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How the Yankees get called at the top of the strike zone

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Aaron Judge is famous for being called harsh down low, but the team actually suffers more up

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing quite like running the Pinstripe Alley Twitter account during a Yankees-Red Sox game, especially the Sunday Night Baseball September kind of game. Last weekend was full of long, plodding games that, while they ended positively for the Yankees, took enough time that I had a few ruminations on the ol’ Twitter:

I love Statcast because I can actually figure this out. Instead of letting something like this sit in my head as an anecdote, I can go pull every single called strike in MLB this year, and figure out if Gary Sanchez gets burned up more than Aaron Judge gets burned down.

Turns out, nope, Judge has had 68 pitches below the strike zone called strikes this year, and Gary’s seen 34 pitches above the strike zone called strikes. As a percentage of total pitches, 4.0% of all the pitches Judge has seen were called strikes that should have been balls low, compared to 1.8% for Sacnhez on what should have been balls high.

A closer examination of this information shows something a little more interesting, though. The Yankees, as a team, actually do have a bit of an issue with pitches up in the strike zone. By taking the called strikes “up” for all players with at least 1000 pitches seen this year, we get this kind of distribution:

Those red triangles are Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez and Brett Gardner, who are all more than one standard deviation above the average percentage of high called strikes. The Yankees have three such players, and only the Mets have more players ranked so highly in this category.

Umpires are human, and humans carry biases. We know that the strike zone expands in hitter’s counts and contracts in pitcher’s counts, and that the home crowd does have an influence on which pitches are called strikes. There’s nothing really that links Torres, Sanchez and Gardner together - no susceptibility to a common pitch type or anything like that - but they all get nailed above the letters more than they should.

On it’s own, that’s unfair, but in 2019, it could be extremely problematic for the Yankees. Seeing that a third of the lineup regularly get called strikes high spells trouble if you figure the Yankees are eventually going to have to contend with the Houston Astros.

The Astros have made it an organizational mandate to throw fastballs up in the zone. Their rotation and prospect capital reflects pitchers who throw hard with high spin rates, and given the offensive environment we’re in, that makes a lot of sense. As players focus on getting the ball in the air, and incorporating more uppercut swings, high-spin fastballs above the swing path can make you really hard to hit.

Add to that the very real possibility that a third of the Yankee lineup is going to lose a strike or two above the zone, it makes the Astros’ rotation about as dangerous as it can be. Even if you’re not a proponent of robot umpires, we don’t want to see a playoff series decided because a strike was called incorrectly.