Calling Foul on Officiating

Contrary to what Indians fans are saying, Jose Bautista’s complaints about the ALCS are entirely correct. Up to a point.

The current episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel has a segment called “Man vs Machine“. It’s about former player Eric Byrnes’s battle to use the cameras now installed at every major league park to call balls and strikes on pitches where the batter doesn’t swing.

To prepare the piece, Real Sports hired an auditor to review the film of all ball/strike calls made by umpires over the past 3+ years. He found that only 88% were called correctly.

To make matters worse, that error isn’t uniformly distributed. The areas where they have the most trouble– naturally– are the corners of the strike zone. When they compiled the data for the pitches within two inches of the boundary (inside the zone or outside), umpires got the call wrong 31.7 percent of the time.

But wait– there’s more. The review found that umpires are reluctant to call the third strike on 0-2 counts or the fourth ball on 3-0 counts. Even if the pitch is in the exact same location (which the cameras can pinpoint), the count will inflluence the call.

The unconscious motivation is that idiotic “The officials shouldn’t decide the game” nonsense. It’s OK for Richard Sherman to mug Julio Jones on Atlanta’s last drive on Sunday— but it would be wrong to have the officials call the penalty.

And– to get to Bautista’s point– the data shows that the umpires usually make calls that benefit the home team.

Since I know the data, I wanted to shoot the TV every time that former umpire Jerry Crawford opened his mouth in the segment– or when Gumbel delivered his idiotic rant at the end of it. Look at the results of an at-bat based on ball and strike calls.

  • If the first pitch is called a ball (After 1-0), the batter hits .268 with an .815 OPS.
  • If the first pitch is strike (After 0-1), the batter hits .225 with a .609 OPS.

You want to impose that type of disparity on the game, because of some nonsense about tradition? Then why don’t we let pitchers deface the ball?

Laz Diaz’s strike zone in game one was ridiculous. He wasn’t even close to consistent. It was like watching Jeff Triplette call balls and strikes   Not only is he incompetent, but Diaz has rabbit ears. He hates being told that he missed a pitch or 20. Jim Wolf wasn’t a lot better in game two.

The problem got a little better when MLB fired or forced out a bunch of umpires who used their own strike zone. It’s gotten worse since teams began looking for catchers who could “frame a pitch”– make it look like a strike when it wasn’t.

Byrnes comes unglued discussing this. Unfortunately, he forgets to make the point that matters. Not only does the batter have no way to exert an opposing influence on the umpire– he can’t tell (1) when the catcher is going to cheat and (2) whether the catcher will be successful at it. He has to swing at stuff he thinks might be close.

To suggest that the games are being perfectly called is ridiculous. You can see it simply by looking at the strike zone next to the batter.

I don’t see any reason the Indians shouldn’t benefit from a system that lets the home team get favorable treatment from the umpires– they did win home field advantage. I just think that shouldn’t be one of the perks.


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