We’ve all seen it now. Ben Zobrist flipped his bat and headed towards first base, Joe Nathan put his hand on his head in frustration, and Evan Longoria was coming to the plate- but then home plate umpire Marty Foster called Zobrist out on strikes on a pitch that no one in the ballpark possibly thought was a strike. A call like that should never come about at the highest level of baseball. But now that it did happen, it begs any obvious question: how did Foster possibly see that as a strike?
Monday’s game was far from the first time a pitch well outside the strike zone was called strike three to end the game. However, just about every other time had a common thread: the pitch, even if it was well off the plate, was framed extremely well. The player best known for such maneuvers in the Rays’ very own Jose Molina, most famously on this play against Cody Ross and the Boston Red Sox. If A.J. Pierzynski had frame that curveball very well, maybe he makes it look like a strike and Rays fans are frustrated but certainly understand where the call came from given what Molina has done for the Rays the last two seasons. But in this case, Pierzynski did a terrible job framing the pitch, making it look much worse than it really was and something that almost any umpire would have called a ball (and of course, Foster would have with a second chance). How in the world did Foster call that pitch a strike with that being the case?
Maybe what Foster did was, in fact, the exact opposite of what Molina did to Cody Ross: instead of a great frame making a ball into a strike, maybe Foster overcompensated for Pierzynski’s bad frame and that skewed his perception of where the ball really ended up. An umpire’s job is to call balls and strikes as pitches cross to the plate and they never want to be fooled by a deft catcher making pitches look better or a poor one making pitches look worse. There will always be borderline pitches, but umpires want to be the ones making the call, not giving way to a catcher framing the pitch. If you watch the pitch enough times, you can see that Nathan’s breaking ball was really a strike until just before it crossed the plate before breaking down and away and well out of the zone. In watching the pitch and not Pierzynski, as an umpire should, Foster lost track of where the pitch ended and Pierzynski catching the ball began. Had the pitch stayed in the strike zone for a split-second longer, it would have been a strike- and Pierzynski catching it badly wouldn’t have changed that. That’s what Foster told Joe Maddon when Maddon came out to argue. Foster saw the pitch just slightly wrong and in calling it a strike, thought he made the right call, believing that he was refusing to be biased by Pierzynski’s awful frame. He was obviously way wrong, but his idea was not entirely bad.
Foster’s called strike three to end the game was a blown call for the ages. However, if we think about it hard enough we can understand Foster came from and it really was an honest mistake. Foster blew the call, costing the Rays a chance to tie the game and leaving the Rays, their fans, and baseball fans everywhere extremely ticked off and rightfully so. But don’t hate Foster personally- he was an umpire doing the best he can and just being a little overzealous trying to do his job. It was a mistake that can happen to any umpire in baseball, and it’s just terrible for everyone involved that his mistake happened with two outs in a one-run game.