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October 27, 2009

World Series Prospectus

The Umpires

by Eric Seidman

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In a postseason featuring late-inning heroics and a few coming-out parties for talented players (like Carlos Gonzalez), the actual game play has taken a back seat to shoddy umpiring. Instead of fans marveling at the dominant pitching performances from CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, they have been left wondering how a play in which two runners were tagged while not standing on the base could only result in one out. Aside from the occasional missed call present throughout the regular season, the umpiring crews have blatantly blown calls in crucial situations that simply cannot be chalked up as "the human element" of the game and subsequently be brushed aside. Even worse, the crews have shown an inability to rectify mistakes made by individual members, and have refused to face the music and admit to their errors.

In an attempt to eradicate this issue and shift the focus back to whether or not the Phillies can defend last year's title, Major League Baseball has decided that only veteran umpires will call the Fall Classic, a change from the past wherein younger umpires were rewarded with a ticket to the grandest of stages to garner more experience. The six chosen men in blue-Joe West, Gerry Davis, Brian Gorman, Mike Everitt, Jeff Nelson, and Dana DeMuth-will certainly have their work cut out for them, but how will the selection of these umpires affect the potential World Series hurlers?

Using a PITCHf/x database, I enlarged the strike zone to extend beyond the standard horizontal parameters as well as the specific heights for the hitters. From there, the number of called strikes in that inflated zone was measured in relation to the total number of called pitches-balls and called strikes. The higher the percentages in a certain game, the larger the strike zone. For all umpires with at least 10 games behind the plate, the league-average rate of called strikes out of called pitches with these parameters was 63.1 percent. When we bring in the six men calling the shots for the World Series, an interesting trend emerges, in that all but Jeff Nelson had a zone tighter than average for MLB umpires. With Nelson, the sextet averaged 62.2 percent; without him, 61.8 percent, suggesting this selected subset of umpires is much stricter in their definition of the zone. In terms of zone size, Nelson was a pitcher's best friend, with West not far behind, while Davis and Everitt proved incredibly stingy, especially when stacked up to the league.

Since I measured this zone percentage for each umpire-game, standard deviations can be calculated as a shorthand method for determining consistency at holding true to a zone. As a whole, this group of 75 umpires averaged a standard deviation of 5.8 percent. Our subgrouped sextet boasted a 6.2 percent deviation, suggesting they were slightly less consistent than the league. Most of that falls squarely on the padded shoulders of Dana DeMuth who, at 7.1 percent, was the fourth least consistent of all umpires this season. The most consistent of the group, Mike Everitt, registered a 5.6 percent deviation essentially at the league average, so while the chosen ones were stricter than the league, their zones were also more prone to variation.

In addition to this data, what about more standard numbers aggregated with umpires behind the plate? The table below features the aforementioned inflated zone rate, the walk and strikeout rate of pitchers with these umps behind the dish, and the league ranks:

Umpire         UBBr    Rank   ZONEr    Rank    SOr     Rank
Joe West      9.12%     12    63.54%    27    18.50%    23
Brian Gorman  7.33%     66    62.36%    43    18.14%    30
Mike Everitt  8.28%     37    60.16%    64    18.11%    33
Dana DeMuth   8.94%     14    62.23%    46    17.61%    50
Jeff Nelson   9.30%     7     64.16%    14    16.72%    69
Gerry Davis   8.37%     35    59.64%    66    16.50%    72
MLB Average   8.27%   75 Tot  63.11%  75 Tot  17.95%  75 Total

One very important aspect to note is that the walk or strikeout rates for these umpires do not, on their own, tell us about the tendencies of umpires. For instance, look at Jeff Nelson, who has the largest zone of the group, but also the highest unintentional walk rate. And Gerry Davis, who maintains one of the tightest zones in the game, is essentially league average in unintentional walk rate observed. Running a correlation between a few of these metrics, zone size and walk rate produced an r-value of -0.53, which makes intuitive sense as larger zones should theoretically result in fewer walks being issued. Then again, Jeff Nelson serves as an example of how this will not always ring true. The level of consistency and size of the zone correlated at a rather insignificant 0.12, while consistency and walk rate share virtually no relationship at all.

Reverting back to our ultimate question, how does this information affect those potentially toeing the rubber this week? From the Phillies' side of things, Cliff Lee will be on the mound in Games One, Four and, potentially, Seven. The Yankees will match Lee with Sabathia every step of the way, utilizing Burnett against Martinez in the second game while combating Hamels in the third game with fellow southpaw Andy Pettitte. The most interesting of the matchups-the one most likely to be affected by the umpires-is Burnett-Martinez, since the former is prone to wild spells and might not benefit from the men in blue if either Davis or Everitt is behind the plate. Similarly, Martinez now relies on acumen and location and the Phillies could be in for a long day if he isn't getting calls. On the flipside, if Pedro receives the aid of a larger strike zone, expect him to exploit every quarter-inch of the zone in an attempt to carve up the Yankee hitters.

Then again, this subset of umpires was a bit less consistent at holding true to their zones than the league as a whole, so we may very well see DeMuth, the fourth least consistent ump in the league, become strict, while the much more consistent Nelson becomes impossible to gauge. The fact that the selection of these six umpires has become so publicized speaks volumes to the ineptitude that has been on display, and Major League Baseball better hope that their names become less prominent in the minds of fans after this Fall Classic or else face intense scrutiny throughout the entire offseason.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Umpires,  Jeff Nelson

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