Thursday, August 11, 2011

Analyzing The Strike Three Call

I have been to many a game with SosG AC where he spends his time in the stands perfecting his strike three call. It's a hilarious comedy routine, sort of like watching a video of the batting stance guy, except about strikeout signs.

Well today is AC's lucky day. Behold, an analysis of umpires' strike three signage tendencies, from today's WSJ. An excerpt:

The manual for professional baseball umpires explains how to handle just about every on-field situation. From the backwoods of rookie ball to the grandeur of the big leagues, there is little room for creativity from these men in blue, who are largely invisible.

But a few times during each game, when the third strike whizzes past the hitter and pops the catcher's glove, the spotlight shines on the umpire standing behind home plate. For that brief moment, an ump can take center stage and, in some cases, exhibit true artistry.

An analysis of all 68 full-time Major League umpires' strike-three calls reveals 68 unique styles, running the gamut from Gary Darling's subtle fist pump to Tom Hallion's violent, Mike Tyson-esque punchout. Though nothing in the guidebook requires umpires to devise elaborate gestures, the called strike three injects a splash of color into the sport.

"It's kind of like a pitcher's signature pitch," said New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey. "The strike-three call has always been the one thing the umpire can make his own."

As time goes by, umpires refine their strike-three calls, adapting and tweaking their signals even after they reach the majors. Wally Bell, a big-league ump since 1993, seems to change his strike-three call from game to game, and sometimes from inning to inning. Larry Barnett, who umped in the American League for three decades, said he went through "10 or 15 different ones" before settling on "a mechanic," as they call the move, that he felt comfortable with toward the end of his career.

Among the 68 current umpires, 59 (86.8%) typically employ one of two straightforward approaches for calling strike three, punching either straight ahead toward the pitcher or out toward the side. But within that framework, each ump adds his own touches. As a result, perceptive fans can identify the umpire working the plate by his strike-three call. (Umpires usually let swinging strikeouts speak for themselves.)

For instance, Dan Iassogna (a middle-puncher) shifts his weight far into the left-hand batter's box when making his call -- a move that would probably go over well on "Dancing with the Stars." Fellow middle-puncher Tim Tschida kicks his left leg into the air on strike three like Jackie Chan in the movies, while side-puncher Brian Runge swings his right arm high over his head before punching across his body.

Even those calls look mundane compared with the remaining nine umpires' mechanics. They defy any attempt at categorization. Bob Davidson's signal resembles a disco move, as he starts his call by pointing his finger toward the sky like John Travolta did in "Saturday Night Fever." Mr. Hallion became a YouTube sensation last October, when his emphatic called strike three for the final out of the 2010 National League championship series went viral. (Mr. Hallion makes an explosive 135-degree twist, turning his back to the right-handed batter's box on his punchout.)

"Every time I see Tom I tell him, 'I will not have you go 'Hiii-Yahhhhhh' on me tonight, that's my goal," said San Diego Padres infielder Orlando Hudson, imitating the motion as he spoke. "He's got the best strike-three call in the game."


QuadSevens said...

Awesome! We all have our homework assignment now.

Nostradamus said...

The illustrations are on the skinny side for umps, no?

Steve Sax said...

That graphic is frickin' awesome. In the print edition (yes, I still get the print edition!), it's black and white and much less compelling.

Jason said...

I like the full list in the online article.

* All three umpires named Mike use the same motion (Points forward with right arm first).
* I really want to see Fieldin Culbreth's move (Kicks left leg high in the air as he punches). I'm picturing the Karate Kid crane kick.
* The description for Mark Wegner sounds kind of dirty (More of a puller than a puncher).

Jason said...

The quote from Jeff Nelson is pretty good, too: "There's a fine line between good taste and Leslie Nielsen"

DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy said...

I always got a kick out of this, don't umps tell hitters they don't want to be "shown up" by them so they kick um out? Well some of the more flamboyant strike 3 calls appear to be "showing up" the hitter IMO so they are full of it, now let's go heckle an ump somewhere.