpoint)
I'll save some of the analysis for under the following chart, but because of the way I'm calculating this, the red shading on the outer half is really just because righties don't swing at those pitches that much (even BJ), so more get called strikes. What's brutal, though, is really the ring around the zone, and the relatively high strike percentages there. On inside pitches, the average called strike proportion is 9% for righties; for BJ, it's 14%. BJ is also at 14% called strike rate on outside pitches, but other righties only have 6% of those pitches called for strikes on them. BJ is also taking strikes at twice the rate on high pitches (8% versus 4%), and is at 10% (versus 6%) on low pitches. Again, it's a chicken-and-egg thing, maybe. Does BJ get more strikes called on him because he swings more? Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Or maybe he swings more at those pitches because umps keep burning him on non-strikes...
I'm not providing the BJ vs. RHB breakouts for overall strike likelihood or swing likelihood, because they're easy enough to eyeball. (If you really want to see them, ask in the comments?) But, here's my overall question answered:
Called Strike % (total strike % net of swing %) - BJ Upton 2013-4 vs. RHB 2014 (batter viewpoint)
The percentages here are a straight [RHB - BJ Upton] calculation. When talking about the actual strike zone, BJ takes a fewer strikes in the zone, because he likes to swing, especially at outside and lower half stuff. But what's rough is what the collective eye test probably confirms: the red ring of fail outside the zone. BJ swings at outside pitches less than his counterparts, and at outside pitches a little more, and yet outside pitches are called strikes on him at a higher rate than everyone else, and inside pitches (especially letter-high and in) as well.
To put it another way, let's focus on the inside pitch that's on the level of the highest part of the zone (A2, if going in ascending order down/across). 35% of pitches to righties in that location are strikes; 34% of pitches to BJ in that location are strikes. Righties, however, swing at 32% of pitches in that location - so nearly every strike thrown in that location to a righty is swung on. BJ, however, only swings at 19% of pitches in that sector. And yet, even though he doesn't swing at what's not a strike in that location, it's still called as one about 15% of the time.
- BJ swings at a lot of low pitches, but doesn't swing at inside strikes all that much. He is, however, more willing to chase outside.
- BJ gets hosed on balls, miserably. Of the 28 sectors covered above which aren't strikes, BJ's rate of called strikes is lower than collective righties' in just two of them, and those are pretty close to league average anyway. On the other hand, five of the 28 sectors feature cases where BJ's called strike rate exceeds that of righty batters by 10% or more. Overall, righty batters reap about a 5% chance that a ball taken near the zone will be called a strike; for BJ, it's double that at 10%.
- Taking outside half pitches at the belt or lower is an especially dangerous proposition for BJ, as is taking letter-high inside pitches. Part of what's frustrating about this is that while he swings at those outside pitches a lot, he gets burned even when he doesn't swing, but also that he rarely swings at inside pitches anyway, yet still gets burned on those way too much.
Bonus: One of the most frustrating things is when you get rung up on a full count. While I have all the charts for righty batters and BJ in full-count situations, below is the same BJ vs. the world chart in full count situations.
Called Strike % (total strike % net of swing %) - BJ Upton 2013-4 vs. RHB 2014, full counts only (batter viewpoint)
On inside pitches, righties see called strikes about 6% of the time on full counts; for BJ, it's 9%. On outside pitches, righties are rung up only 4% of the time; BJ is rung up 15% of the time! Overall, if a pitcher fails to locate within the zone and a righty batter takes a full count pitch, he's taking ball four 97% of the time. In BJ's case, he's walking back to the dugout in 8% of these cases, and there's a much higher chance if a pitcher misses away or up-and-in. BJ also seems to like taking borderline pitches in full counts relative to the league, at least if they're up and in or low and away. But he should probably stop doing that, because if they're strikes he's screwed, and if they're balls, he's still screwed and has a decent chance of not being allowed to go to first, despite doing the right thing at the dish.
So, I don't know if the umps hate BJ Upton for various reasons, or whether there's a feedback loop that has involves either him swinging more because those pitches are being called on him anyway, or those pitches being called on him because he's a free swinger. But either way, he's getting hosed more than righty batters. I initially wanted to see what the impact on his OBP might be if he actually got full-count pitches called balls if they were outside, rather than strikes, but BJ doesn't actually get into that many full counts, so the overall impact wouldn't be that large. But it could be the difference between winning and losing a game, so it sucks a decent amount that BJ's gotten screwed when taking out-of-zone pitches as a Brave at a rate beyond the screwjob rate of other righty hitters.
(More charts and stuff available on demand - just didn't want to clutter the post with additional info that isn't all that useful to the main point, though it might be interesting in its own right.)