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Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Umpires Strike Back

My column today on Baseball Prospectus takes an initial look at the oft-said belief that hitters with better plate discipline and pitchers with better command end up getting the benefit of the doubt from the man behind the plate. I recall first hearing this idea in the late Ron Luciano's book The Umpire Strikes Back that I read back in 1983 or so. There he says the following regarding pitchers.

During a game an umpire gets into a groove with a pitcher. People like Catfish Hunter [pictured above] and Ron Guidry are always going to be around the plate, so an umpire gets into the habit of calling strikes. Even when they miss the plate, it's usually a situation pitch intended to setup the batter for the next pitch or entice him to swing at a pitch outside the strike zone that he can't hit solidly. The umpire becomes so used to calling strikes that it's difficult to call a ball. Strike one, strike two, foul ball, it's close to the plate, strike three.

Then there are pitchers like Ed Figueroa. He was all over the place. One pitch would be high, the next pitch would be in the dirt, the third pitch would be in the concession stand. He would throw three pitches outside the strike zone, then nip the corner of the plate by a quarter inch and expect the umpire to be ready to call a strike.

Within certain limits we can use the PITCHf/x data to try and get a read on this by measuring the number of called strikes and called balls for pitchers and hitters and how many of each went in favor and opposed to the player. By adding these up and we can then calculate a percentage of pitches for each player. Overall, what we find is that umpires, within the limits of the system, seem to get the calls correct 9 out of 10 times with pitchers getting the small upper-hand. It's also the case that left-handed hitters incur a 10% penalty on called strikes over their right-handed brethren.

You'll have to read the article to see all of the conclusions but suffice it to say that Luciano, if he was speaking for all umpires, may have overstated his case.

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