Before anything else, you should know that Sean Barber’s umpiring career began with a snakebite. Okay, actually an eel bite. Working at a pet store to put his way through Community College Barber was attacked by a vicious eel and sustained a serious bite to the hand. The eel’s fangs went through a bone and opened a wound that took 27-stitches to close up. He took time off of college and decided when it was time to return to follow in his father’s footsteps and go to umpire school instead.
The Mariners lost yesterday because Astros pitcher, Lance McCullers Jr. threw an 11-K and one-hit gem of a game. In no way do I want to downgrade his performance.
I instead want to downgrade the performance of Barber.
Last night wasn’t the first time Barber’s been inconsistent in Seattle and left the M’s snakebitten. On April 3rd, 2014, in his first series as a professional umpire in the Big Leagues, he called a real howler between the M’s and Oakland A’s. In the “Actual” zone, he called 14 balls as strikes—9 of which against Seattle. In the “expected” zone (slightly wider, adjusted for what the umpire is expected to call), as graphed by Pitch F/X, he called 28 strikes as balls and 20 balls as strikes. He was especially limited in his ability to recognize the high strike and he called many balls low in the zone strikes.
Just like last night, Barber probably didn’t cost the Mariners the game, but his decisions certainly influenced it and annoyed many a Mariners fan. Although he didn’t miss as many calls he still missed a lot, and they had repercussions.
As you can see from this pitch map Barber only called one ball out of the Actual zone a strike. This would appear on the surface to be a good thing, but I argue that in an attempt to gain better control of his own strike zone, Barber has made the mistake of shrinking it entirely instead of shoring up his weaknesses. In short, he’s made a name for himself as an umpire to watch out for because of his inconsistent calls and warped zone and as a result, has shrunk his zone to avoid calling balls strikes.
Here’s a pitch map from another howler he called in 2015 between the Reds and Pirates.
That’s a lot of balls in the strike zone, several strikes outside of it, although some better calls along the edges. Still, Barber appears to have a history of hating the high strike, as he did against Danny Farquhar that fateful day in April 2014.
Yesterday, not only was Barber’s strike zone quite narrow it didn’t have much vertical space either. Here’s a map of the called strikes.
Besides three on the outside edges, Barber wasn’t giving out awards to pitchers painting the edges and corners. Of the 17 balls I counted called within the expected strike zone 13 were thrown by Mariners pitchers. Here’s a map of the called balls in the actual zone.
Barber’s inclination to call the high strike a ball, his tendency to call pitches that land on the inside edge a ball, and his new found ability to even call the low strike a ball, he rendered last night’s strike zone into a carnival game of chance for the Mariners. On the other hand, Lance McCullers excelled largely in part because he’s a spin master with a high whiff rate who can also make a strike look like a ball in midflight. Ariel Miranda can’t do that. Although Miranda survived, that’s why Dan Altavilla failed.
Facing Brian McCann, Altavilla had already produced a walk and thrown a wild pitch. His second pitch was a slider that landed in the upper right of the zone, not on the edge, below the cluster grouped on the corner—a clear strike called a ball. His next pitch was a fastball located on the same horizontal axis but a few ticks closer to the center of the zone, I’d argue as an adjustment to the call that preceded it. McCann smashed it out of the yard for a two-run homer and that was all she wrote.
Like I said, we would have likely lost anyway. However, it’s hard to watch an umpire with consistency issues who can’t keep track of his strike zone. Especially when it seems to largely go against the home team.
Game time today is 7:10, Safeco Field. Series tied 1-1.