Kobritz: MLB umpires get it wrong way too often
Beyond the Lines
It’s not a stretch to say home plate umpires have the most influence of anyone on the outcome of a baseball game. The man behind the plate – all 89 MLB umpires are male - makes a call on every pitch and each one is a judgment call.
A study conducted by Boston University Master Lecturer Mark T. Williams and a team of graduate students analyzed four million pitches over 11 MLB seasons. The team of academics utilized data collected by MLB-owned Statcast and Pitch f/x, which was sorted, formatted and superimposed on a standard strike zone map.
The data comes from tracking cameras installed in all 30 MLB stadiums that follow balls from the pitcher’s hand until they cross home plate. The information is used to evaluate players, but it can also be used to evaluate umpires. If it is, MLB doesn’t share the results, nor can fans easily interpret the data to assess umpire performance on their own.
The study measured ball and strike calls for accuracy and then ranked the error rates for each active umpire, creating what it referred to as a “Bad Call Ratio.” The higher the ratio, the more inaccurate the umpire’s calls. Between 2008 and 2018, home plate umpires made incorrect calls over 12 percent of the time. In the 2018 season, umpires made 34,246 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game. Last year, 55 games – 2.2 percent of the total played – ended on an incorrect call.
One unsettling conclusion suggested when batters had two strikes, the error rate for all umpires was 29 percent, double the error rate when the batter had one or no strikes.
The study also found the highest error rates were attributable to older, veteran umpires, rather than younger, less experienced ones. The average MLB umpire is 46 years old, with 13 years of experience. But those with the lowest Bad Call Ratio had an average age of 33 with less than three years of big-league experience. Among the reasons why newer umpires made fewer errors could be their motivation to prove themselves and the fact they are beneficiaries of improved training.
While the study is interesting, like most research its conclusions are subject to interpretation by the reader. Nor are those conclusions uncontroverted. For example, other research contradicts the suggestion that umpires were twice as likely to call a ball a strike when batters had two strikes than when they had one or none.
Williams makes several suggestions to reduce error rates, including stronger recruiting, hiring and retention of superior performing umpires, and increased use of technology to both support umpires and weed out the worst performers. Those recommendations may be difficult for MLB to implement, given the strength of the umpires’ union.
Williams’ study will undoubtedly give additional impetus to the pro Robo-ump movement. Not so fast. One positive and mostly overlooked conclusion of the study is the error rate declined over the 11-year period covered by the research, providing a glimmer of good news for umpires, players and fans.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.