This has not been the best year to be a Major League Baseball umpire. While other major sports move forward with their integration of instant replay and other technologies to increase accuracy of calls, baseball seems to lag behind. Many claim it’s too old a sport, too traditional, that it needs to retain its “human element.” Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey even went so far as to say if you use technology to get calls right, we might as well get robots to replace the players. Not even kidding. So ESPN’s Outside the Lines rushed a study of MLB umps, and they’d like you to believe that they’re blowing WAY TOO MANY calls.
[T]he “Outside the Lines” analysis found that an average of 1.3 calls per game were close enough to require replay review to determine whether an umpire had made the right call. Of the close plays, 13.9 percent remained too close to call, with 65.7 percent confirmed as correct and 20.4 percent confirmed as incorrect.
“That’s high,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher. “They shouldn’t be allowed to miss [that many]. I have seen some calls this year that just — that curl your hair.”
Of course, the one call that curled everyone’s hair this season is the one that cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a place among baseball’s elite and made him a martyr instead. And I do want that to be fixed, I’m just not buying this study. I’m always amazed at how often the crew DOES get the call right, even when I’m completely befuddled at home. Sidebar: that exact call is in fact among the hardest, since umpires *watch* the bag and *listen* for the snap of the first baseman’s glove, which you don’t get on an underhand toss to the P. Anyway, it’s no secret here at WG that I’m a wannabe statistician so let’s dive into some numbers real quick:
So the article focused on the highish-sounding stat of 20.4%. But in reality, that’s 20% out of the 1.3 calls/game that were close enough to warrant replay usage in the eyes of the researcher. If an average game has 54 outs and say 9 hits per team minus 7 strikeouts per team, since balls/strike are not replay candidates at this point in the debate, we come up with 58 potential out/safe calls per game (not counting double plays etc.) And out of 58, the 1.3 “close calls” represent just 2.25% of all calls. Even if you assume the umps get the close ones WRONG EVERY TIME (which they don’t), that means they’re still right (or replay doesn’t help) nearly 98%of the time. But if only 20.4% of those are actually overturned, we’re talking about less than .5% of total outs/hits calls going the wrong way. 99.6% accuracy sounds 1. a little different from the headline “MLB UMPIRES GET 20% OF CLOSE CALLS WRONG” and 2. OK in my book.
HAVING SAID THAT, I’m fine with adding the tech in a reasonable way (not more than a couple of times a game). I’m actually still waiting to hear the drawbacks. But don’t sell the fans some half-baked study built on two weeks of data. Two weeks of statistics can tell you anything you want them to. Schforfteen percent of all people know that.