The Oakland A’s played a game Monday night, but we’re not going to talk about most of it here. We’re fast forwarding straight to the 9th inning.
The box score says the A’s lost 3-2 to the Texas Rangers, and it says that relief pitcher Rafael Montero earned the save. In reality, the credit should go to home plate umpire Lance Barrett, who unleashed one of the most appallingly terrible strike zones in recent memory only in the top of the 9th inning. Oakland loaded the bases in spite of the disadvantage, but were robbed of the chance to complete another of their signature late comebacks against a closer that was doing everything in his power to blow the save.
Before we go any further, I get it. Nobody likes to hear whining about umpiring. It’s the weakest thing to complain about when your team loses. But we also all agree that bad umpiring does exist somewhere in the universe, and there does reach a point where it can’t be ignored. That’s what happened in this inning.
And yes, it’s possible to blame the umpire and also acknowledge some things your team did wrong along the way. We’ll get to that part. But it doesn’t absolve an absolute dereliction of duty by the blue.
Finally, this isn’t just me talking. Broadcasters Ray Fosse and Glen Kuiper, who are not known for publicly criticizing umps, commented repeatedly on the bogus calls. So did Brodie Brazil and former MLB pitcher Dontrelle Willis on the post-game show. Travis Blackley, another actual former MLB pitcher, was incensed on Twitter. This was legitimately bad.
OK, here we go.
Setting the scene
In order to talk about a strike zone, you have to establish context. The precise box of the zone is less important than the precedents set throughout the game, and consistency is more important than the specifications of the rulebook.
Here is Rangers starter Lance Lynn’s pitch chart from the first six innings. The orange dots are called strikes, and the blue dots are balls.
And Jesús Luzardo’s chart.
Pretty standard zone. No complaints. A couple strikes off the corners, one for each pitcher, and a bit of shakiness at the top of the zone, but this is fine. The zones for relievers Jonathan Hernandez (TEX) and Yusmeiro Petit (OAK) looked the same. Those starters’ charts have a lot of dots, but I looked through each team inning-by-inning and there’s nothing unusual hiding among the dense areas.
Here’s what Rafael Montero’s zone looked like, for the final batter of the 8th and then the 9th.
Suddenly there was a whole new second zone, down in the basement of the actual zone. There were more gifts in 31 pitches by Montero than 245 offerings by all the other pitchers combined. The closer was given eight called strikes, and only one was within the traditional zone. Maybe three could be reasonably considered close enough. That’s still less than half.
And this all happened in the most crucial moment of the game, with the A’s mounting exactly the 9th-inning comeback that they’ve successfully authored frequently throughout this summer, including twice against this very Rangers club earlier in August.
Montero entered in the 8th, with two outs and a man on. His first pitch to Stephen Piscotty was several inches low, in a location that hadn’t been called a single time all night and wasn’t ever called again. However, Montero did give Piscotty three pitches in the zone, and Piscotty swung through the last one for a strikeout. No complaint about the result, but still — this pitch isn’t visible in the chart above because it’s blocked by so many blue dots in the exact same location.
On to the 9th. Tony Kemp led off, running a 2-2 count despite zero pitches hitting the zone. Still, he managed to single, so he got on base anyway.
Next up was Khris Davis, called on as a pinch-hitter for catcher Sean Murphy. This was a questionable move by the A’s, which we’ll get to later. Davis swung at both pitches and flew out, so there’s nothing to see here.
Next was Marcus Semien. Again, 3-2 count despite zero pitches in the zone. Again, he singled anyway. Oakland was mounting a comeback despite playing against both the Rangers and Barrett.
Next was Ramon Laureano, who drew a five-pitch walk. The one strike (on 3-0) was legit, but two of the balls had been called strikes to Laureano’s teammates. Even within this inning the zone was all over the place.
Despite all this, the bases were still loaded with only one out, and the two Matts coming up. The A’s were a fly ball (OR A WALK) away from tying it, or a single away from taking the lead.
Matt Olson is in a slump right now, going 3-for-28 with 11 strikeouts entering this at-bat, but even cold hitters can stand there and take a walk from wild pitchers. Especially someone like Olson who, y’know, ranks tied for seventh in all of MLB in walks this year.
That should be a 3-1 count. Instead it was a four-pitch strikeout. Olson swung at Pitch 3, the only one in the zone. Pitches 1 and 4 were not called for any other pitcher in this game, not even once. Remember, just a walk would have tied the game.
