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Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Are Baseball Umpires Wrong As Often As Fans Think They Are? Yes, One Study Says

Baseball is back, and fans can anticipate another season of amazing catches, overpowering pitching, tape-measure home runs – and, yes, controversial calls that lead to blow-ups between umpires and players.

Home plate umpires are at the heart of baseball; every single pitch can require a judgment call. Yet ask any fan or player, and they’ll tell you that many of these calls are incorrect – errors that can affect strategy, statistics and even game outcomes.

Just how many mistakes are made?

Comprehensive umpire performance statistics are not readily known, tracked or made available. Major League Baseball doesn’t seem interested in sharing the historical data.

A consideration of how well umpires actually call balls and strikes- the formatting is a bit off, but it makes for a very interesting article indeed.

 

QLE Posted: April 09, 2019 at 04:20 AM | 30 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: balls and strikes, data, statistics, umpires

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   1. Fernigal McGunnigle Posted: April 09, 2019 at 08:44 AM (#5829841)
The biggest thing of course is that older umpires do worse than younger ones, which could mean that umpires peak early (just like ballplayers), and could also mean something about tightening standards. Other versions of the story have a couple more interesting details. Here's MSN's take on the story, which includes:

— Umpires have a persistent "two-strike bias." With two strikes on a batter, umpires were twice as likely to call a true ball a strike (29 percent of the time) than with a lower count (15 percent).
The two strike bias swings one way, towards the dramatic punch out that umps love so much. So it's not pure error, but biased error.
— There is a strike-zone blind spot in the top right and top left of the zone, where pitches were miscalled 27 percent and 26.8 percent of the time, respectively. By comparison, calls in the bottom right and bottom left were missed 18.3 and 14.3 percent of the time, respectively.
The blind spots, the two strike issue, and the umpire age issue all sound convincing to me and tends to jibe with casual observation.
   2. villageidiom Posted: April 09, 2019 at 08:56 AM (#5829846)

Botched calls and high error rates are rampant. MLB home plate umpires make incorrect calls at least 20% of the time – one in every five calls. In the 2018 season, MLB umpires made 34,246 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game, or 1.6 per inning.

And yet, when you go to the study itself...

This deep-dive analysis demonstrated that MLB umpires make certain incorrect calls at least 20 percent of the time, or one in every five calls.

...

The error rate for MLB umpires over the last decade (2008-2018) averaged 12.78 percent. For certain strike counts and pitch locations, as discussed earlier, the error rate was much higher. Some years, the incorrect call ratio exceeded 15 percent. In 2018, it was at 9.21 percent.

Yes, umpires are not perfect, and can get a lot better. But TFA doesn't even describe the study correctly, and suggests the problem is twice as bad as it is.

In short: the linked article is garbage. The study it's based on is interesting, so check that out instead.
   3. Rusty Priske Posted: April 09, 2019 at 09:54 AM (#5829867)
Umpires probably get calls wrong MORE than the average viewer realizes, because most people will only notice bad calls AGAINST their chosen team.
   4. SoSH U at work Posted: April 09, 2019 at 10:10 AM (#5829880)
3. That’s somewhat offset by the fact they didn’t get as many calls wrong against their team as the fans believe.
   5. Barry`s_Lazy_Boy Posted: April 09, 2019 at 10:34 AM (#5829897)
Catcher framing wouldn't exist without bad calls, so this isn't news.
   6. KronicFatigue Posted: April 09, 2019 at 10:54 AM (#5829911)
[3] I think the bigger issue is that nobody is noticing bad calls for low-stakes situations. Two outs, 8th hitter up, in the 3rd inning. Should have been ball 3, but a bad call makes it 2-1. Dude grounds out on the next pitch. Did anyone even notice the bad call?
   7. Barry`s_Lazy_Boy Posted: April 09, 2019 at 11:57 AM (#5829961)
Coaches notice every perceived bad ball/strike call. They're pissed about every borderline pitch.
   8. The Duke Posted: April 09, 2019 at 01:24 PM (#5829996)
There’s bad calls and then there are bad calls. I bet most of these errors are within a margin of error that most people would not quibble about. I assume that only a small percentage of the “errors” are really egregious.

Having said that I would rather have a computer calling all the pitches.

Frankly I don’t know why they can’t just go by the honor system on infield plays. 98% of the time everyone knows the answer and the other two could be called by replay at the managers request. The goal should be zero umpires.

   9. DCA Posted: April 09, 2019 at 01:33 PM (#5830004)
Frankly I don’t know why they can’t just go by the honor system on infield plays.

The players need to know in real time what the call is. Honor system will never work for close plays, and even not-particularly-close plays may not be clear if you aren't watching closely because you are running the bases.
   10. Hank Gillette Posted: April 09, 2019 at 02:36 PM (#5830050)
The two strike bias swings one way, towards the dramatic punch out that umps love so much.


