How many times do we sit down in the first inning and realize it’ll be a long night because Kershaw is getting squeezed by an umpire that has a strike zone the size of a postage stamp? Or vice versa, we know it’s going to be a good night for him because his “black” is extending 3-4 inches to each side of home plate. Umpires can really affect the outcome of a game, and with the rule against arguing balls and strikes, there isn’t much a team can do about it other than adjust to the best of their ability.
So I was wondering, "is there a sabermetrics stat out there to monitor pitcher performance while certain umpires work behind home plate?" Yes, you guessed it. There have been studies. The statistical calculations vary from one sabermetrician to the next. Some calculate formulas that tabulate the percentage of time that an umpire calls a borderline strike to the favor of the pitcher vs. batter. Others calculate which umpire grants the low strike vs. the high strike, or the strike on the left of the plate vs. the right. The findings are consistent. All umpires have tendencies to call pitches a certain way.
Interestingly, each statistician is able to identify the same group of umpires that favor pitchers and those that favor batters. This is something that I would watch very closely if I were managing a major league club. If my starter is the type of pitcher that nibbles at the corners and lives off of the “black,” I’d definitely not want someone like Dana DeMuth behind the plate, because each sabermetrician has identified DeMuth as an umpire that doesn’t call the corner pitches strikes.
|Dana DeMuth behind the plate in the 2009 NLDS|
I remember a time when World Series games could be extremely frustrating because an American League umpire was behind the plate and you would never get the low strike from them. Why? Because AL umps used the outside chest protector and they couldn’t stoop down as low as NL umps, who used the inside chest protector. As a result, pitches on the lower end of the zone were called balls. Forcing NL pitchers to make adjustments.
Then there are those AL aficionados that argued the NL umpires were calling low pitches strikes, and as a result they weren’t calling pitches according to the true definition of the strike zone. Now with umpires calling games in both leagues and everyone wearing the inside the shirt padding, those tendencies are gone.
So, here’s a list of umpires that often result in a long night for pitchers, with the small strike zones and lowest strike call percentages:
And those that favor pitchers with the largest strike zone and have the highest strike call percentages:
|Umpire Jeff Nelson behind the plate in the 2009 World Series, identified as one of the most pitcher-friendly umpires by sabermetricians.|
To my surprise, most other umpires are found to be rather consistent and fair with the way they call the strike zone, neither favoring hitters or pitchers. When MLB instituted the use of QuesTec systems installed in eleven different ballparks throughout both leagues, it looks that the results have turned out to be positive. Who would have thought that Cowboy Joe is statistically right down the middle with his pitch calling? Or that Tim McClelland, an umpire that delays his call by a second or two, (extremely frustrating), is one of the most consistent home plate umpires in the game.
|Cowboy Joe West, there's something wrong when umps have nicknames, they're supposed to be the nameless, faceless arbitrators of the game.|
Sabermetricians have broken down which umpires have a tendency to call strikes in the lower regions or higher regions or to the right or left. And as a manager or player, I’d want to be aware of who they are. But those calculations and stats are too cumbersome and lengthy to address here. Let me just say, that the data is out there, and adjustments should be made.
With Jeff Nelson behind the plate, there is a likelihood that 10 additional strikes will go the way of the pitcher than if Dana Demuth were calling those same pitches. That, my friend, is significant.
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