Now there were two outs, and a sac fly wouldn’t get the job done anymore. The batter was Matt Chapman, and he wasn’t waiting around to find out how far the zone might grow. He took a ball, then fouled off a pitch in the zone and a pitch way below it. Does he swing at that third pitch if he hadn’t seen what happened to his teammates before him? Or if the game hadn’t been artificially left up to him as the final chance? If Montero had officially walked the bases loaded like his pitches dictated, how much more likely would he have been to lay something over the plate just to get a strike on the board?
On 1-2, Chapman swung at an actual strike and flew out. Game over. Barrett records his first career save, because Montero sure as hell didn’t do a darn thing to earn it.
Left on deck at the end of the game? Mark Canha, who had recorded the game-winning RBI in the 9th or 10th inning in three of the team’s previous 10 games. Basically the current clutchiest late-game hitter in the sport, for what that’s worth. And he already had two hits and an RBI in this game.
Now, let’s not completely let the A’s off the hook. They didn’t need to wait until the 9th to mount a rally, after putting just three total runners on base from the 4th-8th innings (15-of-18 retired), and failing to even get to second on any of those occasions.
I also disagree with the decision to pinch-hit Davis for Sean Murphy. Fun fact: Murphy is virtually tied for the highest exit velocity on the team. Only Chapman is hitting the ball as hard as he is. The only regular player on the current roster hitting the ball weaker than Davis is Tony Kemp. Davis, with all due respect for a player I adore with all my heart, has been lost at the plate for more than a year now with little sign of bouncing back. He might yet do so! But the 9th inning of this game was not the time to test it out. Murphy needed to hit here.
(And if you’re worried about a GIDP by the catcher, don’t, because Davis has exactly as many as Murphy this year. And a strikeout? They have almost identical rates. There was no advantage at all to this switch, just a batter who hits the ball 7 mph weaker on average. This wasn’t even the same Arlington ballpark where Davis has so notoriously dominated the Rangers in the past. And Davis did homer against Montero in 2017, but is that really relevant anymore?)
Finally, Olson has to swing at that last pitch. No, it wasn’t a strike at all, but at that point it had become clear that Barrett was suddenly calling anything more than an inch off the ground, and Olson needed to adapt, expand his own perception of the zone, and protect with two strikes in a runner-on-third, one-out situation where you absolutely cannot strike out.
But none of that absolves Barrett. Every inning counts the same, and a 9th-inning choke job by a wild reliever is a real thing that happens all the time. You don’t get to ignore highway robbery just because a team waited until the 9th, because that’s simply not how baseball works. You have to win it until the final pitch, something the A’s have proven more than any team this year (and last year, but in the other direction, when their own pen couldn’t hold a lead).
Travis Blackley, former A’s pitcher and current diehard A’s fan, was furious. We can have our opinions, but this is one person who actually knows what he’s talking about.
Lance Barrett was decent all game to an extent. Then the 9th rolls around and he couldn’t get the game over fast enough. Do these umpires get reviewed? They should get a pay dock every time they miss a call! That way the best umpires would get paid the highest! Simple fix!— Travis Blackley (@Travis_Blackley) August 25, 2020
How many pitches did Montero actually throw in the strike zone? I’m actually pissed off! Knowing some of the bullshit umpiring I’ve put up with in my career to see this bloke get that many balls called strikes in his 1 1/3 inn. It doesn’t make sense! Bring on the robot zone!— Travis Blackley (@Travis_Blackley) August 25, 2020
One, Travis. He threw one firmly in the zone, of the eight that got called.
Robot umps now!
This has gotten ridiculous. MLB, led by commissioner Rob Manfred, has shown a willingness to make drastic, fundamental changes to the sport in the quest to spur further interest. They’ve messed with things that no one asked for, and will continue to do so. We now have a DH in the NL, a free runner on second base in extra innings, a 16-team postseason field, and a three-batter minimum for pitchers. Three of those are supposedly temporary measures for this year only, but don’t kid yourself, they’re not going away. This was just a convenient time to force them through during an emergency.
And yet, they simply won’t even begin to broach the idea of fixing the one thing that every single fan (aka CUSTOMER) would actually like — improving the umpiring. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly difficult job for any human; I umped Little League for a decade and even that was tough, so I can’t imagine doing it for adult pros. So why are we still asking humans to do it in the year 2020? We’ve had the technology for robot ball/strike calls for years, maybe decades. This doesn’t even need to cost anyone their job (there can still be a HP ump to signal the actual call, and judge plays at the plate) and maybe could even add a job (a booth ump relaying the pitch calls to the HP ump).
