I’ve watched a lot of Chicago Cubs baseball in my 57 years. In all those years it has seemed that home plate umpires are not very good at calling balls and strikes and that some are worse than others. Now there is proof.
And it seems the pitch calling is so bad that I’m not just crying foul on those against our Chicago Cubs anymore. When Joey Votto, one of the mildest mannered, well liked, and highly regarded players in the game, loses it over a called strike three, something is wrong. And Joe Maddon, ejected on Thursday for arguing balls and strikes, said he couldn’t take anymore.
Some numbers are in order here
185,543 – The number of plate appearances in 2018.
724,447 – The number pitches in all plate appearances
3.9 – The average number of pitches per plate appearance
298 – The average number of pitches per game in 2018.
That’s 298 times in three-plus hours a human, laden down with equipment, in cold, heat, humidity, has about than 400 milliseconds to determine precisely whether a pitch crosses an irregularly shaped pentagon between a certain height, a height that changes every batter.
Oh, and there are several pitching changes per game as well, which means different pitches, arm slots, and deliveries. If they can fool batters, they can fool umpires. And they are doing that a lot.
Now we have proof
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Boston University, known for helping couple the concussions and CTE issue in the NFL, has now proven, as Time Magazine reported, that yes, home plate umpires get it wrong. A lot.
Analyzing four million pitches over eleven seasons using Statcast and Pitchtrax they found that one in every five calls, 20%, are wrong. In 2018, Boston University found that home plate umpires made 14 wrong calls per game, 1.6 per inning.
And the error rate increased with pressure. Two strike mistakes were more frequent than in other counts. 29% more frequent. So Votto has good reason to be upset.
Experience doesn’t matter
The study also found that older umpires were making more mistakes than younger umpires. So I guess like with players there is that window of peak performance with them, too.
But the Major League Umpires Union fights against change, and MLB seems reluctant to take action that will aggravate the union. I don’t know why. They seem to have no problem aggravating the players’ union.
Technology will win on this issue
Earlier this year MLB announced that it would test using technology to call balls and strikes in the Atlantic League using the Trackman radar system. How accurate are these systems? Again Boston University looked at this too. According to their study, the cameras in MLB parks can track a ball 50 times during the flight of a pitch. Is that good enough?.
In perhaps in an inadvertent admission, they stated that the margin of error is just one inch. Well, that might seem small to a bunch of folks at Boston University and their slow pitch softball league, but an inch is enormous at the MLB level. Give Kyle Hendricks an inch off the plate consistently for a strike, and he’s winning the Cy Young.
Clearly, work needs to be done. But I am confident, far more confident that I am in self-driving cars and software on airplanes, that technology will win out here. And likely while pitch calling accuracy will improve and game quality increase, fans will notice little change, other than the calls will match what their eyes and batters are seeing.