The Calls That Replay Won't Fix
Umpires Get 8% of Ball-Strike Calls Wrong—And Expanded Replay Won't Change That
By BRIAN COSTA c/o WSJ
Major League Baseball is taking dramatic steps to reduce the impact of umpires' mistakes. Starting next year, the league plans to expand its use of instant replay with a manager's challenge system in which nearly all plays will be reviewable.
But the new system won't address the most frequent area of human error: the strike zone.
When assessing whether a pitch is a ball or a strike, umpires get the call wrong around 8% of the time, according to a review of every call this season (through Sept. 10) by Inside Edge, a professional scouting service used by 15 major-league teams. That translates to an average of 8.8 incorrect calls per game behind the plate.
Baseball officials say the rate is slightly lower than that, according to the league's internal evaluation system. But either way, it represents the vast majority of all incorrect calls.
Excluding balls and strikes, MLB research found that umpires miss only one call every five games, according to Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who helped devise the new replay system. Yet the massive expansion leaves balls and strikes outside the scope of replay.
"We discussed virtually every call and decided not to make balls and strikes reviewable," Schuerholz said. "It could possibly delay the game, make the game far longer, alter the pace of play far more dramatically than any one thing we might do."
As a result, the strike zone will endure as the most significant part of baseball where the so-called human element reigns supreme.
In theory, the area delineating balls and strikes is clear. MLB defines the strike zone as the area over home plate from the midpoint between the top of the batter's shoulders and the top of his uniform pants to "the hollow beneath the kneecap."
But in practice, it varies from umpire to umpire, game to game and even depending on the count. The data collected by Inside Edge suggests umpires are far more hesitant to call a pitch a ball or a strike if doing so would result in either a walk or a strikeout.
On 0-2 counts this year, 26% of pitches taken inside the strike zone are erroneously called balls, compared with 10.9% on all other counts. On 3-0 counts, 12% of pitches taken outside the strike zone are mistakenly called strikes, compared with 6.7% on all other counts.
"It's something that we're trying to continue to work on," said Peter Woodfork, MLB's senior vice president for baseball operations.
Inside Edge charts pitch locations using a combination of video review by its scouts, most of whom are former professional players, and an analysis of data from Sportvision's PITCHf/x system, which uses pitch-tracking cameras installed in every major-league ballpark. The company found that umpires' individual accuracy rates range from 91% to 96%.
At times, incorrect calls are less an indictment of umpires than a reflection of the challenges even the best-trained humans face in determining where a ball moving upwards of 90 miles an hour—sometimes darting or diving—passes through an invisible, three-dimensional box of air. On certain pitches, the catcher can impede the umpire's view.
"Catchers move around more than they ever have," said Randy Marsh, MLB's director of major-league umpires. "Umpires have to talk to them and say, 'Listen, if you want me to have a good shot at this pitch and get it correct, you have to give me a view of it. You have to stay down.'"
But regardless of the reasons for inconsistencies within the strike zone, the variance has a major impact on the game.
Many teams give players graphics called heat maps before every game that illustrate where that day's home-plate umpire tends to be more lenient with pitchers and where he tends to be more stringent. If an umpire is known to call relatively few strikes on the bottom outside corner of the zone, for instance, a catcher may be more reluctant to call for a pitch there.
"It's just like hitter data," New York Yankees catcher Chris Stewart said. "We try to take advantage as much as we can with the information that we're given."
The same goes for hitters, who must decide which borderline pitches to swing at. New York Mets third baseman David Wright said it is equally important to know how to talk to umpires to get a feel for their strike zone on a given day.
"I'll ask them, 'Is that as far out as you're going to go? Is that as far down as you're going to go?' " Wright said. "Some umpires are more outgoing than others. Some don't like to be questioned. Some don't really mind it as long as you do it in the right way. There's a lot that goes into knowing who the umpire is every day and what they bring to the table."
While umpires' individual tendencies vary, some teams end up benefiting from blown calls more than others. The Milwaukee Brewers have benefited from 55.3% of the incorrect ball-strike calls in their games this year, an MLB high. (It hasn't helped much: The Brewers are buried in fourth place.) The Minnesota Twins have benefited from an MLB-low 44.3% of such calls.
Some players also benefit more than others. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has been helped this year by the fact that 14.3% of his pitches taken outside the zone have been called for strikes, an MLB high (minimum 40 innings pitched).
Likewise, San Diego Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin has been aided by the fact that 21.5% of pitches he has taken inside the zone have been called as balls, an MLB high (minimum 200 plate appearances).
MLB has been working to standardize the strike zone for more than a decade, in part by using technology to hold umpires accountable. Woodfork said umpires are far more consistent than they used to be. "Overall, when you look at all the pitches they call and all the strikes they call, I think they do a very good job," he said.
Schuerholz left open the possibility that balls and strikes will be discussed as part of future versions of the replay system. Someday, he said it's conceivable umpires "might have Dick Tracy wristwatches on where they look down and see where the pitch was and they alter the call." But he said the use of an automated system such as PITCHf/x isn't yet feasible.
Getting the Calls
Which players benefit the most from incorrect ball-strike calls?
Pitchers (% of called strikes on pitches taken outside zone)
1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees: 14.3
2. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays: 12.9
3. David Robertson, Yankees: 12.8
4. Sonny Gray, Athletics: 12.4
5. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox: 11.8
Hitters (% of called strikes on pitches taken in-zone)
1. Carlos Quentin, Padres: 78.5%
2. Yonder Alonso, Padres: 81%
3. Xavier Paul, Reds: 81%
4. Chris Iannetta, Angels: 81.1%
5. Matt Joyce, Rays: 81.5%
Which players are harmed the most by incorrect ball-strike calls?
Pitcher (% of called strikes on pitches taken in-zone)
1. Aaron Crow, Royals: 77.2%
2. Brian Matusz, Orioles: 78.5%
3. Clayton Richard, Padres: 78.8%
4. Scott Rice, Mets: 79%
5. Kyle Gibson, Twins: 79.2%
Hitter (% of called strikes on pitches taken outside zone)
1. Munenori Kawasaki, Blue Jays: 13.2%
2. Eric Chavez, Diamondbacks: 12%
3. Adam Lind, Blue Jays: 11.8%
4. Robbie Grossman, Astros: 11.1%
5. Mike Carp, Red Sox: 11%
Note: All data for 2013 only, through Sept. 10; minimum 40 innings pitched/200 plate appearances