This is such a no-brainer that I can’t even believe it. Nobody on planet Earth except maybe the umps themselves would be opposed to it, and with all due respect to them, zero people tune in to see the umps work. We’re here for the players, and the umps are strictly support staff to enhance our experience watching those players. I genuinely don’t care what they think about this topic, you shouldn’t either, and neither should MLB. The umpires are not in charge of this sport, and if the geysers among them want to strike, there are literally hundreds of hungry young ones in the minors to take their place. And it doesn’t even matter if they have good zones, because they won’t be asked to call that anymore.
And if you’re not going to take it to that full extent of robot umps, then at least monitor the human ones. Penalize the ones who blatantly blow calls, just as a team would send down a player who performs poorly. Demote the 10% who do the worst work, like you’d relegate a bad European soccer team. A universe where Angel Hernandez still has a spot as an ump is one where job performance is simply not a factor in employment. And it needs to be, because it makes the game worse when it’s not.
A’s fans invested three hours in an entertainment product, to see MLB players decide a game between them. We were robbed of that experience, because the umpire took over and imposed his will right when it mattered most. This must stop. I don’t even need the A’s to have won this game — they may well have lost anyway. But I needed to see the players make that call, not the ump.
Reminder: Here’s what happened the previous night, leading off the 10th inning, courtesy of Jim Reynolds:
Enough already. If the best, most exciting moment of the game isn’t going to be taken seriously, then there’s no incentive for me to watch everything that led up to it. You want to attract the young fans? Stop trying to speed things up, and just get them right instead. Kids are really, really good at using the internet to see and share your mistakes, and laugh at you mercilessly for each one, and then go spend their time and money elsewhere. So make fewer of those mistakes, using a method that requires zero new inventions and zero lost jobs.
Robot. Umps. Now.
Rest of game
Alright, quick look at the other eight innings.
This was the A’s first trip to Globe Life Field, an upgrade that was necessary because the old Globe Life Park was *checks notes* roughly half as old as the Coliseum? Sheesh.
Lance Lynn started for the Rangers, and Jesús Luzardo for Oakland. Both were quality, with Lynn going six innings and Luzardo getting two outs in the 7th. They both struck out at least a batter per frame, walked a pair (plus a HBP for Lynn), and allowed a homer. This was two excellent starters both reasonably on their games, but Texas managed just one extra run against Luzardo.
All of the scoring for both teams happened in the first two innings. Canha notched an RBI single in the 1st, but the Rangers responded with a two-run single by Todd Frazier. Piscotty homered in the 2nd to tie it up, but Isiah Kiner-Falefa homered right back to retake the lead.
That was it. There were some scattered baserunners the rest of the night, but nothing resembling a serious rally until the 9th. Sure, the A’s couldn’t make anything happen in the middle innings, but neither could the Rangers. I see every one of your “but the A’s could have taken care of business earlier” responses and raise you a “and the Rangers could have put this away earlier with one more rally and not left it up a one-run save in the 9th.” It’s a two-way street, and both teams’ cars were sitting in idle from the 3rd-8th.
Even though this wasn’t Luzardo’s most successful outing statistically, the pitcher called it the best start of his career due to his ability to recover from some early runs and settle down for the rest of the game (via insider Martin Gallegos). He was particularly excited about his slider, and the numbers agree — in 30 uses, he got nine swinging strikes (against just seven balls) and several pieces of weak contact (but also two hard-hit balls in the 7th).
In the lineup, Semien had an encouraging day by reaching base four times. Canha and Piscotty stayed hot, each with two hits and an RBI, but that was the whole wad. Kemp had his single in the 9th, but otherwise there were just a few walks and a 1-for-8 mark with runners in scoring position.
In other words, it came down to the 9th inning because the A’s didn’t hit enough. But the 9th inning counts too and they did hit then, but were denied their rightful chance at another comeback.
Try again tomorrow
The A’s are still tied for the best record in the American League, and halfway through the season they’ve won two-thirds of their games. Every single person on Athletics Nation will take that overall standing, no matter how frustrating this game was.
They go at it again Tuesday, with Sean Manaea starting for the A’s and right-hander Kyle Gibson for the Rangers.