July 29, 2007
The Big Picture
Gambling on Umpires
On July 19, the news hit that an investigation of point-shaving by an NBA referee was underway. Preventing a team from beating the spread is an ambiguous way of fixing games. The person or persons involved in the deception don't want a team to lose a game, just not win by very much, so in theory, bottom line won-lost records shouldn't be altered by point-shaving, just the stats of individual players. That's very different from the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when baseball players actually played to lose the World Series. People involved in point-shaving might feel they're not really hurting anyone, since the actual outcome of the game should remain the same.
Of course, theory is nice, but in practice there's no doubt that some games were lost by this method. We've seen plenty of late comebacks in NBA history; if a team was only up by 10 when it might have been up by 20, a 15-point turnaround produces a very different result. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to take spread-fixing as seriously as game-fixing.
This scandal reminds me of a conversation I had with an ESPN producer a number of years ago. He was of the opinion that sports games were fixed, and the umpires and referees served as the conduit. My response pointed out that fixing games was unnecessary; odds were set by the bookies based on how the public bets. As long as they keep the action even (50 percent of bets on each side), they usually make a profit. Individual gamblers, however, don't have the same profit motive. They're out to make a killing on long shots, and that appears to be what happened in the NBA. A referee was co-opted by gamblers, not bookmakers.
Could this happen in baseball? The two biggest gambling scandals in baseball history involve the 1919 Chicago White Sox and Pete Rose. One of the explanations offered for why the White Sox conspired to throw games was team owner's Charlie Comiskey cheapness; the players involved could make more money losing than they could winning. The Rose scandal involved a player/manager who loved to gamble so much that he could not follow the simple rule of not betting on baseball.
The current NBA scandal has elements of both of these issues. The referee gambled, and through his gambling, he met people who enticed him to fix games. Darren Rovell suggests that refs are not paid enough, and that better salaries would work to prevent this in the future:
The bottom line is referees don't make enough money either. NBA refs roughly earn between $100,000 and $300,000 a year. Take a look at how their salary has increased over the years. In 1983, NBA refs made between $18,146 and $78,259. Factoring in inflation, that's $37,959 to $163,709. That's an average increase of 136 percent over the past 25 years. Now let's look at how players salaries increased. In 1983, the average NBA player salary was about $275,000. This past season, the average salary was $5.2 million. Factoring in inflation, NBA players salaries have increased 806 percent over the same time period.
MLB umpires make $84,000 to $300,000 per year, the same range as NBA referees. If you buy Rovell's argument, then umpires' salaries should be higher as well. To believe that's the case, however, one must attribute a lot of jealously to the refs and the umps. One would think most people would be happy with a six-figure job that provided four months of vacation. Now, given the amount of money Major League Baseball generates, I could imagine some individuals feeling underpaid. Given Tom Hallion's experience, however, it's much more lucrative to be an umpire than not. It strikes me that an umpire who is an addicted gambler is a bigger worry than an underpaid umpire.
The nature of baseball betting, however, helps protect the sport from the type of scandal happening in the NBA. Gambling on the national pastime is based on odds, not point spreads. Whereas fixers in point spread games can convince themselves they aren't changing the outcome, just the score, in baseball the outcome alone determines gambling winners and losers. There's no ambiguity here; someone who fixes a baseball game determines which side obtains victory.
Other safeguards exist that may end up protecting baseball from such a scandal. The first is that unlike in the NBA, the four umpires in a game are not equal. During the 1990s, STATS, Inc. published a yearly study on which umpires, when behind the plate, helped and hurt offense the most. By calling close pitches in favor of one team or the other, an unscrupulous arbitrator could easily control the winner or loser of a contest. The same can't be said for the other three. Maybe the first-base umpire can add a couple of hits to a team, but a gambler can't depend on enough close plays down the line for him to make a difference in an individual ballgame. The same is true at the other positions; it would be difficult for one umpire to affect many games.
The second is meticulous record-keeping. Through the various organizations that keep statistics, we know the home-plate umpire for each game going back many years. This gives forensic statisticians a wealth of data on which to judge umpires. For example, one could measure the expected won-lost records for favorites and see if any umpires show a statistically significant association with underdogs winning. Justin Wolfers already conducts these kinds of studies with college basketball point shaving and racial discrimination among NBA referees. Given that statistics-gathering organizations not only record the result of each pitch, but speed, pitch type, and location, someone like Wolfers could likely conduct an excellent investigation into the quality of umpires. MLB may want to start that, if for no other reason than to show that the umpires' integrity remains intact.
The final piece is QuesTec. While watching a blowout the other day, the announcer was relaying a discussion he recently held with an umpire. The source told him that umpires in QuesTec stadiums could no longer move blowouts along. They would normally call close pitches against the team with the big lead to speed things up, but in QuesTec stadiums, they can't do that because it hurts their grades. If QuesTec is that effective in getting umpires to call games correctly, it should be in every ballpark. And the umpire information system should be used not only as a tool to improve umpire performance, but as another way of looking to see if the fix is in.
The NBA referee scandal should force all major sports to reconsider the integrity of their umpires and referees. While higher salaries are likely to deter such fixing of games, money is not the only reason umpires might be inclined to cheat. Baseball owns a rich statistical history which should lend itself nicely to forensic analysis. QuesTec provides even more data points to analyze, and seems to provide an incentive for the umpires to always call the strike zone correctly. If there were dishonest umpires in the game, the tools exist to discover their identities.