MLB Can Show Commitment to Innovation with Implementation of Electronic Strikezone

One week ago, Detroit Tigers 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler was fined $10,000 for criticizing umpire Angel Hernandez, claiming he was “messing with baseball games, blatantly,” and later added that “He needs to find another job, he really does.”

Hernandez has been a source of controversy for both on and off the field.

On the field, Hernandez is widely regarded as one of MLB’s most unpopular umpires. According to Sports Illustrated, “Numerous player surveys have ranked him (Hernandez) near the bottom of the league’s umpires, most recently in 2010 when 22% of players surveyed by ESPN called Hernandez the worst umpire in the league. (C.B. Bucknor received 37% of the vote; Joe West, who worked the 2016 World Series, received 35% of the vote.)” Hernandez was against voted as baseball’s worst umpire by Golden Gate sports and Bleacher Report in 2013.

Off the field, Hernandez is in the midst of a lawsuit he filed against Major League baseball in the beginning of July, stating that “MLB is biased against minority umps when it comes to high-profile positions.”

In response to Kinsler’s verbal outburst, umpire’s league-wide wore white wristbands as a show of solidarity when Kinsler was not suspended.

Upon reading this story and doing more background work on Hernandez, I quickly realized that this is not an isolated incident. Hernandez’s (and others) inability to consistently call balls and strikes impacts outcomes of games each and every season, and with parity in baseball at an all-time high, it’s inevitable that poor umpiring with play a significant role in determining not only playoff races, but a world champion.

With this in mind, I think it’s fair to wonder why Major League Baseball refuses to implement an electronic strikezone.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred remains steadfast in his desire to keep umpiring the way it is, stating “It’s because of technology limitations. It’s because, quite frankly, the strike zone is different for every single guy.”

Similar to Commissioner Manfred, baseballs purists embrace the human element and believe that eliminating an umpire’s ability to call balls and strikes would change the integrity of the game. On the other hand, the “sabermetric generation” (as I’ll refer to it), embrace the technology and believe that the person who determines balls and strikes should have all the information that’s available to make the correct call.

From a players perspective, all that I have spoken to (including those who have been interviewed on the topic), believe that implementing an electronic strikezone is a good idea.

As a hitter, the biggest issues with homeplate umpires has nothing to do with the individual missed calls. The problem occurs when an umpire calls the same pitch in the same location differently, more or less making it impossible for a hitter to develop an effective way to approach each pitcher. Hitters can hit balls than are a half-inch or an inch off the plate when they know they need to cover that location. But the minute they’re unsure of how far away they have to go, they leave themselves fully exposed to the inner half of the plate. This is why so often, you’ll see an umpire nod his head after a called-strike early in the game because the hitter, usually looking at the ground to make sure he isn’t “showing up” the umpire, is asking the umpire if that location was the outermost part of the zone.

While this may not sound like a big deal, taking strikezone inconsistencies and applying it to how the game is actually played on a pitch-to-pitch basis, might do a better job of exposing its significance.

In a 2016 HBO segment hosted by Bryant Gumbel, reporter Jon Frankel interviewed Yale professor Dr. Toby Moskowitz to “study the Pitch f/x data from MLB games in recent seasons. Moskowitz analyzed every pitch called by major league umpires – nearly a million in all – over the last 3 ½ years.

MLB claims its umpires call 97 percent of balls and strikes correctly. But according to Moscowitz and HBO, the study showed that only about 88 percent of the calls were accurate.

Roughly one of every eight pitches, in other words, were called incorrectly. As Frankel pointed out, that adds up to more than 30,000 bogus balls or strikes each season.

That figure includes the obvious calls where the pitches are right down the middle or way outside. When Moscowitz narrowed his analysis to pitches that were within two inches, either way, of the corners of the plate, the umpires got the call wrong 31.7 percent of the time – nearly one of every three pitches!”

If we take Moscowitz’s last statement that almost 32% of borderline pitches are called incorrectly, the impact of that number in itself is massive when taken to the next level. Say, for example, a hitter is in a 1-1 count. The difference in batting average in a 2-1 count and a 1-2 count is a ridiculous .180 points. The difference in on-base percentage is .170 points, and the difference in slugging percentage is .220 points!

The 1-1 count is widely regarded by baseball people as the most important pitch in an at-bat because of the drastic shift in performance. Putting a hitter in a 1-2 instead of a 2-1 count (or vice versa for a pitcher) is instrumental in a hitters’ ability to reach base and positively impact their teams’ ability to score runs. The LA Times did a fantastic piece on the importance of a 1-1 count back in 2015, and used Mike Trout as an example of a player who didn’t pay attention to counts. Sure enough, when browsing Baseball-Reference, the gap from 2-1 and 1-2 proved to be the largest 1-pitch gap over Trout’s illustrious career. In a 1-2 count, Trout is a .202 hitter, versus a .427 for his career in a 2-1 count. Perhaps that provides a better illustration on the importance of getting this pitch called correctly, and if mislabeled, can change the course of a game.

