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Hok Talk: Picking on umpires

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How good are the umpires, anyway?

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics
Jorge Soler has been arguing with umpires all year long.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

This year FanGraphs caused quite a stir when they updated their version of the WAR stat for catchers. They started taking a catcher’s framing ability - his ability to convince an umpire to call more strikes - into account. Some people think framing is overrated. Others wonder, if it’s so effective, why baseball officials, statisticians, and fans seem to simply be OK with the fact that catchers are manipulating the strike zone when they shouldn’t have any impact whatsoever by the rulebook. And everyone wondered just how many calls umpires were getting wrong.

Then, yesterday, there was an argument in the Rumblings over whether umpires call pitches wrong in order to hurt the Royals more often than other teams. I realized I could answer two questions with one table. Here is that table, courtesy of data provided by Baseball Savant.

Balls and Strikes

Team Strikes Called Balls% Balls Called Strikes% Miss% - Gift% Total Wrong%
Team Strikes Called Balls% Balls Called Strikes% Miss% - Gift% Total Wrong%
ARI 9.8% 7.8% 2.0% 8.4%
ATL 9.9% 8.5% 1.4% 8.9%
BAL 13.2% 6.9% 6.3% 8.7%
BOS 11.1% 7.8% 3.3% 8.7%
CHC 12.1% 7.8% 4.3% 9.1%
CIN 11.6% 7.2% 4.4% 8.5%
CLE 9.3% 8.1% 1.2% 8.5%
COL 13.4% 6.6% 6.8% 8.6%
CWS 14.6% 5.3% 9.3% 8.1%
DET 12.0% 6.9% 5.1% 8.5%
HOU 11.5% 6.6% 4.9% 8.1%
KC 12.4% 7.1% 5.3% 8.6%
LAA 12.5% 6.7% 5.8% 8.5%
LAD 10.9% 8.1% 2.8% 9.0%
MIA 12.8% 7.1% 5.7% 8.7%
MIL 10.6% 8.2% 2.4% 8.9%
MIN 10.8% 7.0% 3.8% 8.2%
NYM 13.9% 8.6% 5.3% 10.2%
NYY 12.1% 7.4% 4.7% 8.8%
OAK 14.2% 7.1% 7.1% 9.3%
PHI 10.8% 7.8% 3.0% 8.7%
PIT 12.6% 6.8% 5.8% 8.6%
SD 10.7% 9.0% 1.7% 9.5%
SEA 12.4% 7.9% 4.5% 9.3%
SF 11.4% 8.1% 3.3% 9.1%
STL 14.6% 7.1% 7.5% 9.4%
TB 10.7% 6.6% 4.1% 7.9%
TEX 13.0% 6.9% 6.1% 8.8%
TOR 10.7% 7.0% 3.7% 8.1%
WSH 13.0% 7.4% 5.6% 9.1%
TOTAL 12.0% 7.4% 4.6% 8.7%

To answer the question from yesterday, no the Royals aren’t picked on any more than anyone else. They’re slightly above average in having their strikes called balls and slightly below average in having their balls called strikes. If umpires were, for some reason, picking on the Royals you’d expect the numbers to be much further off of the averages. Beyond that, the Royals average slightly fewer wrong calls of any kind than the major league average. The umpires are not only not picking on the Royals, but they’re generally more accurate with the Royals pitchers than they are others.

The biggest takeaway from this table, though, is that umpires are far more likely to call a strike a ball than vice versa. The total number of misses in the strike zone is about 67% of the total number of misses outside the strike zone even though batters have taken only 40% as many pitches inside the strike zone as they have outside the strike zone.

In total, though, they only miss 8.7% of their ball and strike calls. Considering how hard pitches are thrown and how much they break, that’s pretty impressive. Still, in a game with approximately 300 pitches thrown, that’s going to be ~25 pitches they get wrong one way or another. That’s enough to make a difference. It’s hard to say whether that justifies the large differences we saw in catcher WAR by FanGraphs. But it does seem clear that if we can use automation to get calls right more often without significantly impacting the timing or flow of the game, that would probably be preferable.

So replace umpires with automation, already

The thing that I wonder is if MLB did adopt robot umpires for the strike zones how long would it take for fans or players to complain that the calibration must be off? And if it works out fairly well, how long will it take to replace other aspects of umpiring with robots? You could magnetize the foul line chalk and put chips inside of the balls to determine when they cross instead of relying on umpire eyesight. Impact sensors on bases, shoes, and gloves to determine whether a runner or ball reached a base first.

Then, once you’ve replaced all of the umpires with robots why stop there? You could replace players with robots, too. Imagine the spin rates a robot pitcher could achieve. And the power a robot batter might have. Owners wouldn’t have to pay the robots, they wouldn’t have to be granted free agency, careers could last much longer. Also, robot brawls could be enjoyed without fear of poor injured humans.

And once you’ve replaced umpires and players maybe you should replace fans, too. They won’t be distracted from the action so they’ll be able to enjoy the game the way it should be enjoyed. Robots are also far less likely to be injured by foul balls so we can stop extending the protecting netting and just get rid of it altogether. They would even create the most mathematically perfect waves in the late innings of a blowout.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more robot umpires make a lot of sense.