The Most Missed Call in Baseball

In my next posting I will review the new instant replay rules that will be in effect for the 2014 baseball season. However, the most missed call made by umpires is not reviewable.

So what is the most missed call in baseball? Of course, it is the ball and strike call by the home-plate umpire. This call will not be reviewable. I wish to thank my good friend Dr. Martin Cobern for sending me the following research soon to be published in the journal Management Science.

Before stating these statistics I wish to define the word “bias”. A bias is any outside variable which can lead to either a wrong decision or a favored decision. Some of the biases that can influence the home-plate umpire’s ball and strike calls are the reputation of the pitcher as a control pitcher, the reputation of the batter as having a good eye, the inning of the game, the batter’s count, whether the pitcher was on the home team or visiting team, the importance of the game situation, and the race of the batter or pitcher.

The umpires’ strike-zone calls were examined using pitch-location data compiled by the high-speed cameras introduced by Major League Baseball several years ago.  After analyzing more than 700,000 pitches thrown during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the data showed that umpires frequently made errors behind the plate. In fact, 14 percent of non-swinging pitches were called erroneously. Referring to the biases mentioned above:

  1. A strike was called when the pitch was actually a ball 13.3 percent of the time for a home-team pitcher versus 12.7 percent of the time for a visitor-team pitcher;
  2. With a 3-0 count on the batter, the umpire mistakenly called a strike 18.6 percent of the time, compared with a 14.7 percent error rate when the count was 0-0. With a 0-2 count, umpires only mistakenly called a strike 7.3 percent of the time. This was half the error rate compared to the 3-0 count.
  3. Umpires were 10 percent less likely to expand the strike zone for African-American pitchers than for Caucasian pitchers, but race did not seem to influence whether an umpire called a pitch a ball when it was actually a strike.
  4. Umpires were 13 percent more likely to miss an actual strike in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game than in the top of the first inning, on the first pitch.

Some of the findings agree with what most fans and commentators always believed to be true. You can include me in that gang. These expected findings are that umpires were more likely to give the home-team pitcher a strike call on a close pitch and that umpires were more reluctant to end an at bat by calling strike-three or ball-four,

Some of the findings that surprised me were that the race of the pitcher would matter and that umpires were more likely to make mistakes in crucial situations in a game.

The biggest surprise is that so many errors were based on biases and not just random errors. Remember, Major League Baseball uses a scoring system for home-plate umpires. Every pitch is evaluated through the use of cameras. Like in school, if students see the teacher observing them, they are less likely to cheat. I would have assumed the same would hold true for umpires. However, I agree with the writer of the article when he states that, “The sorts of errors we observed are not deliberate and may reflect an unconscious and biased decision-making process.”

Some of the biases that I believe are true but are not mentioned include the reputation of the pitcher and the reputation of the batter. Also, I would be interested if there was a general bias against non-Caucasian pitchers, and non-Caucasian batters. I will read the actual paper when it is published and come back to this discussion at a later date

As always I would be interested in your thoughts on this topic.  Please comment!

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