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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Baffling strike zone led to Cain's demise

Matt Cain had a few words for home plate umpire Tony Randazzo as he departed Monday's game in the sixth inning -- nothing too disrespectful, but more than what the stoic leader of the Giants starting rotation typically has to say about an umpire's strike zone.

Cain's precise, orderly and efficient performance against the Arizona Diamondbacks had collapsed in a heap in just a matter of minutes, a rally built on parade of singles and a walk, marinated in a stew of frustration.

Cain's pitching line portrays an unacceptable performance -- 5 1/3 innings, eight hits, five runs, three walks and five strikeouts in the Giants' 5-2 loss -- but, in this case, truth lies somewhere between statistics and facts on the ground.

Let's just say, if he had gotten a few of the calls that went against him, the hue of Cain's performance, and possibly the outcome of the game, would have been a shade brighter. And the typically unflappable, reliable and steady Cain wouldn't have gone all combustible on us.

Here's how that sixth inning unfolded:

Cain couldn't blame anyone but himself when he gave up a leadoff single to Justin Upton: it came on an 0-2 pitch, and though it was not a bad curve, he left it up above the knees and over the plate, and Upton, the hottest hitter in the game, jumped on it for a line drive single to left. An 0-2 hit is inexcusable, even to the hottest hitter in the game.

Who knows? That may have unsettled Cain, a perfectionist at heart. But immediately, Cain's frustration came through against the next hitter, Chris Young. He threw a knee-high fastball on the corner on the first pitch that Randazzo missed, and again on the third pitch en route to a four-pitch walk. Cain, who rarely shows emotion on the mound, was almost beside himself at the hand Randazzo had just dealt him.

The seeds of Cain's frustrations actually were planted an inning earlier. You could see through his body language that Cain could not believe two of Randazzo's calls that led to Ryan Roberts' walk to lead off the fifth inning. A one-out jam-job single to left by Gerardo Parra on a perfectly placed fastball on his hands added to the frustration, so there were two base runners that Cain felt should not have been out there.

After a sacrifice bunt, he pitched around Willie Bloomquist -- a move borne out an inning later -- to load the bases. He came back to snuff out the rally with a big strikeout, getting Kelly Johnson on a beautiful change up, keeping the Giants' 1-0 lead intact.

But in the sixth, his exasperation began to boil over. Immediately after the walk to Young to put runners at first and second with no outs, Cain paid for it on the first pitch to Miguel Montero, who singled through the hole on the right side to tie the game, 1-1.

Cain thought he had the next hitter, Ryan Roberts struck out on a front door cutter, knee high and on the inside corner, but Randazzo wasn't buying, Cain, once again showing shock and disbelief.

At this point, I'm surprised that pitching coach Dave Righetti didn't pay a visit to the mound to get Cain to regather himself -- if he was watching what I was watching. He didn't, and Cain didn't. The next pitch, a 91 MPH fastball, he left up and over the plate, in a t-ball location. Roberts obliged with a line drive RBI single for a 2-1 lead.

Cain recovered to get the rookie slugger Paul Goldschmidt, who'd hit him hard twice, to strike out, and jumped ahead of Gerardo Parra 0-and-2. But he couldn't put him away, and wound up giving up an insulting seeing-eye slow roller through the right side. It got past a diving second baseman Jeff Keppinger, who'd been bunched over toward the bag in double play depth, and the Diamondbacks now led, 3-1.

Both runners moved up on Carlos Beltran's ill-advised throw to the plate, a key to Cain's ultimate fate, because one out later, Willie Bloomquist jumped on his first pitch for a line drive single to center to drive in the final two runs of the rally, ending Cain's night.

It was strange to see Cain go right after Bloomquist after how carefully he pitched to him in the fifth. He pitched around him to load the bases, and escaped that jam by striking out Johnson. He could have employed the same strategy in the sixth. But the fact is, Cain's head wasn't screwed on properly at that point, driven to distraction by the confounding strike zone of Tony Randazzo.


  1. You bring up an interesting related matter. The almost infinitesimal difference between success and failure.

    Umpire strike zones have a disproportionate and inappropriate impact on game outcomes. You cited several questionable calls in just two innings that probably dictated the final results.

    Much of baseball lore emanates from the bottom of the cliche bin, and the following makes me want to break large pieces of furniture.

    "Pitchers and hitters don't care what the strike zone is as long as it is consistent".

    No! No! Helllllllll NOOOOOOOOO!

    I believe this mindless repetition of something so harmful to the real integrity of the game to be a canard of the highest order. Baseball is predicated upon a strike zone. Without one, baseball does not exist. So it seems to me that the best strike zone is the most accurate one, not a wrong one that is supposedly acceptable because somebody subjectively deems it to be "consistent".

    What the game needs and is entitled to is a strike zone as it is written in the rulebook without being intrusive or impeding the flow of the game such as instant replay does. The means to do this electronically and visually have been in place and available to tv viewers for years.

    The process is simple. Just add an electronic voice to the process and run it into the homeplate umpires' ear bud.

    Run it through his ipod if need be. This simple process removes the single biggest flaw in sports officiating; the inevitable disasters that turn a game around because of bad strike zone calls.

    What the rulebook clearly spells out to be an objective measurement(the strike zone)has been relegated to the same subjective judgment methods as ice dancing competitions. The only baseball is missing is a couple of East German judges.

    And unlike replay, the game never misses a beat with the aural prompted strikezone. It is invisible to fan and player alike, and makes for 99.999 percent accuracy, allowing for the inevitable equipment failures along the way.

    A collateral benefit would be the re-training of the eye by the electronic strike zone, so in the event of equipment failure, the ump's strike zone would have been retooled so that his strike zone would more likely replicate the electronic one.

    It makes the game fairer, by far. And if there was ever a game that is meant to be measured objectively, it is baseball. Because it is in fact a game of inches, fairness demands as much accuracy as possible.

    There is nothing fair about bad strike zone calls at all. Bad strike zones ruin innings, ruin games, ruin seasons, ruin careers. I see nothing endearing, whatsoever in any of that.

    More tension and animosity has been created by bad strike zone calls than any other fixable officiating deficiency that I can recall.

    Refusing to change is not maintaining tradition. Using a rusty scalpel to render living flesh under General Anesthesia is not tradition either, particularly when arthroscopic surgery with a local is indicated.

    And after far too many bad strike zone calls, I sometimes feel like I've been put under by General Anesthesia.

  2. Good post, Joe. Thanks for voicing your perspective.