POV: Bad Umpiring Hurt Baseball in 2021, Especially in the Playoffs. It’s Time for Change
When it comes to calling balls and strikes, MLB picks umpires based on seniority over performance, a practice that must stop, Questrom professor argues
POV: Bad Umpiring Hurt Baseball in 2021, Especially in the Playoffs. It’s Time for Change
When it comes to calling balls and strikes, MLB picks umpires based on seniority over performance, a practice that must stop, Questrom’s Mark Williams says
The 117th World Series is now behind us, with victory going to the tenacious Atlanta Braves, their first title since 1995. While different teams may win the trophy, one constant remains—bad pitch calling behind home plate. Players and fans deserve better, especially with so much riding on every pitch come playoff time.
After conducting a detailed performance study for the 2021 regular season, analyzing over 353,000 pitches, covering 2,430 games, there were a troubling 29,101 incorrect ball and strike calls made, equating to 12 times per game, or 1.3 per inning. On average, full-time umpires got it wrong 8.3 percent of the time, while younger call-up (substitute) umpires got it wrong 7.9 percent of the time. During the postseason and through the World Series, when the stakes are the highest and every pitch matters the most, Major League Baseball continues to allow second-rate umpires to officiate the biggest moments. The two best teams made it to the 2021 World Series, but unfortunately the best umpires did not. Of the seven umpires chosen, none were ranked in the top 10 for pitch-calling accuracy, and in fact, many ranked in the bottom quartile.
Home plate umpires exert the greatest influence on the game, judging every pitch that’s not hit. For the 2021 season, there were 74 full-time and 25 call-up umpires. The average age of full-time umpires was 49. The youngest (Nic Lentz) was 31 and the oldest (Joe West), 69. Interestingly, when rating pitch-calling performance, younger umpires tended to be higher performers.
Which makes sense, as this demanding job requires strong reflexes, eyesight, and physical stamina. The top-10 ball-strike callers averaged 5 years of experience, whereas the bottom 10 averaged 22 years behind the plate.
Prior to each opening day, MLB assigns 19 crews of four umpires. Based in part on seniority, one umpire is appointed crew chief. Crews work each game, assuming one of four field positions (except for the World Series, when seven umps are utilized). Though it seems counterintuitive, each game, crew members rotate positions clockwise—from base umpire to home plate duties—regardless of their pitch-calling ability. This is a major flaw, since we know that MLB umpires are not equal in their ball-strike accuracy. Some are better at field positions and others are best behind the plate. This rotation approach is relatively new. In the earlier days of the sport, there was specialization, and home plate duties were the purview of the most experienced umpires.
Last season, full-time umpires, on average, worked the plate 26 times and judged 3,840 pitches each, while call-up umps, on average, worked the plate 19 times and each judged 2,766 pitches; collectively, these umpires made over 29,000 bad calls. For this work, senior umpires can make $450,000 or more—not including the perks of postseason work.
Each year, the ball-strike calling of the top umpires continues to get stronger. However, the problem is that the lower performers are allowed to continue to work the plate. At some point, just like athletes, plate umpires hit their peak. Yet this reality appears to be ignored by MLB.
If pitch-calling accuracy demonstrated over the course of the regular season is not the primary criteria for working the big game, then what is?
There is a stark difference between the very top and very bottom performers. Here is one example: Tripp Gibson, age 40, who won UmpScores 2021 Umpire of the Year award, had an impressive regular season bad call ratio of only 6.43 percent, missing under nine calls per game. But, at the other end of the spectrum, Ed Hickox, age 59, had a bad call ratio of 10.82 percent, missing a staggering 16.3 calls per game, almost twice as many as Gibson. Why is that sizable error rate acceptable to MLB?
These two individuals are not outliers. When comparing the top and bottom 10 pitch callers, a deep accuracy divide remains. For 2021, the top 10 (average age 36) made bad calls only 6.89 percent of the time, or 9.8 per game. The bottom 10 (average age 56) made bad calls 10 percent of the time, or 14.71 per game. This staggering 45 percent swing in accuracy reinforces the fact that it matters who is behind home plate.
Bad plate calls also tilt the advantage to the pitcher or to the batter. Among MLB umpires, not only is there extreme variability in pitch-calling accuracy, certain umpires are notoriously bad at ball-strike calling during critical-count situations, such as 3-2, 2-2, 3-0, 0-2, and 1-2.
One bad plate call can dramatically change offensive opportunities. For example, on a 1-1 count, batters tend to hit .332, but on a 1-2 count, this advantage drops to .160. On an 0-2 count, the advantage drops to .156, which is why batters attempt to avoid two strike situations. When umpires make ball-strike errors, game odds and outcomes change.
