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Down for the Count: When Balls and Strikes Break Baseball

An ode to the times when umpires and players lose track of the count and order descends into anarchy

Ian Kinsler Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On June 13, 2013, umpire CB Bucknor prematurely punched out Oakland’s Seth Smith on a 2-1 pitch from the Yankees’ Adam Warren.

The overeager ump almost immediately realized his mistake, and Smith, who never made a move toward the dugout, received a stay of execution. Beneath his mask, an embarrassed Bucknor weathered a bombardment of boos and jeers from the 27,000-plus fans in the stands, but the hubbub soon died down. Smith grounded out on the next pitch, and Bucknor, already in his 11th inning of umpiring, was forced to stand behind the plate for seven more innings as the two teams played 18. The ump had done penance, and baseball’s rule book had survived his assault.

Yet not quite three months later, in some strange cosmic coincidence, Yankees catcher Chris Stewart—the same man who had caught that 2-1 strike to Smith—effectively punched himself out on a 1-1 pitch from the Orioles’ Wei-Yin Chen, marching back to the dugout after swinging and missing for strike two.

Because Stewart, who later explained that he’d thought the count was 0-2, left the batter’s box without calling time, umpire Jim Wolf ruled him out on an automatic strike. “I don’t know,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, when asked to explain the event. “I was confused.” Stewart, his sin washed away by a Yankees win, joked, “That’s the first two-strike strikeout of my career.”

According to information from baseball-records repository Retrosheet, Stewart’s self-imposed K is actually the only known two-strike strikeout of anyone’s career. As far as the stats are concerned, Stewart’s misunderstanding was a one-time blemish on baseball’s otherwise-immaculate record of hitters avoiding strikeout self-sabotage. Nor are there any records of plate appearances with three or more strikes that didn’t result in a strikeout, although some of those records contain erroneous calls. It would be comforting to think that there were no non-Stewart exceptions to the bedrock rules of batting. Although the strike zone’s borders expand and contract across decades (and within the typical plate appearance), the sport has long held certain truths to be self-evident: Since 1888, there have been three strikes to a strikeout, and since 1889, the laws of the major league land have dictated that a batter who sees four balls be awarded a walk. That’s 130 consecutive seasons of ball-strike consistency. If we can’t count on the count, what can we count on?

Maybe we can’t count on anything, because baseball’s ball-strike count isn’t quite as inviolable as one would like to think. From time to time, baseball breaks down on a fundamental level, and umpires, players, and announcers question not whether a pitch was inside, outside, or over the plate, but whether it existed at all.

Although umpires carry ball-strike counters that they typically click after each pitch, events sometimes distract them. “Your mind wanders, but your mind is wandering for a reason,” says Jim McKean, an MLB umpire from 1973 to 2002 and an MLB umpire supervisor from 2002 to 2010. “Not because it’s just wandering. It’s wandering because somebody’s yelling at you in the dugout, there’s a ball that comes flying from the bullpen past home plate, you’ve gotta call time out and go back and get the ball. So I’m saying to someone, ‘Hey, can you get that ball?’ And I forget to move the clicker. It’s always something. It’s not that the umpire forgets, he just has something else to deal with.”

McKean says that early in his career, some umps didn’t use counters, relying solely on the scoreboard when something caused confusion. When the scoreboard couldn’t clear up the problem, plate umps could consult with the other umpires, but that didn’t always work, either. “The problem with that is, I got one count, you got another, somebody else has got another count, and then you get right back into the same boat you were in at the beginning,” McKean says. In especially sticky situations, umps could use a phone behind the backstop to call up to the press box and ask the official scorer or another authority for an assist. “If the Yankees are there you got 200 people up there with scorebooks,” McKean says. “Somebody’s gonna have the right count.” The only thing McKean didn’t do, he says, was listen to managers, who’d predictably adopt whatever stance favored their side.

In the rare cases when those additional lines of defense didn’t help, the game would go on regardless. “If for some reason … we never got the count, then we’d just continue on,” McKean says. “And then after the game if they said, ‘Well, nobody had the count, this and that,’ we would sort of take the blame, but there’d be a lot more people to take the blame besides us.” If a player walks when he shouldn’t or fails to walk when he should, there’s always someone other than the umpire who was also asleep at the wheel.

Occasionally, ball-strike crises are narrowly averted; just last month, Mets starter Jason Vargas, pitching in the NL for the first time in 11 years, neglected to take a walk on a 3-1 ball until prodded by umpire Marty Foster.

And in May 2015, the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke—out of either a sense of justice or obligation to an ex-teammate—generously reminded former Dodger Elian Herrera to take his base after a full-count outside pitch.

