KC Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez received an apology from ALCS Game 5 home plate umpire Dan Iassogna for a blown strike three call against Jose Bautista on Wednesday. The missed call led to Volquez walking Bautista to load the bases with no outs in the pivotal sixth inning of Game 5, which Toronto ended up winning 7-1.
Many Kansas City Royals fans on Twitter complained that Volquez was getting squeezed the entire inning, in which he hit one hitter and walked three to force in a run before KC manager Ned Yost called for reliever Kelvin Herrera.
The inning proved to be the turning point of Wednesday’s game, in which Toronto extended their precarious 1-0 lead into a 5-0 bulge. The win allowed the Blue Jays to stave off elimination in the ALCS, but they still trail the KC Royals three games to two in the best-of-seven series.
So, were the complaints accurate? Was Edinson Volquez forced to hit a smaller strike zone than Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada? Fans have to wonder after Kansas City Royals Game 3 starter Johnny Cueto received a much smaller strike zone than Toronto starter Marcus Stroman from home plate umpire John Hirschbeck on Monday.
The short answer is: yes. Pitch F/X data shows that Dan Iassogna did indeed call strikes for Toronto’s Marco Estrada off the left edge that KC Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez did not get. However, when isolated, Iassogna’s home plate calls with Volquez on the mound look pretty good.
You can see Edinson Volquez’s Pitch F/X data from Game 5 below (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
As you can see from the chart key in the top right corner, bright red dots are called strikes and light green dots are balls. Note the the strike zone is from the catcher’s perspective, so that a right-handed batter would swing from the left side of the diagram.
At most, Volquez lost two pitches inside the strike zone to called balls, and one of them is on the right edge of the strike box. However, Volquez didn’t get any close calls off the right edge despite a large grouping of close pitches just off the plate.
Iassogna’s strike zone for Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada, however, looks a bit different (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
According to Estrada’s chart, he lost one high strike on the upper right edge. However, Marco Estrada’s chart shows a cluster of four bright red strikes a fair distance off the left edge. He also has one high strike outside the upper left edge, and one low strike just below the lower left edge.
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The last two pitches were close, so complaining about them might be nit-picking. However, the pitches off the left edge suggests Estrada enjoyed a wider strike zone than KC Royals starter Edinson Volquez.
My article about crew chief John Hirschbeck squeezing Kansas City Royals ace Johnny Cueto in Game 3 similarly showed Toronto getting strikes off the right edge of the plate. So, what’s going on here?
My first thought was that Toronto catchers might be better at “pitch framing” or “stealing strike calls” than KC Royals backstop Salvador Perez. However, I will note that Russell Martin caught Game 3 and Dioner Navarro caught Game 5 for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Looking at Baseball Prospectus’ pitch framing rankings, you see Russell Martin ranked sixth overall, while Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez checks in far behind at 74. What blows up the idea that the difference is a pitch framing issue is that Dioner Navarro ranks behind Perez at no. 85.
These facts suggest that either: 1) John Hirschbeck’s crew tends to see strikes off the left edge better than the right edge, or 2) the home plate umpires are responding to the intense home playoff atmosphere.
It will be interesting to see if switching to KC Royals home park Kauffman Stadium for Games 6 and 7 has any effect on this issue.