The other factor that many people don’t factor in, is the emotional element of umpiring. In 2014, the New York Times published an article that discussed the situations where umpires made the most mistakes over the course of a game. In the article, authors Brayden Kind and Jerry Kim reference a research-study that was published in the Management Science journal. The findings were as follows…

  • “umpires tended to favor the home team by expanding the strike zone, calling a strike when the pitch was actually a ball 13.3 percent of the time for home team pitchers versus 12.7 percent of the time for visitors.”
  • Umpires were “more likely to make mistakes when the game was on the line. For example, our analyses suggest that umpires were 13 percent more likely to miss an actual strike in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game than in the top of the first inning, on the first pitch.”
  • Pitch count had an influence over the umpire’s perception of a pitch. When the count was 3-0, and another ball would end the at-bat, the umpires mistakenly called a strike 18.6 percent of the time, compared with a 14.7 percent error rate when the count was 0-0. But when the count was 0-2, with another strike yielding a strikeout, the umpires expanded the strike zone only 7.3 percent of the time, half the error rate for 0-0.
  • Baseball insiders have long suspected what our research confirms: that umpires tend to make errors in ways that favor players who have established themselves at the top of the game’s status hierarchy.

I don’t believe these findings suggest “good” or “bad” umpiring as much as it does, humans being human. Nobody wants to get booed by 40,000 people, nobody wants to screw up on center stage when the game is on the line, and nobody wants to go against the stars of the game. Sure, umpires are trained to call a game objectively, but when decisions need to be processed in tenths of a second, I believe emotion (at least to a small affect) will always play a factor in the decision.

Circling back to the HBO segment discussed above, Moscowitz re-watched game 7 of the 2011 World Series between the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals. According to Moscowitz, “Our Game 7 data shows that the home plate umpire (Layne) missed 14 calls in favor of the home team Cardinals…Guess who won?”

Another illustration of the importance of consistency took place in an April when the Washington Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves. Followingt the game, Brooks Baseball released this graph of home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor’s performance on balls and strikes.

 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, with the bases loaded and 2-outs, and the Braves trailing by 2 runs, Bucknor then made one of the worst calls I’ve seen in a Major League game.

 

 

 

As a player and a fan of baseball, this is completely unacceptable. Guys play roughly 200 games in 9 months between Spring Training, the regular season, and playoffs. All of them are banged up, and many are holding off on addressing injuries that are (or end up being) career altering. They deserve to compete for baseballs ultimate prize on a level playing field, and anything in existence that could minimize the chance of situations like these occurring, needs to be implemented by Major League Baseball to some (any) extent. Simply saying “that’s the way it’s always been played” isn’t a reasonable excuse for fans who are paying a premium to attend games – they deserve the best on-field product, and that includes officiating.

Perhaps the most glaring piece of evidence that umpiring impacts the way games are played? Look no further than the sportsbooks in Las Vegas. Any betting resource on the internet lists homeplate umpires for every game to go along with their projections on how the game will be played out. In an article from the well-known Safest Betting Sites, the importance of understanding who’s behind the plate in handicapping games is discussed in full. The tendencies to favor All-Star players and play to the home fans are just a few of the proven factors discussed.

So, if a homeplate umpire alone can shift betting lines, it’s that reason enough to believe that they have a significant impact the way the game is played? As Ban Johnson once said, “A good umpire is the umpire you don’t even notice. He’s there all afternoon, but when the game is over, you don’t even remember his name.” The fact that people bet big money based on who’s behind home plate suggests this isn’t the case.

Electronic strikezones, while not perfect, provides the game with consistency. Former All-Star and 11-year Major League veteran Eric Byrnes said it best when he said, “Why do millions of people sitting at home get to know whether or not it was a ball or strike, yet the poor dude behind home plate is the one who’s left in the dark?” Umpires are still absolutely critical to the game, including the home plate umpire. But refusing to utilize technology that could make the game more consistent, and therefore its results (from teams and players) more reliable, is just of the many problems Major League Baseball is facing in regards to its lack of innovation and watchability.

And Giants fans – guess who’s behind homeplate for tomorrow night’s game against the Brewers? None other than C.B. Bucknor himself!

3 Comments

  1. A.J. on August 22, 2017 at 12:37 PM

    Does MLB have sanctions against umpires who continually make mistakes? In other words, do they send them down to the minors to get re-trained or are they penalized in some way? How closely are they scrutinized, and are they ever actually fired? If Hernandez and Bucknor are so awful, and it’s a widely accepted opinion around the league, why are they still working? Is their union to blame, in that MLB doesn’t want to have to deal with the threat of a possible strike, or other retaliatory measures?



    • Straight108 on August 22, 2017 at 2:03 PM

      Great question, AJ. To my knowledge, umpires get fined, and have, or rare occasion, been suspended. But very rarely are they penalized, and to my knowledge, never fired. MLB has measures in place for umpires performance to be “graded” and provide tools to keep improving, but it’s up to the umpires to utilize them. I remember watching a segment last year, and a recently retired umpire said that he threw his tapes in the trash. Until umpires are held accountable, they have no incentive to get better.



  2. Douglas Gawoski on August 23, 2017 at 3:31 PM

    5 umps should be sent to the minors and 5 umps brought up to the majors every year based on accuracy of calls, similar to how players are demoted and promoted. That way the league can keep umps to make calls while still having a method to improve the game and reward the best umpires.



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