I thought that the 0-2 count, the next pitch is almost always an automatic ball. Of course, pitchers throw a waste pitch a lot in that situation, so you’d have to adjust for that.

It does seem that a pitch anywhere near the plate in a 3-0 count gets called a strike.
   11. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: April 09, 2019 at 02:53 PM (#5830065)

There’s bad calls and then there are bad calls. I bet most of these errors are within a margin of error that most people would not quibble about.

Right. What the studies on catcher framing have shown is that the strike zone is more of a heat map than a rectangle -- i.e. for each section of the zone and certain sections outside of it), there's a certain % likelihood that a pitch will be called a strike. If a pitch that gets called a strike 75% of the time gets called a ball, most people don't complain about it. If a pitch that gets called a strike 98% of the time gets called a ball, people notice.
   12. . Posted: April 09, 2019 at 02:59 PM (#5830071)
The home plate umpires are positively dreadful. It's the biggest problem in the sport (*), even bigger than TTO and pace of play and Anonymous Middle Reliever Man. Which is really saying something.

(*) And that's strictly on its merits before even getting into the fact that catchers are now to a large degree sorted for framing ability -- i.e., the players who play, play because they're good -- or "good" -- at getting home plate umpires to make dreadful calls. That's horse and buggy stuff in the 21st century sports world.
   13. Panik on the streets of London (Trout! Trout!) Posted: April 09, 2019 at 03:42 PM (#5830095)
catchers are now to a large degree sorted for framing ability


I agree this is crazy, but if you're a team and you know how important it is to get your pitchers extra strikes it makes sense to do it. I think we need to bring on the robits.
   14. Rusty Priske Posted: April 09, 2019 at 03:55 PM (#5830111)
Framing as a skill makes me mad. IT SHOULDN'T BE A THING. It is basically cheating.

How about we get the calls right instead? Bring on the Robo-Umps!
   15. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: April 09, 2019 at 04:09 PM (#5830121)
If plate umpires are dreadful, then they have always been dreadful. It's just that in the last few years we have developed the technology measure precisely where in the strike zone rectangle the ball crossed the plate. In the past we had no idea with any degree of certainty whether the ball touched the border of the strike zone and should be called a strike, or whether it was a half inch outside the box and should properly be a ball. We used two just shrug it off and say "Well, that pitch was too close to take with 2 strikes." Now we do, and now we are calling those blown calls, and now we think that umpires are suddenly dreadful, and we're all aggrieved at that same call.

There certainly are aggregiuosly bad calls, and I certainly won't defend behavior like Kulpa's, but calling a literal borderline pitch a bad call is the height of hubris.
   16. John DiFool2 Posted: April 09, 2019 at 04:21 PM (#5830132)
As I've said before, here and elsewhere, the strike zone is NOT the usually-depicted 2D rectangle hanging over the front of the plate, but a 3D pentagonal prism. Yah, the pitch may have barely missed the front rectangle, according to your cute little graphic, but it might have curved back over the back part afterwards. And quite a few of these graphics show the pitch as a small dot, and the not the size of, you know, the actual baseball. All the ball needs to do is nick the zone somewhere along its path. Hence these graphics tend to be biased against the umps.
   17. Panik on the streets of London (Trout! Trout!) Posted: April 09, 2019 at 04:39 PM (#5830144)
calling a literal borderline pitch a bad call is the height of hubris.


I don't disagree but if you have the technology you might as well use it. The issue is more with the egregiously bad calls and not so much with the borderline ones.
   18. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: April 09, 2019 at 04:44 PM (#5830146)
As I've said before, here and elsewhere, the strike zone is NOT the usually-depicted 2D rectangle hanging over the front of the plate, but a 3D pentagonal prism. Yah, the pitch may have barely missed the front rectangle, according to your cute little graphic, but it might have curved back over the back part afterwards. And quite a few of these graphics show the pitch as a small dot, and the not the size of, you know, the actual baseball. All the ball needs to do is nick the zone somewhere along its path. Hence these graphics tend to be biased against the umps.


I always assumed the graphic showed where the ball got closest to the center of the plate during it's travel over the plate, but that might be a wrong assumption option . If it shows merely where it was when it crossed the front edge of the plate, yeah, that's bad. And yeah, the ball is not a point, but a sphere with a non-zero diameter. So unless the graphics depict a sphere that is the same size as the actual ball is in relation to the plate, the graphics are further misleading.
   19. . Posted: April 09, 2019 at 05:16 PM (#5830169)
All the ball needs to do is nick the zone somewhere along its path.


