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Baseball Analysis  John Holway

After the NBA scandal ---


By John B Holway

When basketball ref Tim Donaghy admitted he took money from gamblers undectected for four years, it should have set off alarm bells in other sports. How prone to scandal are they? Baseball, for instance.

For a century or more, umpires have been the invisible men, like the men in black who scurry around the Japanese kabuki stage changing scenery while the audience is barely aware of them.

That's changing now.

“A bettor should know umpires as thoroughly as he handicaps a major league team,” author/gambler Michael Murray warns, Unfortunately, “there are still too many umpires that interpret the rules their way.”

In 1919 gamblers could buy a handful of Black Sox players for a few thousand dollars. Today the price would be millions. By contrast, umpires make $340,000 a year tops.

In his book, Betting Baseball 2007, Murray gives figures to show that there are “home umpires,” who “consciously or unconsciously go with the crowd.” With Ted Barrett, Jerry Meals, and Ron Kulpa behind the plate over the last three years, the home team won 70% of the time. With Mike Everett back there, it won only 34%.

The trend has gotten even worse, not better.

In 1991 researcher Richard Kitchin published his own six-year study of every game by all 53 big-league umpires. Among his findings: When John Kibler was calling the pitches, the home team won 42% of the time; when Larry McCoy was, it won 66%.

Kitchin wasn't the only one doing a study. In Las Vegas the Gamblers’ Handbook and Umpire Fact Sheet were keeping their own records.


John B Holway is author of Ted, the Kid, and The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues.

However, when Kitchin sent his numbers to the American and National League presidents, Bobby Brown and Bill White, they didn't even reply, and as far as is known, took no action. Ed Vargo, National League supervisor of umpires, dismissed the data as “hogwash.”

It doesn't matter if the umpires are tilting the field deliberately or unconsciously. The results are the same, and the smart money in Vegas knows it.

The umps also affect individual batting and pitching data.

Murray reports that Doug Eddings’ three-year walk average is 25% below that of other umps, and he punches out 15% more batters. In Kitchins’ study, John McSherry was last in strikeouts, first in walks. Greg Kosc was just the opposite.

Murray does not compile batting averages, but Kitchin and other researchers did. Kitchin found that umpires can add or subtract 15 points or more to a man’s batting average. Against Dave Phillips batters hit .271; Mike Reilly held them to .250. That’s almost a ten-percent difference, enough to change a .300-batter into a .315 hitter, or a .285 hitter.

Another scholar, David Driscoll, found an even greater disparity. He charted every umpire in the Blue Jays’ 1986 schedule and found that Phillips gave up a .301 average; Joe Brinkman, .215. That’s an almost 40-percent difference. Brinkman could turn a man’s 00-average into .240.

In 1990 Stanley Kaplan charted all Mets’ games and reported that when Joe West was behind home, the opponents out-hit the Mets by 67 points. When Charlie Williams was, the Mets out-hit their foes by 76 points.

Williams called one of the worst games in World Series history in 1993 between the Phillies and Blue Jays. TV commentator Tim McCarver repeatedly called for the over-head camera to replay Williams’ pitches in slow motion. It certainly seemed as if his “strikes” were 18 inches wide of the plate. Toronto won the game and Series. I don't know which team would have won if Williams had used the rule-book strike zone.

In the 1997 NL playoffs, umpire Eric Gregg also moved home plate a foot and a half west. Florida’s Livan Hernandez whiffed a record 15 batters, and his Florida Marlins won the game and Series. Would the Braves be wearing World Series rings with another umpire?Sometime around 1984 the umpires changed “baseball” into “low ball. They took the strike zone and laid it on its side.

In the famous photo of Ted Williams and his strike zone of colored baseballs, the balls above the waste were labled .350, .370, .390. The balls below the waste were labeled .250, .230, .210. In about 1984 the umpires ripped the zone in half and threw the upper half away. Then they dropped the bottom half below the knee and extended it out, where the balls would presumably be labeled .190 and .170

They took the bat out of the hands of hitters like Jimmie Foxx, who murdered high pitches. They also took the ball out of the glove of pitchers like Jim Palmer, who thrived on high heat at the throat. Luckily Jim retired that year. If he had been just starting out, he would have walked the first four men in spring training on 16 balls and would never have been heard of again.

