KC Royals: Umpire John Hirschbeck Squeezed Johnny Cueto In ALCS Game 3

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KC Royals “ace” Johnny Cueto got bombed for eight runs less than three innings, as the Toronto Blue Jays bludgeoned the Royals 11-8 in Game 3 of the ALDS Monday night. But, it appears as if the debacle wasn’t entirely Johnny Cueto‘s fault. Instead, Pitch F/X data shows that umpire John Hirschbeck called a very different strike zone for Cueto than he did for Toronto starter Marcus Stroman.

After Kansas City Royals pitching held the Blue Jays to three runs  with zero home runs in two games in Kauffman Stadium, Toronto exploded within the friendly confines of the Rogers Centre for three dingers and 11 runs.

After the game, KC Royals coach Pete Grifol told Kansas City Star reporter Andy McCullough about Cueto’s second inning debacle:

"“He [Johnny Cueto] thought he made some good pitches that he didn’t get the call,” Grifol said."

Umpires often expand the strike zone in the playoffs, according to a story by CBS Sports writer Dayn Perry. Pitch F/X data from Monday night shows that only Toronto Marcus Stroman received this benefit. KC Royals starter Johnny Cueto, however, faced a comparatively narrow strike zone that cost him a critical two-run single by Ryan Goins with two outs in the second inning that started Toronto’s barrage of runs.

You can see the Pitch F/X data below (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

At first glance, it appears that home plate umpire John Hirschbeck did a good job. Cueto seems to have been robbed of a strike on one lonely green dot on the upper left of the strike zone. That pitch, which was clearly inside the strike zone box, was called a ball.

But, Hirschbeck job looks good only until you compare Johnny Cueto’s strike zone to the one he granted Toronto Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman in the same game (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

Notice all of the bright red dots outside the strike zone box? Those were called strikes Hirschbeck gifted to Marcus Stroman. I count at least four low pitches and three balls off the left edge of the plate where Stroman got called strikes. Notice that Stroman had no called balls inside Pitch F/X’s strike box.

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Either Toronto catcher Russell Martin‘s pitch framing ability won Marcus Stroman those strikes, or Hirshbeck expanded his strike zone only for low pitches and pitches on the left edge. Whatever the reason, KC Royals starter Johnny Cueto had a significantly smaller zone than Marcus Stroman on Monday night.

It’s also true that Marcus Stroman threw 94 pitches compared to Cueto’s 69. He also gave up four earned runs compared to Johnny Cueto’s eight. Could the expanded strike zone he received explain part of the difference?

It’s hard to know. But, if I’m Johnny Cueto and the KC Royals, I’m not happy about it.

Next: Five Things About Royals Game Two Comeback

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