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The Big Questions: Bias, Umpires and Major League Baseball

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New research confirms what baseball fans knew all along: umpires blow calls.

What’s surprising is why umpires miss calls, especially at the plate.

Northwestern University professors Brayden King and Jerry Kim found bias played a role: that race, the reputation of the pitcher and importance of late-game at-bats influenced how correctly umpires called balls and strikes.

“What our study shows is that umpires are actually systematically favoring certain kinds of pitchers,” says King, an associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management. “So yeah, it would be nice and doable to have a uniform strike zone that would get rid of some of those biases.”

In this installment of “The Big Questions” podcast, we talk with King about bias and the future of technology in baseball. Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation can be downloaded via iTunes and SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. “The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.

Q: Umpires by definition are supposed to be impartial, but because they are humans, we figure there is bias. Your researched showed that they were bias in very specific ways. Can you talk about that?

Brayden King: Umpires have huge incentives to be fair and call an accurate strike zone. So we looked at umpires calling the strike zone and we tried to figure out, when do they make mistakes? So, a mistake would be a non-swinging pitch; the umpire calls a ball when it was actually a strike. Or the umpire calls a strike when it was actually a ball. And we found that those kinds of mistakes happen about 14 percent of the time, which to us was surprising. We thought that they make mistakes, but it should be less than 10 percent of the time. More than one out of 10 pitches, non-swinging pitches, is called wrong.

So, in some ways it is not surprising that umpires are making mistakes. They’re humans, just like all the rest of us. I think what’s surprised people is that some of the findings confirmed long-held expectations, but things that we couldn’t prove, and then some of the ways in which that umpires are making mistakes are kind of baffling. They don’t occur in the way that you might expect.

Q: Give me one of those examples.

King: For example, umpires tend to get worse — they make more mistakes in the most important parts of the game. So, the baseball statistic is leverage. So when you’re in a high leverage situation, that means the outcome of the at-bat matters more to the outcome of the game. So you would expect that in those situations when there’s more on the line, that the umpire is going to get better. Right? Because the umpire will be paying closer attention to what’s going on. But what we found in those situations, umpires actually make more mistakes.

Q: And why?

King: Well, that was the baffling part. It is not exactly clear. You would think that they would be paying more attention therefore they would get more accurate. It could be, like a lot of us ... when they are under pressure, they tend not to see things as well as they think they do.

Q: But is it part the very human part of us, that part that wants there to be more drama? Are they contributing to the drama of the game?

King: Maybe. There is some evidence to suggest that that is true. We know we have also found that when you get into the at-bat or the bat count gets higher, they tend to prolong the at-bat even longer. So in an 0-2 count, the umpires are much more likely to make a mistake in calling it a ball. So they are more likely to mistakenly call a ball and when it is a 3-0 count, they’re more likely to mistakenly call it a strike. So that suggests that they are unintentionally or intentionally prolonging the at-bat. Perhaps, to add drama.

Q: Why, then, don’t we have a computer at strike zones?

King: One of the things the study has done for me is actually made me more likely to support seeing this kind of change, simply because I recognize that there are systematic biases. It is not just that umpires are inaccurate. We have always known that. Some umpires are more inaccurate than other umpires, but what our study shows is that umpires are actually systematically favoring certain kinds of pitchers. So yeah, it would be nice and doable to have a uniform strike zone that would get rid of some of those biases.

Q: What response have you received from umpires and Major League Baseball?

King: Major League Baseball has remained silent about this. But, I know people around baseball are definitely talking about the issue. Last week, Mike Schmidt, Hall of Famer, actually, for the Phillies, came out and said that he thinks in 10 years, baseball strike zones will be governed by a force field and what he meant by force field is a computerized strike zone. So we won’t need the umpire any more.

So if a Hall of Famer like Mike Schmidt is saying this, then clearly it’s getting talked about and it is getting some legitimacy in those circles. No MLB umpire has said anything about this study that I am aware of, but I got lots of irate tweets from umpires around the country who are asking me if I had ever umpired in my life and “Do you know how hard it is?” “Do you know how hard you are making our job by publishing this research?”

Q: Well, so now you can answer. Have you ever umpired a game?

King: When I was in college, I did high school football officiating. I did it for like a year, and it’s tough. High School football officiating has to be the most dangerous kind of officiating there is. I did freshmen games and I thought, “Oh freshmen games, no one’s going to care.” Just basically a scrimmage. But parents were coming out of the crowd, they were yelling and screaming and coaches were having to hold parents back. And this is not like I was a terrible official; it is just that this is sort of the typical reaction. So even though I don’t know what it is like to be a baseball umpire, I know that being an official of any sport is pretty hard.

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