CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article The Platoon Advantage:... (06/13)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Overthinking It: Ten R... (06/12)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Overthinking It: The C... (06/19)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Punk Hits: Pitching In... (06/13)

June 13, 2012

Overthinking It

Who Is the Best Umpire?

by Ben Lindbergh

the archives are now free.

All Baseball Prospectus Premium and Fantasy articles more than a year old are now free as a thank you to the entire Internet for making our work possible.

Not a subscriber? Get exclusive content like this delivered hot to your inbox every weekday. Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get instant access to the best baseball content on the web.

Subscribe for $4.95 per month
Recurring subscription - cancel anytime.


a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Purchase a $39.95 gift subscription
a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Already a subscriber? Click here and use the blue login bar to log in.

While many of the most memorable umpire mistakes have come on force plays, tag plays, and “boundary calls,” the most common kind of blown call, by far, happens behind home plate several times a game. It’s possible to watch a game and forget about the base umpires, as long as none of them makes a glaring error. But it’s impossible to ignore the home plate umpire, who has to making a ruling on every single unstruck pitch. That’s why arguing balls and strikes leads to an automatic ejection—there are simply too many of them to make arguing each one permissible. Moreover, the strike zone is such a core component of baseball that questioning its consistency calls the integrity of the game into question.

Grousing about umpires is as old as the game itself, but the advent of instant replay—and more recently, ball-tracking technology—has made those complaints more numerous and provided conclusive evidence of occasional umpire incompetence. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re ready to do away with umpires, even if Major League Baseball would allow it. Even Mike Fast, a former Baseball Prospectus and current Houston Astros analyst who made his name by studying the data collected by Sportvision’s PITCHf/x system, has acknowledged that some significant technical hurdles would have to be cleared before an automated system could make more accurate calls in real time than human umpires. However, that hasn’t stopped, or even slowed, the steady stream of complaints about officiating coming from couches and clubhouse alike.

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is the latest to make his feelings felt. Last weekend, the Nationals swept the Red Sox at Fenway Park, as first Stephen Strasburg, then Gio Gonzalez, then Jordan Zimmermann, silenced Boston’s bats, holding the team to a total of nine runs in the three-game set. The Nationals’ starters have a collective 2.94 ERA: holding opposing teams to two or three runs is something they’ve been doing all season. Nonetheless, Valentine believed that in this instance, they had some help behind home plate, saying, “I thought [the Nats pitchers] pitched well. I thought they got pitches. In key situations. That weren’t strikes.”

Valentine went on to describe what he wants to see:

The game is simple. Throw it over the plate, call it a strike, don’t throw it over the plate, call it a ball. Simple. That’s all. It’s all anybody asks.

Of course, it’s not actually simple—if it were, no umpire would rule incorrectly, and calls for robot umps would be few and far between. Calling balls and strikes is extremely difficult. Even Valentine is aware of this. A day after his initial complaints, he summarized the difficulties umpires face:

I think they're very well trained, and I think they're very good at what they do. I think it's almost impossible to do what they do, so why do we ask them to do the impossible? If in fact you can't see the ball the last five feet, and now pitchers are throwing pitches that are moving in that zone, cutting and splitting and moving in the zone, your eye can't see what's happening. They're humans. We're asking humans to do a feat a human can't do.

But Valentine’s acknowledgement of the difficulty of calling pitches doesn’t make him any less eager to see them called correctly.

I want a ball called a ball and a strike called a strike, and figure out how to do it… That’s what the game is… Our game is not somebody else’s strike zone. Our game is what the book says. That’s how it should be played from Little League to Cooperstown, to make it fair, to make it right.

Much as Valentine might want it, a significant change in the way balls and strikes are called seems still to be a ways away. So who are the best of the old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood umpires when it comes to calling pitches correctly?

