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June 13, 2012 2:54 pm

Overthinking It: Who Is the Best Umpire?


Ben Lindbergh

The difference between the best umpire and the worst is seven correct calls per game. Ben looks for the one who gets those seven right.

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.

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When is hot truly hot, and when is it not?

A few weeks ago, during the division series, Brandon McCarthy remarked on Twitter that it would be more interesting for TBS to show a diagram of the batter hot and cold zones for every batter than to show the PitchTrax strike zone and pitch location graphic. He argued that knowledge of the hot and cold zones would give viewers additional insight into the battle between the pitcher and the batter.

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When it comes to determining the actual upper and lower boundaries of the zone, pitchers may have more to tell us than the players at the plate.

Three months ago, I investigated the nature of the major-league strike zone, focusing on its inside and outside boundaries. I concluded that the location of a pitch relative to the catcher’s target had a significant impact on the umpire’s likelihood of calling a strike. This article will examine the top and bottom boundaries of the strike zone.

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Examining umpire calling and catcher framing leads to thought-provoking questions about the amorphous nature of the strike zone.

Ever since the PITCHf/x system debuted in the 2006 playoffs, people have been interested in what it says about the strike zone that the umpires call.

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Evaluating the strike zone, the umpires, and some large-scale issues with a tremendous new tool.

"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
--Lewis Carroll (1832 - 1898), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, said by the King to the White Rabbit

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