When Calling Balls And Strikes, Umpires Are Reluctant to Make Calls That Invite Criticism

October 28th, 2014

Forget how Judges–who just call balls and strikes–view criticism of their decisions. An interesting new study, profiled in this NPR piece, shows that baseball umpires are “really reluctant to make calls that invite criticism.”

If you’re an umpire and you’re unsure about what the correct call is and you’re given a choice between one call that’s particularly consequential and one call that’s relatively inconsequential, they will more or less preserve the status quo. Well, if you want to avoid the – say, the public criticism that is associated with making a pivotal call an error, then you may err on the side of preserving the status quo.

What does it mean to preserve the status quo?

Well, so basically umpires are reluctant to make calls that can flip the outcome of the game, change the status quo and have them be responsible for whether the game tips one way or the other. So if calling a strike can tip the game one way, they’re more likely to call a ball. If calling a ball can reverse the momentum in the game, they’re more likely to call a strike.

So if the bases are loaded and there are three balls, an ump is more likely to call a strike than call a ball, and walk in a run.

And this fear of criticism is even greater in high-profile games.

Green and Daniels also find, interestingly, that the higher the profile of the game – the larger the TV audience – the greater the bias because the umpires are thinking – maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously – millions of people are watching me, I hope to God I don’t blow it.

When MLB selects umpires, they focus not on the most accurate umps, but on the most consistent umps.

Well, it turns out that Major League Baseball seems to have its own biases. When Green and Daniels analyzed which umpires get selected to officiate big games, it turns out the league tends to pick umpires who are not the most accurate, but umpires who tend to be the most consistent in their calls. …

It can be hard to figure out, but I think what’s happening here is that Major League Baseball is using consistency presumably as a proxy for accuracy because if the umpire makes the same call over and over again, it could be because Major League Baseball thinks the umpire is being accurate. At the very minimum, of course, being consistent is at least being fair. So if you make the same calls the same way for all teams, presumably you’re being fair.

The article cites as an instance where an ump opened himself up for criticism–the Umpire who called a runner safe–when hew as clearly out–denying Armanda Galarraga of a perfect game in 2010. I blogged about game, and whether the last out means more, here, here, here, here, and here.