Although in theory umps should intervene if a hitter doesn’t realize that he’s entitled to first base, they may not always be inclined to. “Should I do that? Yeah,” McKean says. “But lots of times, guys would stand there like idiots and [I’d say,] ‘Hey boys, it’s ball four.’ [They’d say,] ‘Oh yeah!’ and they’d go down there. I’m thinking, ‘Shit … if you don’t know the count, what the hell are you playing for?’” Of course, as McKean acknowledges, players can sometimes say the same to umps.

Since 2014, umps have had the option to check the count via replay review, which an MLB spokesman says they’ve done 21 times in the regular season so far. Since 2008, nearly every pitch thrown in the majors has been tracked by cameras and computers. In the press box, stringers record results in real time, and the MLB At Bat app beams them to fans’ phones in the stands. But some games still hit hiccups: The rules are exposed as suggestions, and baseball briefly breaks along the lines of football’s Fifth-Down Game. Here’s José Altuve in 2016, walking on a 2-2 pitch:

And no, it’s not just that three balls to Altuve is the equivalent of four balls to a regular-sized player. One month later, the Angels’ Yunel Escobar drew a three-ball walk after faking a foul tip on a previous pitch. Joey Votto confidently drew a three-ball walk in 2015—as if Votto needed any help reaching base—as did Lorenzo Cain in 2013. In July 2011, the Mariners allowed two three-ball walks eight days apart. The first one led directly to the lone run scored in a 1-0 Seattle loss. Retrosheet’s logs include 15 known three-ball walks in MLB history, although the records get spotty in the distant past. (Only one of the entries comes from before 1992.)

The three-ball walk is somewhat understandable: A hitter who claims his free pass too soon either believes that he’s right or is convincingly faking it until he makes it to first. In social situations, we tend to defer to people who project confidence, and nothing is ballsier than running to first with three balls. Once the batter begins to run down the line, the umpire’s, pitcher’s, and catcher’s only recourse is to risk confrontation and embarrassment by telling him he’s wrong, potentially exposing their own ignorance if the would-be walker proves right. Batters should probably try to get away with this more often.

The more mystifying case is the four-ball non-walk, which has happened at least 16 times, most recently last week (not to mention roughly 43 recorded instances in all levels of the minors combined since 2005, according to data provided by Baseball Prospectus). Baseball-Reference’s league splits page for 2018 reports that MLB batters this year have hit .000/.000/.000 with one strikeout on 4-2 counts. That strikeout came courtesy of the Angels’ Ian Kinsler, who last Thursday stayed in the batter’s box after ball four and ultimately ended the inning in a strike-him-out/throw-him-out double play. The four-ball non-walk is an umpire mistake, but it’s often also an unforced error by the batter and his team, who throw away value like a carelessly uncashed check.

Below, I’ve chronicled the 11 instances of four-ball non-walks that are accessible via video, from the oldest to the most recent. Each entry includes a GIF of the event, a link to the full video, a dramatis personae, and two measures of the moment’s importance: the batting team’s win expectancy and each team’s Championship Leverage Index (a proxy for playoff implications) when the game began, where 1.00 would be a game of average importance. One might think that four-ball non-walks occur only in meaningless blowouts with rookie hitters at the plate and infamous umps behind it, but no two four-ball non-walks are the same: Some grind games to a halt, while others, as McKean says, “just [roll] along,” with no regard for the sub–Little League–level play on display. The following plate appearances feature the half-amusing, half-dismaying spectacle of people at the pinnacle of their respective professions perplexingly failing to do the simplest parts of their jobs.

Date: July 10, 2010
Batter: Gordon Beckham, White Sox
Pitcher: Brian Bannister, Royals
Umpire: Greg Gibson
Batting Team Game CLI: 1.48
Pitching Team Game CLI: 0.28
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 96.7%
Announcers Notice: No
Outcome: Fly out

The White Sox were trailing the Tigers by only half a game when this day dawned, so this one wasn’t meaningless, although the Sox were already up 5-0 when the walk should have happened. Beckham had homered against Bannister in his previous plate appearance, so maybe he just wanted to swing away. Or maybe he made an oversight that Bannister, a student of sabermetrics and one of the first players to study advanced stats, was smart enough to capitalize on. The real shocker here is that Chicago’s homer announcer Hawk Harrelson failed to complain about something going against his team.