Just ask Boston Red Sox ace pitcher Nate Eovaldi. During the critical game 4 of the American League playoffs between the Houston Astros and the Red Sox, plate official Laz Diaz missed an astonishing 21 ball-strike calls. In a key moment, Eovaldi was facing batter Jason Castro with two on and two outs, with the Red Sox holding a 2-1 series lead and home park advantage. The batter count was 1-2 (advantage to the pitcher), Eovaldi threw a curve ball for a strike that would have ended the inning, tied 2-2. Instead, Diaz called it a ball and two pitches later Castro hit a run-scoring single that blew the game wide open. Ultimately, the Red Sox also lost the series and a chance to advance to the Fall Classic.
Poor pitch calling by Laz Diaz should not have come as a surprise to the MLB, players, or fans. For the entire 2021 season, the 58-year-old umpire had been a bottom quartile performer, ranking only 64/74, with a bad call ratio of 9.55 percent, over 14 bad calls per game. The fact that MLB handpicked Diaz to umpire in the postseason is baffling, and the league must be held more accountable for allowing subpar officiating behind the plate.
If pitch-calling accuracy demonstrated over the course of the regular season is not the primary criteria for working the big game, then what is? Looking at the average age of top-performing umpires and the ones chosen for the 2021 World Series, it is clear that MLB and the union don’t utilize a merit-based system, but instead reward seniority over ability. This is a fundamental flaw.
The debate will rage on about whether robot umpires should be deployed to improve plate umpire accuracy. In the interim, there are incremental steps that MLB should make that could greatly reduce pitch-calling error rates and adverse impact on the game, and improve player and fan experience.
First, MLB should rethink their crew assignments, the outdated rotation system, and allow only the top ball-strike callers to specialize behind home plate. Baseball is a sport of specialization, so why shouldn’t this also be applied to home plate umpires? Adopting such an approach would allow the other umpires to focus primarily on base umpiring.
Second, umpires picked for the World Series should be at the top of their game. Choosing seniority over performance needs to stop. Working the postseason should be a privilege earned by umpires (young or old) that demonstrate strong pitch-calling performance over the regular season, and not a perk driven by seniority.
Third, MLB needs to recruit and promote stronger pitch callers, acknowledge peaking behind home plate, and weed out underperformers sooner. Higher standards should be used when determining who gains the privilege to work the plate. Major League Baseball Umpires Association also needs to wake up and realize that bad plate calls tarnish the profession, hurt the game, and diminish fan experience.
The number of full-time umpires is capped at 74, and with only a few new slots coming open each season, new talent is shut out until older, lower-performing umpires are retired. As extensive data from my original 2019 research showed (further supported this past season), umpires, like athletes, peak. Umpires such as Joe West, age 69, a perennial underperformer, who only after 44 years, is now retiring, should not have been allowed to continue to work the plate. Laz Diaz has also demonstrated his plate-calling duties should end. And it’s time MLB let new talent flourish.
Mark T. Williams (Questrom’93) is a recipient of the James E. Freeman Lecturer Chair. He is the founder of UmpScores, a performance app dedicated to providing baseball fans with home plate umpire statistics, analysis, and ratings.
The numbers don’t lie. Thank you Professor Williams for quantifying this matter and taking the subjectivity and favoritism out of it. How can fans, players, owners and the league let this continue? It’s time for a complete overhaul. What could possibly be the argument for not having the most accurate umpires calling the playoffs. “Seniority” is a hogwash answer. Maybe their drop in performance has to do with bias or arrogance over stamina. Regardless. We deserve better while Professor Williams deserves a Major League style signing bonus from MLB for logically exposing this bad judgement. Hey MLB, it your turn! Chop chop.
Someone’s bias is showing here. The author of this article may have a head for business, but he has zero feel for umpiring, and he shows little understanding of what actually constitutes umpiring excellence, for which there are many more criteria to be considered than mere pitch-calling accuracy.
It’s always easier to criticize umpires for their deficiencies and “notoriously bad” calls than it is to put things in perspective and admit that if an umpire’s bad call turns a potential 2-2 strikeout situation into a 3-2 full count and the batter hits the next pitch out of the park, the home run is attributable much more to what the pitcher did when he served up a big fat 3-2 meatball than to the umpire’s inaccurate call of the previous pitch. Full disclosure, I’ve been umpiring more than forty years and I’ve made my share of bad calls out there – any umpire worth their salt has – and I always tell players if they don’t want umpires to make calls, good or bad, that have an adverse effect on the outcome of a game, don’t put them in a position where that can happen. For every “bad call” behind the plate, I guarantee you, there are two fielding errors, three mental mistakes, a couple of hit batters, four passed balls, and numerous strikeouts by batters. Yet none of this enters into the author’s discussion of “competence” or “second rate” performance here except as it applies to umpires. Failure is baked into a player’s productivity when “success” is measured by doing well only three out of every ten times, and this standard seldom invokes complaints about incompetence – except when it’s weaponized against umpires.
