The Umpire Effect

Today, David Price matched up against Roy Halladay and won as the Rays edged the Jays 3-2. On the heels of a terrible start against Texas, where he walked five and gave up six runs while only getting four outs, seeing Price throwing six innings while only walking one batter had to be a big relief for Tampa Bay fans. However, he had some help. Take a look at the strike zone plot from today’s game, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.


By my count, there are 17 pitches that are clearly off the plate that were called strikes. Plain and simple, Tim Welke had a wide strike zone this afternoon. If it was above the knees and anywhere near the plate, he was sticking his arm in the air. He was consistent about it, giving both pitchers a few inches off the plate on either side, so while he wasn’t biased one way or another, his calls still clearly had an impact on how the pitchers were able to attack opposing hitters today.

Compare the strike zone above with the one that Price faced from Dana DeMuth in his previous start:


Three pitches off the plate that were called strikes in the game against Texas, plus a whole host of pitches down in the zone, but over the middle of the plate, that were called balls. The strike zone that Welke called today was much, much different than the one that DeMuth called five days ago.

You hear a lot of talk about how inconsistent pitchers are, especially young pitchers. From start to start, the variations in performance can be drastic. However, we have to keep in mind that it isn’t just the pitcher’s stuff or command that’s a variable on any given day, but the opposing team, the park, the weather, and yes, the umpire. Did David Price have better command today than he did in his last start? Yea, I’m sure he did. But he got a lot more help from the man in blue today, as well. What would the performances have looked like if Welke had been behind the plate for the Texas game and DeMuth behind the plate for today’s contest? Significantly different, I think. Perhaps instead of one terrible start and one great start, Price would have just looked okay twice.

As always, the moral of the story – evaluating pitchers by their results, even their defensive independent ones, is a great way to reach some bad conclusions. There are just so many things that are out of a pitcher’s control that can have a significant, tangible impact on the final product.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

32 Responses to “The Umpire Effect”

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  1. Mariano, Bradenton, FL says:

    I thought Price was gettin’ hosed on the low strike today and from what I read in this chart, he was.

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  2. Rick B. says:

    I do think that strike zone is the average of major league players, obviously not for the width, but for the height so it’s more difficult to criticize pitches at the knees. I’m not saying we can’t draw any conclusions it just can change considerably from Carlos Pena to Marco Scutaro.

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    • twinsfan says:

      Are you sure about that? I was under the impression that while the graphic itself stays the same, the vertical size of the strike zone actually changes according to the individual.

      Clarification from anyone who knows the system better?

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      • Dan Brooks says:

        Correct! The vertical portion of this zone is normalized so that the top of the zone is the sz_top parameter and the bottom of the zone is the sz_bot parameter for that individual in that game. Which, as far as I know, are the same values that are used to inform the broadcast.

        and… it’s my website. =)

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      • twinsfan says:

        Straight from the horse’s mouth, doesn’t get any better than that.

        Thanks Dan, much appreciated.

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      • twinsfan says:

        The “much appreciated” goes for the tools you provide as well as the answer to the question.

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      • alskor says:

        Dan – Thanks for that website. I use it all the time. Much appreciated.

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  3. Andy S says:

    “As always, the moral of the story – evaluating pitchers by their results, even their defensive independent ones, is a great way to reach some bad conclusions. There are just so many things that are out of a pitcher’s control that can have a significant, tangible impact on the final product.”

    Well, we’ve got nothing else to go off at the moment, and current analysis methods have been pretty effective. It almost sounds from this line that you’re arguing against sabermetric analysis! Yeah, it’s easy to reach some bad conclusions quickly because of “statistical noise,” whatever its cause might be, but over the long run it should smooth out.

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  4. Bill says:

    Wonder if it was as bad as the Phillies-Reds game yesterday…

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  5. philosofool says:

    I would love to see MLB go to an electronic umpire for balls and strikes.

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    • Zack says:

      I really hope you’re joking.

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      • CMC_Stags says:

        Because a consistent strike zone would be awful?

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      • Slick says:

        Pitchers should just learn to throw more strikes over the plate

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      • BIP says:

        That’s kind of hard to do when those strikes over the plate are called balls.

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      • philosofool says:

        I’m dead serious. If you really like the effect of the umpire, we can roll a die on every strike or ball and if if comes up 6, we’ll call it the opposite.