In the PITCHf/x era (2007-2012), 81 umpires have been behind the plate for at least 5000 pitches recorded by Sportvision’s system. Among these experienced umps, 86.8 percent of pitches have been called correctly, using the rulebook definition of the strike zone’s horizontal boundaries and a method for defining the top and bottom of the zone developed by Fast. The range between the best and worst umps seems fairly small: fewer than five percentage points separates the best from the worst. However, given the quantity of pitches a home plate umpire calls—since 2010, an average of roughly 81 per team per game—a difference in accuracy of even a few percentage points can make a major impact over the course of a single contest, let alone a whole season. In a game featuring an average number of called pitches, the difference between the best and worst umpires would be something on the order of seven correct calls.

The following 10 umpires to rule on at least 5000 pitches—all of whom are still active—have called the highest percentage of pitches correctly:

Name

% Called Correctly

Tim McClelland

89.3

D.J. Reyburn

88.9

Cory Blaser

88.7

Alan Porter

88.6

Mike Estabrook

88.5

Mike Everitt

88.1

Angel Campos

88.1

Gerry Davis

88.0

Todd Tichenor

87.8

Eric Cooper

87.8

 

McClelland, the most accurate of the experience umpires, is also one of the most experienced—he was the ump who called George Brett out in the so-called “Pine Tar Game Game” in 1983, McClelland’s first full season. According to his MLB.com bio, the crew chief has worked at least one game at the major-league level in 31 seasons, the third-highest total among active umpires. At 6’6”, McClelland has different perspective on the zone than most umpires. He’s also known for his deliberate pace behind the plate, which makes the broadcaster’s job more difficult but might lead to more accurate calls. McClelland’s consistency hasn’t gone unrecognized: he has consistently finished at or near the top in player polls about baseball’s best umpires. Last month, the 60-year-old told the ​Des Moines Register ​that he was contemplating retirement. McClelland has made his share of controversial calls, but the game would be worse off without him.

Ironically, the three umpires who were behind the plate for the Nationals-Red Sox series—Alan Porter, Dana DeMuth, and Fieldin Culbreth—have all been above-average at calling balls and strikes. The trio probably missed some important pitches over the weekend, but in those three games, 87.1 percent of pitches to Red Sox batters were called correctly—an above-average success rate. That would likely come as little consolation to Valentine, whose team still couldn’t score.

All umpire data provided by Dan Brooks. Tabular data and heat maps for each umpire are available at Brooks Baseball.

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

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

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

canada

Can we see the worst by % as well without having to go through each ump's brooks page if you have it? Thanks

Jun 13, 2012 11:19 AM
rating: 3
 
coachadams5

I understand the challenges with having a non-human call every pitch on both planes - but what about having electronic means to determine if the ball crossed over the plate and then have the home plate umpire simply determine if it is within the lower and upper limits of the zone? Simply eliminate a plane. That can be done and I would assume, relatively easily.

Jun 13, 2012 12:14 PM
rating: 0
 
sensij

Did you read the link to Mike Fast's article on the challenges of technology included above? I would not assume anything is easy.

Jun 13, 2012 12:48 PM
rating: 0
 
coachadams5

I did and I question the supposition that "Tracking radars would not fit under the plate..." Why not? Why does home plate need to be made of the same substance it is presently made of and why can't we project upward from the plate itself? The technology exists.

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Jun 14, 2012 11:11 AM
rating: 1
 
canada

Interesting thing from clicking through a bunch of the umpires' pages... guys have a really difficult time calling the splitter correctly.

Jun 13, 2012 12:31 PM
rating: 0
 
turbo7773

Quick correction: In the Nats sweep of Red Sox, Strasburg/Gonzalez/Zimmermann pitched, Edwin Jackson did not.

Jun 13, 2012 14:27 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

You're right. I was looking at the last three games, not realizing one was on Monday. But hey, every Nationals starter is great, right?

Fixed.

