Tag Archives: Umpires

Rookie Umpires and the Strike Zone

Summary: Based on a suggestion heard at SaberSeminar, I use a few different means to examine how rookie umpires call the strike zone. Those seven umpires appear to consistently call more low strikes than the league as a whole, but some simple statistics suggest it’s unlikely they are actually moving the needle.


Red Sox manager John Farrell was one of the speakers at Saberseminar, which I attended last weekend. As I mentioned in my recap, he was asked about the reasons offense is down a hair this year (4.10 runs per team per game as I type this, down from 4.20 through this date (4.17 overall) in 2013). He mentioned a few things, but one that struck me was his suggestion that rookie umpires calling a larger “AAA strike zone” might have something to do with it.

Of course, that’s something we can examine using some empirical evidence. Using this Hardball Talk article as a guide, I identified the seven new umpires this year. (Note that they are new to being full-fledged umps, but had worked a number of games as substitutes over the last several years.) I then pulled umpire strike zone maps from the highly useful Baseball Heat Maps, which I’ve put below. Each map shows the comparison between the umpire* and league average, with yellow marking areas more likely to be called strikes and blue areas less likely to be called strikes by the umpire.

* I used the site’s settings to add in 20 pitches of regression toward the mean, meaning that the values displayed in the charts are suppressed a bit.

Jordan Baker:

Jordan Baker

Lance Barrett:

Lance Barrett

Cory Blaser:

Cory Blaser

Mike Estabrook:

Mike Estabrook

Mike Muchlinski:

Mike Muchlinski

David Rackley:

David Rackley

D.J. Reyburn:

D.J. Reyburn

 

The common thread, to me, is that almost all of them call more pitches for strikes at the bottom of the zone, and most of them take away outside strikes for some batters. Unfortunately, these maps don’t adjust for the number of pitches thrown in each area, so it’s hard to get aggregate figures for how many strikes below or above average the umpires are generating. The two charts below, from Baseball Savant, are a little more informative; red dots are the bars corresponding to rookie umps. (Labeling was done by hand in MS Paint, so there may be some error involved.)

Called Strikes Out of ZoneCalled Balls in Zone

The picture is now a bit murkier; just based on visual inspection, it looks like rookie umps call a few strikes more than average on pitches outside the zone, and maybe call a few extra balls on pitches in the zone, so we’d read that as nearly a wash, but maybe a bit on the strike side.

So, we’ve now looked at their strike zones adjusted for league average but not the number of pitches thrown and their strike zones adjusted for the relative frequencies of pitches but not seriously adjusted for league average. One more comparison, since I wasn’t able to find a net strikes leaderboard, is to use aggregate ball/strike data, which has accurate numbers but is unadjusted for a bunch of other stuff. Taking that information from Baseball Prospectus and subtracting balls in play from their strikes numbers, I find that rookie umps have witnessed in total about 20 strikes more than league average would suggest, though that’s not accounting for swinging vs. called or the location that pitches were thrown. (Those are substantial things to consider, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to even out in 30 or so games.)

At 0.12 runs per strike (a figure quoted by Baseball Info Solutions at the conference) that’s about 2.4 runs, which is about 0.4% of the gap between this year’s scoring and last year’s. (For what it’s worth, BIS showed the umpires who’d suppressed the most offense with their strike zones, and if I remember correctly, taking the max value and applying it to each rookie would be 50–60 total runs, which is still way less than the total change in offense.)

A different way of thinking about it is that the rookie umps have worked 155 games, so they’ve given up an extra strike every 8 or so games, or every 16 or so team-games. If the change in offense is 0.07 runs per team-game, that’s about one strike per game. So these calculations, heavily unadjusted, suggest that rookie umpires are unlikely to account for much of the decrease in scoring.

So, we have three different imperfect calculations, plus a hearsay back of the envelope plausibility analysis using BIS’s estimates, that each point to a very small effect from rookie umps. Moreover, rookie umps have worked 8.3% of all games and 8.7% of Red Sox games, so it seems like an odd thing for Farrell to pick up on. It’s possible that a more thorough analysis would reveal something big, but based on the data easily available I don’t think it’s true that rookie umpires are affecting offense with their strike zones.

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Don’t Wanna Be a Player No More…But An Umpire?

In my post about very long 1-0 games, I described one game that Retrosheet mistakenly lists as much longer than it actually was–a 1949 tilt between the Phillies and Cubbies. Combing through Retrosheet initially, I noticed that Lon Warneke was one of the umpires. Warneke’s name might ring a bell to baseball history buffs as he was one of the star pitchers on the pennant winning Cubs team of 1935, but I had totally forgotten that he was also an umpire after his playing career was up.

I was curious about how many other players had later served as umps, which led me to this page from Baseball Almanac listing all such players. As it turns out, one of the other umpires in the game discussed above was Jocko Conlan, who also had a playing career (though not nearly as distinguished as Warneke’s). This raises the question: how many games in major league history have had at least two former players serve as umpires?

The answer is 6,953–at least, that’s how many are listed in Retrosheet. (For reference, there have been ~205,000 games in major league history.) That number includes 96 postseason games as well. Most of those are pretty clustered, for the simple reason that umpires will ump most of their games in a given season with the same crew, so there won’t be any sort of uniformity.

The last time this happened was 1974, when all five games of the World Series had Bill Kunkel and Tom Gorman as two of the men in blue. (This is perhaps more impressive given that those two were the only player umps active at the time, and indeed the last two active period–Gorman retired in 1976, Kunkel in 1984.) The last regular season games with two player/umps were a four game set between the Astros and Cubs in August 1969, with Gorman and Frank Secory the umps this time.

So, two umpires who were players is not especially uncommon–what about more than that? Unfortunately, there are no games with four umpires that played, though four umpires in a regular season game didn’t become standard until the 1950s, and there were never more than 5-7 umps active at a time after that who’d been major league players. There have, however, been 102 games in which three umpires had played together–88 regular season and 14 postseason (coincidentally, the 1926 and 1964 World Series, both seven game affairs in which the Cardinals beat the Yankees).

That 1964 World Series was the last time 3 player/umps took the field at once, but that one deserves an asterisk, as there are 6 umps on the field for World Series games. The last regular season games of this sort were a two game set in 1959 and a few more in 1958. Those, however, were all four ump games, which is a little less enjoyable than a game in which all of the umps are former players.

That only happened 53 times in total (about 0.02% of all MLB games ever), last in October 1943 during the war. There’s not good information available about attendance in those years, but I have to imagine that the 1368 people at the October 2, 1943 game between the A’s and Indians didn’t have any inkling they were seeing this for the penultimate time ever.

Two more pieces of trivia about players-turned-umpires: only two of them have made the Hall of Fame–Jocko Conlan as an umpire (he only played one season), and Ed Walsh as a player (he only umped one season).

Finally, this is not so much a piece of trivia as it is a link to a man who owns the trivia category. Charlie Berry was a player and an ump, but was also an NFL player and referee who eventually worked the famous overtime 1958 NFL Championship game–just a few months after working the 1958 World Series. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, do they?