Cardinals vs. Phillies: La Russa Criticizes Strike Zone, STL Offense Wakes Up

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Cardinals vs. Phillies: La Russa Criticizes Strike Zone, STL Offense Wakes Up
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and umpire Jerry Meals look over line-up cards during Game Two of the NLDS

His team trailing 4-3 in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa took time away from his day job of running a Major League Baseball team to talk to TBS broadcasters Dick Stockton and Bob Brenly.

With America listening and his team at the brink of a 2-0 NLDS deficit, La Russa needed a scapegoat.

Falling back on a manager's classic, La Russa proceeded to lay into home plate umpire Jerry Meals, claiming that Meals' "two different strike zones" were costing St. Louis an opportunity to win the pivotal Game 2 of the NLDS.

La Russa's contention: Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter received a tight zone, while Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee received generous strike calls. However, before we side with La Russa, Meals or even Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, let's check the facts.

No. 1: Regarding the notion of multiple strike zones, La Russa is technically right, though realistically wrong. An umpire calls a lot more than two strike zones during the average game.

Assuming a baseball game features nine batters and four additional substitutes per team, a home plate umpire will, within the scope of the rules, call pitches in 26 total strike zones.

Even more technical, assuming the average game lasts over 200 pitches, a home plate umpire must carve out at least 200 individual strike zones per game.

No. 2: Regarding the implication that Meals had squeezed Carpenter in his three innings of work, La Russa is wholly incorrect. Let's go to the computer for more analysis.

Pitch f/x plots every pitch thrown in every game played. Graphic from BrooksBaseball.net / umpireejections.blogspot.com, used with permission

Much like tennis uses Hawk-eye to determine ball location via algorithms which calculate the most statistically probable path a hit ball might transverse, MLB Gameday uses Pitch f/x.

Using multiple camera angles, Pitch f/x calculates—within an inch of accuracy—exactly where a baseball crosses the front edge of home plate.

A quick check of Carpenter's Pitch f/x data through his three innings of work shows one pitch erroneously ruled a ball (the pitch was located within the strike zone) and two pitches erroneously ruled strikes (both pitches were located outside the strike zone).

By contrast, Lee's Pitch f/x data for those same three innings shows four pitches erroneously ruled balls (all four pitches were located within the strike zone) and two pitches erroneously ruled strikes (both located outside the strike zone).

Comparing the two data sets shows that Lee, not Carpenter, had more net pitches ruled against him—barely. La Russa and the Cardinals were receiving the benefit of the doubt prior to Tony's televised complaint.

No. 3: Not a fact check, but La Russa's ulterior motive for chirping might just be that strategy as old as the game itself. Ride an umpire long enough, and he'll start giving your team the benefit of the doubt. Fire up your team, they just might start hitting.

La Russa campaigned hard in playing his "the umpires are against us" card. Catcher Yadier Molina kicked it off by complaining about a called strike while at bat (that was one of the two Lee pitches incorrectly called a strike). Then, when La Russa went to the mound to visit a frustrated Carpenter, the Redbirds skipper chewed out a wide-eyed Meals, who was all but content to stand by, grin and bear it.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
La Russa has a history of arguing balls and strikes with umpires. Here, La Russa is ejected by umpire Mark Carlson during a June 28, 2010 contest against the D'Backs.

For his grand finale, La Russa spouted his off-base conspiracy theory for a national audience to savor.

It worked. The Cardinals began to receive borderline calls from the fifth inning on.

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, leading off the fifth inning, was rung up on a pitch located navel high and inches off the outer edge of home plate.

Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, leading off the sixth inning, received a 0-0 cutter for a called first strike. The pitch was located thigh high, but inches off the outer edge of home plate.

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, leading off the seventh inning, took a 1-1 cutter just off the outside edge for a called second strike.

La Russa also fired up his team. With six hits through the first five innings, the Cardinals rallied for six hits in the sixth and seventh innings alone to tie and then take the lead.

Instead of waiting for someone else to make a call, La Russa convinced his team this series is theirs for the taking. Reach out and grab it.

And that's exactly what they did.

The game's momentum started to turn, and St. Louis jumped out to a 5-4 lead.

The great ones find ways to motivate their team. During a famous exchange with umpire Bill Haller after an obvious first inning balk call, former Orioles skipper Earl Weaver spouted his own conspiracy theories loud enough for his entire team to hear.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Cards 2B Ryan Theriot scores in the sixth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS

The first words out of Weaver's mouth: "You're here, and your crew is here just to [be unfair towards] us...let's just see five years from now who's going to be in the Hall of Fame."

And Haller's clever retort: "You're going to be in the Hall of Fame? For [messing up] the World Series? You're going to be in the Hall of Fame for [messing up] the World Series?"

Earl Weaver was indeed selected to the Hall of Fame, won the 1970 World Series with Baltimore, and had his No. 4 retired by his home club.

Former Braves manager Bobby Cox took his umpire tantrums to such extremes that Cox now holds the record for most times ejected as a manager with 158 regular season heave-hos. With two World Series, four Manager of the Year Awards and his No. 6 retired by the Braves, Cox may very well join Weaver in the Hall.

One of the most famous Dodgers of all time, former skipper Tommy Lasorda went into the Hall of Fame in 1997. As a manager, Lasorda was famous for firing up his team, his inspirational speeches during the World Series and, yes, for taking a dive after being hit by a Vladimir Guerrero bat at the 2001 All-Star Game.

When asked by an umpire whether he was going to take his pitcher out of the game or leave him in, Lasorda responded, "I'll take him in," much to the delight of his battery and assembled infielders.

Great managers are more than the commanders who decide when to replace a starter with a pinch hitter, or when to bring in a closer. Great managers have a constantly burning fire for the game. Great managers conjure up the most innate ways to communicate their passions to their players, inject humor into the clubhouse, and great managers make all of these things look so easy.

From La Russa to Manuel, Gibson to Roenicke, Leyland, Girardi, Maddon, Washington and all the other skippers in the game today whose teams did not make the 2011 postseason, they are all trying to find a balance of management, humor, work ethic and passion.

In blindly criticizing a pretty fair home plate umpire, La Russa was trying to fire up his players, just like Weaver, Lasorda, Cox and all the others have done over the years.

And guess what?

It worked. 

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