Date: June 25, 2011
Batter: Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Pitcher: Jon Niese, Mets
Umpire: Mike DiMuro
Batting Team Game CLI: 1.44
Pitching Team Game CLI: 0.45
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 32.2%
Announcers Notice: Yes
Outcome: Strikeout swinging

“That should be ball four,” one announcer said, immediately after the pitch that should have been ball four. The other announcer then noted that both the scoreboard and the chyron supported what he was saying, before the first said it might be better to hedge and uncertainly mumbling, “Maybe we can go back and count the pitches.” No need: Cruz should have taken his base after the sixth pitch of this eight-pitch at-bat. Before going down swinging, Cruz fouled a pitch off his knee on the first 4-2 count, giving him another reason to rue not walking when he could.

Date: September 30, 2012
Batter: Will Venable, Padres
Pitcher: Tim Lincecum, Giants
Umpire: Gary Cederstrom
Batting Team Game CLI: 0.00
Pitching Team Game CLI: 0.00
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 66.5%
Announcers Notice: Yes
Outcome: Fly out

On the last day of September 2012, the soon-to-be-champion Giants had already clinched the NL West division title, and the fourth-place Padres had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention several days before. This is our first garbage-time game: Conditions were ripe for mistakes to be made, and at least one was.

After the 3-2 pitch to Venable appeared to end up well inside, the left-handed hitter dropped his bat and trotted up the first-base line, and the broadcast started plugging gear at Halfway through the ad read, though, Venable was summoned back to the batter’s box by a mistaken Cederstrom, and the chyron reset to 0-0. We’ll never know how the sentence that started with “Browse the largest online selection of—” would have ended.

Date: April 22, 2014
Batter: Yunel Escobar, Rays
Pitcher: Samuel Deduno, Twins
Umpire: Paul Schrieber
Batting Team Game CLI: 0.92
Pitching Team Game CLI: 1.00
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 94.4%
Announcers Notice: Yes
Outcome: Strikeout looking

This was a wild one. What that GIF doesn’t show is a roughly three-minute delay between the sixth and seventh pitches, which proved to be a complete waste of time. On the 2-1 pitch, the ball popped out of the catcher’s glove, which made it look a little like a foul. After that offering, Escobar checked the count with Schrieber and was reassured that the previous pitch hadn’t been a strike. On the next pitch, a called strike, Deduno—who wasn’t aware of that earlier conference—expected a strikeout but was informed that there were only two strikes. The next pitch was a ball, but the plate appearance continued, at which point the umps said “Uh-oh” and decided to check with the replay people in New York.

After a lengthy review, during which someone in the replay office presumably rewatched the whole plate appearance, the umps announced that the count was full—an impossible state of affairs, since Escobar had to have either struck out or walked by that point. “Like I said, it’s all about getting it right,” a sarcastic Rays broadcaster said. On the seventh pitch, Escobar did strike out, after which he went back to the bench and shook his head for several minutes. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a guy strike out on a 4-2 pitch,” said an announcer who hadn’t yet read this article.

MLB later owned up to the mistake, although the league’s explanation—“An error was made when replay officials and supervisors mistakenly thought one of the pitches was a foul ball, when it was actually a ball”—was still inconsistent with the at-bat’s events. (If that pitch had been a foul ball, Escobar would have struck out.) The only explanation is that one of Deduno’s pitches was retroactively wiped out of existence—truly scary stuff. “It’s 7-3,” a Rays announcer said at the end of the inning. “At least we know the score.”

Date: May 30, 2014
Batter: Wilson Ramos, Nationals
Pitcher: Colby Lewis, Rangers
Umpire: Scott Barry
Batting Team Game CLI: 0.96
Pitching Team Game CLI: 1.05
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 85.8%
Announcers Notice: Yes
Outcome: Walk

“Again, the payoff, I guess,” isn’t something an announcer ever wants to say. Compared to the epic Escobar at-bat, this plate appearance happened quickly and cleanly, and Ramos walked anyway. In a sense, though, this disregard of the rules was all the more disturbing because no one seemed to be bothered by it; it’s baseball’s bystander effect in action. “I said in my mind, ‘That’s three balls,’” said the unfazed Ramos. “That’s OK. Five balls. I’ll take it.” Nats manager Matt Williams, meanwhile, exhibited the lack of leadership that later cost him his job, saying, “We all kind of looked at each other and went, ‘Huh, I thought that was ball four.’ But we got a lot going on over there.”