I don't remember ever hearing about that in the rulebook -- which could be my fault (*) -- but certainly they call it that way. That should be changed. It really widens the strike zone. The diameter of a baseball is almost 3 inches. The computer can be and should be set to alter that parameter.

(*) Is it actually in the rulebook?
   20. . Posted: April 09, 2019 at 05:18 PM (#5830170)
If plate umpires are dreadful, then they have always been dreadful. It's just that in the last few years we have developed the technology measure precisely where in the strike zone rectangle the ball crossed the plate.


Agreed, though my sense is that more strikes where only a nick cross are called strikes now -- but you're right, even that is probably just a technology illusion.

   21. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: April 09, 2019 at 05:36 PM (#5830181)
(*) Is it actually in the rulebook?


Yes:

A STRIKE is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, which:
(a) Is struck at by the batter and is missed;
(b) Is not struck at, if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone;
(c) Is fouled by the batter when he has less than two strikes;
(d) Is bunted foul;
(e) Touches the batter as he strikes at it;
(f) Touches the batter in flight in the strike zone; or
(g) Becomes a foul tip.



Page 149
   22. . Posted: April 09, 2019 at 05:51 PM (#5830186)
Thanks for the data. The strike zone is simply too big then. Sub (b) should be modified. Or the width of home plate should be narrowed. No, I haven't begun to think through what spillover effects might happen from narrowing home plate. But the strike zone is a bit too big for modern pitching.
   23. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: April 09, 2019 at 05:57 PM (#5830189)
It's a hitable pitch. The entire purpose of the strike zone originally was for the pitcher to throw hitable pitches and for the batter to swing at those to put it in play. Thus, penalties for a pitcher who would not or could not do that, and same thing for the batter. If a pitch is hitable, it should be a strike. Strikeouts are at an all time high, but facilitating a higher walk rate isn't the answer.
   24. Hank Gillette Posted: April 09, 2019 at 07:15 PM (#5830206)
If a pitch is hitable, it should be a strike. Strikeouts are at an all time high, but facilitating a higher walk rate isn't the answer.


Players who don’t walk now are probably not going to walk much more just because of a smaller strike zone. They might put more balls in play.
   25. Hank Gillette Posted: April 09, 2019 at 07:18 PM (#5830209)
Catcher framing wouldn't exist without bad calls, so this isn't news.


I am not crazy about framing being a thing, but a more sympathetic take is that a good framing catcher can increase the number of strikes on pitches that could be called either way.
   26. Perry Posted: April 09, 2019 at 09:18 PM (#5830250)
I am not crazy about framing being a thing, but a more sympathetic take is that a good framing catcher can increase the number of strikes on pitches that could be called either way.


Yes. Framing is not about getting an ump to call a ball a strike, it's to get the benefit of the doubt on a borderline pitch.
   27. Misirlou doesn't live in the restaurant Posted: April 09, 2019 at 09:38 PM (#5830262)
Yes. Framing is not about getting an ump to call a ball a strike, it's to get the benefit of the doubt on a borderline pitch.


Exactly. This:

the players who play, play because they're good -- or "good" -- at getting home plate umpires to make dreadful calls.


is nonsense.

Players who don’t walk now are probably not going to walk much more just because of a smaller strike zone. They might put more balls in play.


I don't see how the latter follows. As for the former, I'm not worried about the players who currently don't walk. I'm worried about the players who currently do.
   28. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: April 09, 2019 at 10:16 PM (#5830270)
I’m not sure that a smaller strike zone is what is needed. There was a big rise in called strikes from 1998-2013 but over the past 5 years called strikes have come down (as a percentage of pitches taken) while hitters are swinging at more pitches, missing on a much higher percentage of those swings, and hitting more balls foul even when they do make contact. The latter three points are what have driven the big rise in Ks over the past 5 years, it’s possible that hitters began swinging more as a result of more strikes being called, but (a) that may be just a result of pitchers pitching better and (b) even that wouldn’t be an issue without the much bigger decline in contact %.
   29. Hank Gillette Posted: April 10, 2019 at 07:41 PM (#5830625)
Players who don’t walk now are probably not going to walk much more just because of a smaller strike zone. They might put more balls in play.



I don't see how the latter follows. As for the former, I'm not worried about the players who currently don't walk. I'm worried about the players who currently do.


It follows because the batters will be getting better pitches to hit, and have a smaller strike zone to protect.

As for the latter, how many players (other than late career Barry Bonds) have walked so much that it changed the game?

I’m advocating for a change in the strike zone, but MLB has changed it multiple times when they thought offense and defense were out of balance.
   30. zachtoma Posted: April 10, 2019 at 11:08 PM (#5830707)
This is nonsense because there is no such thing as a "missed" ball or strike call. The strike zone does not actually exist, the little box you see on your TV is just an approximation of what is described loosely by the rulebook.

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