Was Larry Vanover Unfair to the Cubs in Game One?

Larry Vanover

Passionate Chicago Cubs fans questioned the strike zone of the home plate umpire when their team finally made it back to the World Series after Corey Kluber’s fantastic performance. Ian York, as he has done in the past, used PITCHf/x to investigate the strike zone of Larry Vanover to determine if Chicago’s fans have a legitimate claim or if the umpire deserves credit for a job well done.

In Game One of the 2016 World Series, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber outpitched the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester en route to a 6-0 win.  Some Cubs fans complained that home plate umpire Larry Vanover’s strike zone was inconsistent, with Kluber getting some calls that Lester did not.

When asking strike zone questions, it’s important to look at the strike zone that umpires universally call, rather than the rule-book zone. The de facto strike zone, the one batters and pitchers are actually used to seeing, approximates the rule-book zone, but has rounder corners, bulges on the sides, and is slightly different for right- and left-handed batters. By using PITCHf/x to locate all of 2016’s called strikes and balls, and drawing a line through the region where those calls were equally likely, we can outline this de facto strike zone and ask if Vanover’s calls fit with players’ expectations.

Here are the called strikes (in red) and balls (blue) that Cleveland batters saw.  The de facto strike zone is the polygon in the middle:

Cleveland’s left-handed batters saw 39 pitches, but only 20 of them were called by the umpire, and all of those calls look pretty reasonable.  (Pitches that fall right on the line have about a 50-50 chance of being called a ball or a strike, since that’s how the line was defined, so it’s hard to call those wrong or right.  Note also that PITCHf/x is not 100% accurate.  At best it is probably only accurate to within an inch or so, and the system occasionally makes data errors that are glaringly wrong.)  

Batting right-handed, Cleveland’s offense saw three or perhaps four extra strikes called on them, two or three just below the zone and one outside.  There was one ball called well inside the zone (on the bottom outside edge) and one just below the top of the zone that should probably have been a strike.  

Here’s the same graphic for the Cubs batters:

Left-handed batters had one extra ball handed to them (near the top of the zone) and no extra strikes. Right-handed batters received one, and perhaps two, extra balls, and no extra strikes.

Overall, Vanover called a fairly good game; of 178 calls, he made between five and seven errors. That’s 96.1% to 97.2% accuracy, which today is a typical level for an umpire.  All in all,  Cubs pitchers came out slightly ahead, with more extra strikes than balls, while Cleveland pitchers had no extra strikes given to them, but did have two strikes called balls. Although this look at Vanover’s strike zone doesn’t account for the context – a missed strike call on a 3-2 count is more important than on 0-2 – it’s hard to argue that Lester was particularly harmed by the home plate umpire in this game.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork

Featured image courtesy of Nuccio Dinuzzo.

About Ian York 208 Articles
Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

1 Comment

  1. I believe your analysis for the full game may be very accurate and would give the umpire a good rating. However do your analysis over just the first 4 innings and then from the 5th inning on. After Lester complained, he started getting the farther outside strikes called and kluber wasn’t getting them any more. By that time the game was over and the strike zone no longer mattered. Plus I have never seen a strike called that went over the opposite batters box white chalk. Not sure which pitcher got that call. It might have actually been Lester. Averages over 9 innings can mask inconsistency between innings. 7 innings of perfect calls but just 2 innings of 80% accuracy will still give you a good game of 95.5% accuracy. If the 80% is in the 1st innings and a pitcher is getting a widened strike zone he is set for the rest of the game. He can then make batters chase bad pitches after that. Kluber still pitched a great game. But he wouldn’t have had as many strike outs without a little help from the umpire. The other games I felt were more consistent. As for the Cubs their bats are cold and the Indians bats are hot. The real difference.

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