Jun 13, 2012 14:31 PM
 
Bob Stocking

It was Strasbourg not Jackson against the Red Sox last Friday. I'm guessing his 13 K's soured Bobby V's mood for the weekend.

Jun 13, 2012 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
redsox2011

" fewer than five percentage points separates the best from the worst"..Actually 1/2 of 1 %..Which is amazing.

Jun 13, 2012 14:45 PM
rating: 0
 
redsox2011

My bad..You must have included the worst in that 5 % comment.

Jun 13, 2012 14:48 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yeah, I meant the best overall and the worst overall, not the best and worst of the top 10, if that wasn't clear.

Jun 13, 2012 14:50 PM
 
draysbay

Cowboy Joe says, "You're outta here!"

Jun 14, 2012 07:52 AM
rating: 0
 
andygamer

I would be interested in how such an analysis may measure bias. Any skew between incorrect calls for balls vs incorrect calls for strikes? Pitcher A vs Pitcher B? I would imagine that in the aggregate (5000 pitches) you may not see much, but over smaller samples you would see strong patterns.

Taking the conjecture further, if an umpire was 85% correct but always called the mistakes as strikes, how might that impact scrutiny compared against an umpire who was 89% but 'all over the place' in the missed calls?

Jun 14, 2012 09:40 AM
rating: 0
 
David Jackson

Many strikes/balls are going to be more obvious calls. If the best umpire gets 90% of all calls right, what will the numbers look like when you throw out balls in the dirt or strikes in the heart of the plate, and only look at pitches right on the black? 70%? 50?

Jun 27, 2012 07:27 AM
rating: 1
 
You must be a Premium subscriber to post a comment.
Not a subscriber? Sign up today!
<< Previous Article
Premium Article The Platoon Advantage:... (06/13)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Overthinking It: Ten R... (06/12)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Overthinking It: The C... (06/19)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Punk Hits: Pitching In... (06/13)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Premium Article The Prospectus Hit List: Friday, May 22
West Coast By Us: Day 1: In The Land Where E...
Premium Article Rubbing Mud: The Quarter-Season Odds Report
West Coast By Us: Day 2: Taco the Town
Going Yard: The Near Perfection of Pederson
West Coast By Us: Day 3: Nice
BP Boston

MORE FROM JUNE 13, 2012
Premium Article Pebble Hunting: Swinging from His Toes to Hi...
Premium Article The Platoon Advantage: Cheating Cheaters and...
Premium Article Manufactured Runs: The Madness of King Bill
Fantasy Article Value Picks: Relievers for 6/13/12
Premium Article Collateral Damage Daily: Wednesday, June 13
Premium Article The Prospectus Hit List: Wednesday, June 13
What You Need to Know: Wednesday, June 13

MORE BY BEN LINDBERGH
2012-06-19 - Premium Article Overthinking It: The Cincinnati Reds and the...
2012-06-17 - BP Unfiltered: Interleague Play is Confusing
2012-06-16 - BP Unfiltered: How to Get Bryce Harper Out E...
2012-06-13 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Who Is the Best Umpire?
2012-06-13 - BP Unfiltered: This Post is Not Kosher
2012-06-12 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Ten Reasons the Astros Aren...
2012-06-12 - BP Unfiltered: Russell Branyan, Jack Cust, a...
More...

MORE OVERTHINKING IT
2012-06-25 - Premium Article Overthinking It: What Does Everyone Have Aga...
2012-06-21 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Melky Cabrera and the Mythi...
2012-06-19 - Premium Article Overthinking It: The Cincinnati Reds and the...
2012-06-13 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Who Is the Best Umpire?
2012-06-12 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Ten Reasons the Astros Aren...
2012-06-07 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Slow and Steady Wins Some R...
2012-06-05 - Overthinking It: Derek Lowe Goes Back in Tim...
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2012-06-26 - BP Unfiltered: Google and Anti-Umpire Search...
2012-06-13 - BP Unfiltered: This Post is Not Kosher