Meantime, how many of Greg Maddux’ and Tom Glavine’s 300 victories were won on that now huge lower outside corner?

Another study, just released, shows a slight bias of white umpires for white pitchers, and vice versa. University of Texas economics professor Daniel Hamermesh and colleagues at McGill and Auburn universities, sifted through all 1.1 million major league pitches for three years 2004-2006. In white-on-white matchups, the umpires called 1.4% more strikes. The numbers were similar in black-on-black matchups. The home team also won slightly more often when the races matched.

(There are only eight black or Hispanic umpires in the major leagues. This is a glaring bias in a game that is now largely black and Hispanic.)

How have other sports handled disputes over officials’ calls?

In football the NFL’s instant replay has resolved most disputed calls on the field. Baseball tried it but caved in when the umpire’s union balked.

Tennis unveiled an electronic linesman in last year’s U.S. Open. It was used to settle disputed calls by the human refs. As a result, 30% of disputed calls were reversed. That's far too many human errors. How many Wimbledon Cups in the past were awarded to the runner-up? Baseball can easily adopt the same technology to call foul balls.

Racing, both human and equine, uses photos to determine the winner and electronic watches to time him.

Sports such as track and field, which use objective measurements such as stop watches and tape measures, have a minimum of disputes. Those based on subjective human judgment, such as ladies’ figure skating, are rife with scandal.

Baseball has also taken an important step toward removing human errors. In 2001 it unveiled Questec, which can detect balls and strikes within a half-inch tolerance.

The system employs four cameras, two overhead and two at field-level behind first and third. It is now installed in 11 of the 30 big league parks and is also used by Fox-TV in graphics to pinpoint the trajectory of each pitch and show exactly where it passed home plate. Baseball insists that it is a “teaching tool” but will not replace the umps.

Still, the umpires howled foul, and some pitchers, such as Maddux and Glavine, also screamed. Arizona’s Curt Schilling grabbed a bat and totaled a Questec camera with two swings.

Sandy Alderson of the commissioner’s office told Curt to “quit whining” – Schilling struck out 11 that day and walked only two. Perhaps he was afraid that Questec could change those favorable numbers.

Umpire John Hirschbeck, president of the Umpires’ Union, protested that the umps’ “independence” is “central to the game’s integrity.” But integrity does not mean a license to be wrong. It was a series of calls by Hirschbeck in 1996 that angered Roberto Alomar to the point of spitting in his face.

Although Questec has not replaces human umpires, it is reputedly used to fire incompetent men and to reward the best ones with lucrative post-season assignments.

Each umpire receives a CD-Rom of his performance after each Questec-monitored game. So does Commissioner Bud Selig’s office. Alderson (who is no longer there) was known to email certain umpires to “look for strikes.” Overnight, the CDs show, they did. “I was surprised,” Hamermesh says, “how quickly [the racial difference] disappeared in Questec parks.”

Umps have reputedly apologized to catchers that they have to call less strikes in a Questec park, then they revert to their personal zones when they leave.

Questec – and the rule book – have not squeezed the strike zone; it still has about the same square inches it used to have. They have merely taken the umpires’ low, horizontal zone and stood it back up on end, though the top is still not as high as it was before 1984.

Yet, in spite of Questec, the umpires still show as great a range of individual performance as they did 16 years ago.

Murray claims that the umpires and Questec agreed 94% of the time. That's after giving the umpires two inches leeway on each side of the plate – pitches that are rule-book balls that are called strikes. But it still leaves six percent of the pitches in dispute, or about 14 per game – almost one per team per inning. Fourteen pitches per game are too many opportunities to influence the score, whether deliberately or inadvertently.

Why go with 6% human error if we have the means to achieve 0% error with Questec. (Actually, Questec isn't perfect, but it’s much better than 94%.)

Of the teams in playoff contention this year, seven have Qestec --- Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Mets, Millers, and D-Backs. In five potential playoff cities umpires are not monitored – Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Diego.

Questec’s contract with Major League Baseball runs out this year. No decision has been announced on whether it will be renewed.

It should be.

Baseball should also publish the stats on umps, just as every player has his stats published and analyzed to a fare-thee-well by Bill James.

In short, baseball must take a closer look at its umpires and demand that they obey the rules as written, not as the umps think they should have been written.

The all-seeing eyes of Questec are peering over their shoulders. They may smash one camera, but they can't smash them all.

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