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      • Mike I says:

        I think a lot of people, myself included, find the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of the umpire make the game a little more interesting and fun. If it were football, yeah, some sort of automated officiating system (if it were even feasible) might be better. It just doesn’t bother me that not every strike-ball call is perfect. Sometimes tradition does have a place in the game, IMO.

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  6. Slick says:

    So what a young pitcher can learn from this info is, is that when you are pitching and you know a particular ump has a habit of a wide strike zone or calls a lot of low strikes, then he should adjust his game accordingly. This seems more like an article to try and throw umps under the bus for essentially having the hardest officiating job in all of sports. Or yet again a way to complain how the latest fantasy darling is being ‘victimized’ by someone or something. Instead of waiting for him to pitch better, trade him for someone who already is pitching better and put yourself in contention! How hard is this concept?

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  7. dbuff says:

    My opinion is that if an umpire is going to enforce a personal strike zone then he should have a personalized home plate made that he can bring to the park when he’s umpiring home so that everyone can see just how wide (or narrow) the damn thing is. In fairness he should have 3 of them so the starters and any relievers can warm up with them in the bullpens. It would be a deductible business expense which would help on the financial side.

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    • Andy S says:

      Or he could just say to the players before the game “look, this is what I normally call as strikes, this is what I normally call as balls, I will be consistent on this.” Not that I’m advocating this; the strike zone is supposed to be standard. But if you widen the plate, he’d probably widen the strike zone even more, as he probably measures it based off the plate size.

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      • bigyaz says:

        The players know that umpires are not robots and thus have differing views of the strike zone. The good ones adjust accordingly. The others do a lot of whining.

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  8. Jason says:

    Besides the MLB, has anyone compiled a third-party evaluation of umpire tendencies? There is no doubt some degree of variance from an individual umpire’s strike zone from day to day, but there are also certain to be reliable trends. A notoriously stingy umpires might dissuade a fantasy owner from starting a pitcher, right? Tim McClelland comes to mind. Zack Grienke once said “For some reason, he’s the one umpire that scares me. I have nightmares about him.” Not that anyone wouldn’t start Grienke, but you see my point…

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  9. Michael says:

    From what I have seen and heard, pitchers get that wide strike called vs. lefites all the time. It’s an inconsistency that most umpires share. It goes both ways, so it isn’t so bad.

    As for the low balls, that’s more inconsistent and up for debate, I’d say.

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  10. Dave – thanks for qualifying what I thought was just a case of me watching games through Rays-colored glasses. Fine work – and Brooks is the man for making this data available like this.

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  11. BobbyRoberto says:

    I wonder if the opposing pitcher (Roy Halladay today) helped Price? I would guess umpires know that Halladay is a strike-throwing machine, so perhaps Halladay’s ability to paint the black and get the calls influenced the umpire into giving Price the same calls.

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  12. EDUB says:

    Witch data points represent swing-and-miss strikes?

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  13. hazel says:

    You’re sure he pitched better in his most recent start, but I’m not sure you’re even looking at particularly dissimilar performances. If the margin is strikes +/-25 these are basically the same starts.

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  14. W says:

    Is there any data available setting out career runs/game stats for various umpires? I’d imagine there might be significant discrepancies (even a quarter run per game would be significant when you consider the huge sample sizes for umps).

    Vegas Oddsmakers must be all over/under this stuff!

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  15. razor says:

    Excellent article, and one that is very true. That man behind the dish can be the x-factor for a pitcher. Pitch counts come into play as well as the percentage of hitters counts at 2-0 and/or 3-1.

    You can check umpire stats over at BP or at…I‘m not the gambling type myself but in fantasy terms one of the first things I look at is the umpire rotation in a series, or at least who is behind the dish that night. You do not want Adrian Johnson calling balls and strikes with one of your pitchers out there, I can tell you that. There are several other “hitters” umpires as well. Just like with players, the larger the sample size for umpire data, the better conclusions you can reach…

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  16. BaseWinner says:

    This is a great example of high one the umpire can change the outcome of the day and how they need to figure out a way to get consistency. I was against Price on vs. TOR because of his control issues. Cool stat on fangraphs would be to have % of strikes called balls and and % of balls called strikes for each guy – would be fun.

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  17. The stat I’d really like to see is each umpire’s percentage of called strikes/balls over a season, seasons, or entire career. Does anyone know if that has been compiled anywhere? It shouldn’t be hard to do, and with the large sample size for all but rookie umps it would be an accurate measure of their strike zones.
    I see BaseWinner has beat me to this, as have several others, no doubt. But it bears repeating. Is there anywhere, this site or other, where those stats are available?

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