Seiya Suzuki’s Incredible Zone Discipline Tested, David Ross Ejected as Umpire Phil Cuzzi Strikes Again

Why did David Ross get tossed just one out into the bottom of the 2nd inning Monday night in San Diego? Cuzzi didn’t like the calls from the home plate umpire. Phil Cuzzi’s zone was pretty terrible and seemed to be skewed heavily in the Padres’ favor right out of the gate, hence the ejection. Between that and three pitch-clock violations, even Kyle Hendricks betrayed his traditional emotionless demeanor at times.

This isn’t the first time Cuzzi’s questionable adjudication of the strike zone has prompted an ejection or drawn the ire of a mild-mannered Cubs player. You may recall that Ben Zobrist was tossed back on August 14, 2018 for zinging Cuzzi with a robo-ump taunt after taking an incorrectly-called third strike.

“I basically said, ‘That’s why we want an electronic strike zone,’” Zobrist explained to the media after the game. “That’s what obviously got me tossed. I’m not going to lie, I think he was going toss me anyway before I said that, just because I wouldn’t go away.”

Joe Maddon was tossed in that one as well, though it was in the 6th inning and the Cubs were already down 6-0. Monday night was a whole different ballgame, literally and figuratively, as Cuzzi’s calls impacted the flow early and often. The umpire didn’t cost the Cubs the game, so please don’t go thinking I’m saying anything of the sort, but he absolutely put the Padres in an advantageous position.

Whether it’s the way he set up behind the plate or just a general visual bias due to the how the Cubs stacked the lineup against lefty Blake Snell, Cuzzi was loving him some outside strikes to righty batters. Dansby Swanson was rung up on a ball in his first at-bat, then Seiya Suzuki took three called strikes on three pitches. The third was borderline and the argument can be made that he should have offered, but the first was terrible and changed the whole complexion of the at-bat.

We’ll get to more on Suzuki’s incredible understanding of the zone in just a moment, but let’s first take a look at the differences in how Cuzzi treated pitches from Snell and Hendricks. The pitch that led to Ross’s ejection was actually a correctly-called ball, but a quick look at the respective zones will show it was closer to being a strike than several other pitches that had been or would be called against the Cubs.

Rather than being in a 1-1 count, Padres catcher Gary Sánchez was up 2-0 before taking two strikes to run the count even. Then he homered to put his team ahead by a 2-0 score and effectively ice the game because the Cubs couldn’t do a damn thing on offense. Cuzzi made the right call here and can’t be blamed for either that or the homer or the final outcome, but his zone influenced the flow of the game like a big rock tossed into a stream.

Rather than continue to piss and moan about just one umpire, let’s set our sights on the collective as it pertains to the crappy treatment Suzuki has received since coming over to MLB. As the Tribune’s Meghan Montemurro shared during the game, the right fielder has routinely been burned by pitches outside the zone that are called strikes. Over the last two seasons, only Robbie Grossman has taken more called strikes that should have been balls.

Anyone who’s watched Suzuki hit knows he frequently gets a raw deal, but actually seeing it visualized in aggregate is amazing. This dude doesn’t just know the strike zone, he knows his zone as well as anyone in the league. The problem there is big league pitchers know that and can take advantage of human error in Cuzzi and his brethren to exploit Suzuki’s almost impeccable discipline.

Can you imagine what would happen to Suzuki’s walk and strikeout rates with the introduction of an automated ball-strike system? Or, you know, if the humans charged with making those calls just stopped hosing him. I know a lot of folks out there will say that he needs to be protecting the plate and whatnot, but that’s like suggesting to Initech’s Michael Bolton that he change his name.

Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.

Seriously, though, this isn’t Little League and we’re not talking about umpire shortages and parents yelling at kids to keep their eye on the ball and get their elbow up. These are highly paid, union-protected employees who should be expected to perform at a high level. And I’m not just talking about the players. While the umps do a pretty good job, all things considered, Suzuki is an example of a very real blind spot they seem to have for some reason.

He’s also kind of a walking allegory for a Cubs team that just can’t find ways to win around the margins, which is something we could take in a few different directions if we really wanted to. In this case, I’ll leave it as more of a visual representation because the organization could have been more proactive in different areas and I don’t want to suggest that Suzuki start expanding his zone.

That’s a different story for youth ball, where umpires are actively seeking to force the action and get hitters to swing at pitches that are well outside the rulebook definition of the zone. This isn’t USSSA or Bullpen, however, so Suzuki opening up his swing decisions could have disastrous implications on his performance.

Monday’s loss would have been frustrating all on its own, but it didn’t help in the least that the deck appeared to have been stacked against the Cubs from the second batter of the game. A series split on the road against what is still expected to be a good team is acceptable even if not desirable, so now it’s a matter of taking at least three of the next six between Anaheim and San Francisco.

Hey, maybe the Cubs can bring Shohei Ohtani back to Chicago with them.

Update: Cuzzi was actually pretty accurate on the whole according to Umpire Scorecards, though his calls equated to 1.23 runs in the Padres’ favor. That wouldn’t have been enough to decide the game, of course, but it certainly had a marked impact on the outcome.

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