Date: July 23, 2014
Batter: Jon Jay, Cardinals
Pitcher: Alex Cobb, Rays
Umpire: Dan Bellino
Batting Team Game CLI: 1.61
Pitching Team Game CLI: 0.44
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 13.7%
Announcers Notice: No
Outcome: Strikeout looking

At 1.5 games back of the Brewers in a tight Central race and down two runs in the seventh, the Cardinals needed this one, but it wasn’t to be. Jay checked the count midway through the plate appearance, but he was stuck at the dish when Bellino doubled up on ball two. “It was just a weird play,” Jay said, continuing, “I don’t even know what happened” and “it was all just quick.” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny added, “I missed it,” exhibiting the lack of leadership that still hasn’t cost him his job.

Date: April 21, 2015
Batter: George Springer, Astros
Pitcher: Taijuan Walker, Mariners
Umpire: CB Bucknor
Batting Team Game CLI: 1.20
Pitching Team Game CLI: 1.00
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 18.0%
Announcers Notice: No
Outcome: Strikeout swinging

CB back! This time Bucknor got his strikeout, although it took too many pitches instead of too few. “Springer had himself a pretty good at-bat,” said one oblivious Astros announcer. “George didn’t get cheated,” said the other.

Date: May 23, 2015
Batter: Max Muncy, A’s
Pitcher: Nathan Karns, Rays
Umpire: Rob Drake
Batting Team Game CLI: 0.16
Pitching Team Game CLI: 1.28
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 58.9%
Announcers Notice: Yes
Outcome: Walk

Every four-ball non-walk reminds us that the sports we watch are based on arbitrary rules concocted by fallible humans, which in turn forces us to confront the fact that we’re all desperately attempting to distract ourselves from the knowledge that life is a brief and insignificant spiral down the drain. As these things go, though, Muncy’s was pretty painless.

Date: August 24, 2015
Batter: César Hernández
Pitcher: Jacob deGrom
Umpire: Tom Hallion
Batting Team Game CLI: 0.00
Pitching Team Game CLI: 1.15
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 54.5%
Announcers Notice: Yes
Outcome: Walk

This one was weird even early in the count, as Hernández appeared to ground out to first, only to be called back to the box on the dubious grounds that he’d fouled the ball off his foot. That set the tone for the rest of the plate appearance. “All right, well, I have no idea what’s going on,” one announcer said after what should have been ball four. After the following pitch, he added, “Ball four—or five.”

Date: August 8, 2017
Batter: Yoán Moncada
Pitcher: Dallas Keuchel
Umpire: Sean Barber
Batting Team Game CLI: 0.00
Pitching Team Game CLI: 0.03
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 93.9%
Announcers Notice: No
Outcome: Walk

Keuchel is an extraordinary nibbler who expands the zone and thrives on passivity at the plate. The last thing he needs is five balls to work with. Nonetheless, Moncada outlasted him. “There’s another good sign,” one announcer says, praising the rookie for taking what should have been ball four, but not noticing that he’d neglected to take the walk.

Date: May 3, 2018
Batter: Ian Kinsler
Pitcher: Miguel Castro
Umpire: Brian Gorman
Batting Team Game CLI: 1.13
Pitching Team Game CLI: 0.20
Batting Team Win Expectancy: 98.7%
Announcers Notice: Angels no; Orioles yes
Outcome: Strikeout/throw-out double-play

Lastly, we come to Kinsler, who might retire as a borderline Hall of Famer but probably shouldn’t have “He always knew what the count was” on his hypothetical plaque. Last year, Kinsler thought he’d struck out when he hadn’t; this year, he didn’t know he’d walked when he had. “You would think Kinsler at 35 years of age would’ve known,” one Orioles announcer said. The Angels in the dugout seemed to know that something was amiss; although Scioscia missed a four-ball non-walk in 2008, the Scioscia Face was in full effect this time. Yet Kinsler didn’t argue with Gorman; with an 8-0 lead in the third over a terrible Baltimore team, maybe walking was against the unwritten rules.

The comments on a Reddit thread about Kinsler’s non-walk capture the anomie that affects anyone who watches baseball’s occasional, casual declines into anarchy.

I thought I was going crazy
How the hell did nobody notice this?
Crazy how no one notices
If humanity can no longer even execute “four balls take your base” we have all lost our minds
How does this happen in a sport so concentrated on stat tracking
It’s unbelievable that with so many different types of people watching so closely that this kind of thing can ever happen
I’m irrationally angry that this happened
Baseball is weird man

When the count comes apart, we all transform into Toby on The West Wing, sputtering about time zones and the downfall of civilization. Our faith in institutions is already too weak to withstand a five-ball plate appearance, even once or twice a season. Someday, the first robot ump will bleep and bloop “Play ball.” It will probably know better than to play past four.

Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus, Hans Van Slooten of Baseball-Reference, and Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge for research assistance.