HOUSTON — Corey Seager nearly slammed his bat through home plate like a sledgehammer.
Logan Forsythe looked shocked.
Two of the most mild-mannered Dodgers on a baseball field weren’t alone in their reaction to called strikes on Sunday.
Home plate umpire Bill Miller’s strike zone was a recurring cause for confusion – not just for the players on the field for Game 5 of the World Series, but for fans viewing through the vantage point of the center-field camera at Minute Maid Park.
The Dodgers had reason to be upset. They lost the game 13-12 and struck out 12 times to the Astros’ six.
Even the Astros acknowledged Miller’s strike zone was far from perfect.
“I probably got a call or two that went my way, and a call or two that didn’t go my way,” pitcher Collin McHugh said. “That’s baseball and this is the World Series and nobody gets here by making excuses and nobody’s going to start making excuses.”
McHugh walked three batters in two innings Sunday. He also struck out four batters; three were caught looking at strike there.
To a degree, this was to be expected. According to Inside Edge Stats, Miller had the most called strikeouts of any umpire during the regular season with 151.
Both teams had access to this data, including which pitches they could expect to be called strikes and balls on the border of the standard strike zone. Brian McCann, Houston’s veteran catcher, said the inconsistency of the strike zone didn’t stand out to him after the 5-hour, 17-minute game.
I can’t update this montage of examples fast enough bill miller the home plate ump for game 5 is calling the worst strike zone this is crazy pic.twitter.com/Yor1XJSeaU
— Horrible Stats (@horriblestats) October 30, 2017
“I think for us, and I think on the other side, we know Bill Miller’s strike zone,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “So I don’t think that at all affected the outcome of the game.”
Umpire assignments rotate throughout the postseason. The crews are handpicked by Major League Baseball’s operations department. Seniority is a consideration. So is performance.
An umpire whose strike zone lacks consistency, or whose calls routinely get challenged and overturned, is less likely to work a playoff game than a more consistent, accurate umpire – at least, this is how MLB tries to draw up the assignments.
Furthermore, no umpire works two consecutive series – a League Division Series followed by a League Championship Series, or an LCS followed by a World Series, for example. Miller worked the Dodgers’ National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks but he wasn’t behind the plate for any of the three games.
By the ninth inning, it seemed like both teams had adjusted. There were no called strikeouts after the eighth.
“I was watching it down in the bullpen and I felt some calls were going their way early,” said Astros relief pitcher Chris Devenski said, who finished the ninth inning and started the 10th for Houston. “We had some calls go our way. But in that situation, I feel like you can’t really let the umpire affect your performance. You just go out there and play baseball.”
The irony of the situation is that a larger strike zone ought to favor pitchers. Yet in Game 5, the two teams combined for 28 hits, 25 runs and 11 walks – none of which were intentional.
For all the hitters’ frustrations, they seemed to do just fine.