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Paul Nauert was pretty bad last night

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I keep welcoming our new robot umpire overlords, but for some reason they still aren't coming

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

When umpiring is good, no one notices. When umpiring is iffy, you get a comment or two, but so long as it's not horribly biased towards one team, we tend to skate past it as a regular, if unpleasant part, of the sport we all love. But when umpiring is awful, even when it's during a West Coast trip for an East Coast team and most people are safely asleep by the third or fourth inning, well, I think it deserver a special callout.

Paul Nauert was thrillingly, head-scratchingly, rage-inducingly off the mark last night. I guess everyone has off days in their chosen profession now and then, and it's not like his off day cost someone a life or anything of the sort. But man, was it a terror to behold.

The below is Fangraphs' plot of Nauert's strike zone from last night.

Two things should jump out at you: first, that's a lot of pitches that are being called strikes when they're off the plate. Second, and what's weirder for Nauert, is that there are a lot of pitches around knee-level that aren't actually low, but are being called balls anyway.

Here are the specific should-have-been-balls-but-were-strikes, of the off-the-plate variety:

  • Alex Wood to Joc Pederson, strike on a 1-1 pitch
  • Zack Greinke to AJ Pierzynski, strikeout on a 2-2 pitch
  • Greinke to Freddie Freeman, strike on the first pitch of the at-bat
  • Greinke to Nick Markakis, strikeout on a 2-2 pitch
  • Wood to Pederson, strike on a 1-0 pitch
  • Greinke to Juan Uribe, strike on a 1-1 pitch
Now, sometimes a zone isn't an issue, if it's consistent. It's not how I'd prefer baseball to be played, but if batters, pitchers, and catchers need to adjust to a different zone for the night, I think that can be workable within the broader game narrative. But here's the thing: 22 pitches were thrown in the vicinity of the area where Nauert was missing those calls. Six of those 22 were called strikes, meaning that batters taking pitches in that area had more than a 25 percent chance that they would be called strikes. Greinke got two outs on bad calls, and two additional gift strikes; Alex Wood got only the gift strikes.

That wasn't the only area of concern for Nauert, though it was one that was consistent with his character. Nauert is known to be a pitcher's umpire: he calls, fairly consistently, about one percent more strikes than average. That may not seem like a big deal, but given that only about 30 percent of pitches are called strikes to begin with, it means he actually calls strikes at about 3% more than average. Given that, it's not quite clear what was happening with the pitches low in the zone that were called balls. Specifically, it's uncharacteristic in the context of this:


Paul Nauert heat map vs. LHH
Paul Nauert heat map vs. RHH

The scale on those charts is percentage relative to league average: basically, the brownish tan stuff towards the bottom of the zone indicates that Nauert calls low strikes 20ish percent more often than league average. And there's one very clear location against lefties down and away that he loves to call a strike, even though it isn't.

So then, how to explain:

  • Adam Liberatore to Freeman, 1-0 pitch called a ball
  • Wood to Adrian Gonzalez, first pitch called a ball
  • Wood to Howie Kendrick, first pitch called a ball
  • Greinke to Wood, 1-2 pitch called a ball (should've been a strikeout)
  • Wood to Greinke, 1-2 pitch called a ball (should've been a strikeout)
Special mention goes to these two missed calls, which were closer to the middle of the zone than being outside of it:
  • Jason Grilli to Alberto Callaspo, 2-2 pitch called a ball (should've been a game-ending strikeout)
  • Wood to Chris Heisey, 0-1 pitch called a ball
Overall, 16 pitches were taken in the vicinity of these seven balls-that-were-strikes, meaning pitchers hitting the zone in that area had over a 40 percent chance to have a ball called on them instead.

Lastly, Nauert also denied Wood another strikeout on a 0-2 pitch to Gonzalez that was up and away, but still within the confines the zone. Of the 279 pitches thrown in the game, 14 were mischaracterized, meaning Nauert whiffed on five percent of the pitches thrown. But again, 121 pitches in the game were swung at, leaving just 158 to be taken for balls or strikes, and Nauert missed the call on nine percent of those.

Now, I don't want to be really unfair to Paul Nauert, at least not with a partial night's sleep and the emotional distance that comes with it. He has a hard job, and I wouldn't be surprised if the collective sleepiness of Braves fans wore him down a bit too. To me, that's all the more reason to bring technological assistance into home plate umpiring: his job can be made easier, and there's no reason to hang him out to dry like this on a night when he's clearly off.

Coda: We know that MLB currently reviews umpire performance and awards the better umpires prestigious gigs like service at All-Star and playoff games. As the Fangraphs article I linked above indicates, Nauert's actually been one of the worse umpires in terms of calling an average amount of strikes, and as the heatmaps show (taken from this other Fangraphs article), he's not exactly good at hewing to the contours of the zone either. Then, you might be surprised (or perhaps not at all) surprised to know, that Nauert's worked five playoff series and an All-Star game, including division series in 2013 and 2014. I'm not sure what criteria the MLB umpire reviewers are using to determine who gets the playoff umpiring gigs, but they may want to rethink them. Or just bring in the robots. Y'know, whatever.

Note: Pitch info taken from the Fangraphs Game Graphs function, which appears to differ slightly from Pitch F/X readings. I checked individual Pitch F/X readings and strikezone maps by pitchers from the game and they seemed fairly consistent, but there may be a case or two where Pitch F/X disagrees, such that the results here may be off in either direction by a pitch or two. However, given that many of Nauert's calls were off by by 0.5-1.0 feet, this is less likely than in other cases. For example, see Zack Greinke's plot from last night here, and note how far off the plate his outside called strikes are.