Williams’ opinions are just that: opinions, backed up by more opinions. He pretties up his opinions with fractions and footnotes and fairy tales about umpires’ clockwise rotations around the bases from one game to the next, bizarrely stating that they’re “relatively new. In the earlier days of the sport, there was specialization, and home plate duties were the purview of the most experienced umpires.” Hogwash. Even the great Bill Klem, who according to (apocryphal) legend worked only the plate during his 37 years in the major leagues, did not “specialize” in plate work; that’s an absurd assertion on its face. Since the advent of professional umpire schools, umpires being prepared for pro ball are NEVER encouraged to “specialize,” nor should they be. The author’s insights into how umpires are trained and assigned, how crews work as a team, and what actually makes an individual umpire great regardless of some “score” on a website, are, by all indications, corrupted by his implicit bias toward umpires, at least the human ones.
If anyone is showing bias here, it’s you Mr. Barber.
Absolutely, David, and I fully disclosed it early on in my comment. I feel no shame in supporting umpires or in providing a counterpoint to Mark Williams’ thoughts on umpires by pointing out that his perspective on what constitutes bad umpiring is as skewed by HIS obvious bias, not to mention his seriously deficient knowledge of umpiring history, as mine is by having spent the last forty years fighting the perceptions featured in this article of umpires as incompetent buffoons whose only virtue lies in our willingness to be punching bags for every armchair analysts’ criticisms, most of which are based on emotion and a lack of rules knowledge as opposed to any objective evaluation of umpire performance.
Baseball is a game that recognizes failure as a measure of greatness for every participant except umpires. If an umpire had a .300 “call” average, he or she would either be in for some serious re-training, or looking for another way to spend a few hours on the weekends. Is it too much to ask that baseball researchers and analysts keep things in perspective when griping about how bad the umpires are? I just don’t get how constantly slamming umpires and insinuating that very few are even halfway competent adds anything to the overall enjoyment of baseball, the game, the sport, the spectacle. Major league umpires, certainly, don’t get there without years of practice, persistence, and the constant pursuit of perfection even if that’s an impossible standard. The rest of us who umpire non-professional games – youth leagues, high school, college, adult leagues, travel leagues, international competitions, et al. – devote ourselves to doing the best job we can out there behind the plate as well as on the bases, and we don’t go around complaining about how bad the players are because they occasionally drop an easy fly ball or kick a grounder or strike out three times in a game. Yet we know we have to tolerate the uninformed, angry opinions of spectators and announcers given free rein to express their displeasure toward umpires, while all we have is our dignity and our dedication to doing the best job we can out there. There’s no statistic to measure that, and all I ask is that readers keep it in mind when reading articles like this one.
And by the way, I’m Perry, and I’m fine with that as a form of address, but definitely not with “Mr.” “Your Highness” is also an acceptable alternate.
Thanks for writing this and helping me feel better about how the season ended for the Sox. But…
The strongest argument here is that, like players, umpires in the post-season should be the best performers. That said, the quest for perfection may be a fool’s errand, depending on what we fans want the game to be. If we want perfect accuracy in judging pitches the obvious solution would be to use computer/video to call the balls and strikes.
But this is a game. For fun. Yes I realize it is a business but I like it because it is a fun game to watch. And sometimes the fun happens when things go wrong. Yeah I was upset about Laz Diaz’ call. I was there. Mad at him. Wanting the ump to be thrown out. Wondering how he got the job. Chuckling when the drunk fans teased him incessantly about later obvious calls (e.g. ball hits batter – ‘hey Laz, maybe that was a strike?’).. Much like applies to players sometimes, and managers’ calls. And rooting big for the Sox. All part of the game. And some of its most memorable moments.
Although I think video review has its place for some rare difficult to call plays that are critical, I prefer that most of the game be played by humans, with mistakes factored into the equation.
So let’s get the best players and umps into the post-season (realizing those things are not so reliably measured – after all, most good players end up in a narrow range of batting averages by the end of the season [the 400s and the 100s of June end up in the 200s]). And then have fun with the game!
Professor Williams, I am interested if you have information regarding accuracy of strike calls based on the catchers behind the plate? As a former catcher, pitch framing was one of, if not the most, important aspects of my game. Building relationships with umpires and presenting the ball in deceptive ways gave my pitchers a lot of strike calls. I’m just curious as to how much this plays into the accuracy of the umpire’s calls.
Very insightful comments above. While I agree with many of the author’s contentions, it was quite obvious that this whole opinion piece would have never been written had the Red Sox won the 2021 World Series. I’m guessing that, coincidentally, the statistics will “prove” that the umpires were spot-on in the postseasons of 2018, 2013, 2007 and 2004, not to mention 1918, 1916, 1915, 1912 and even the very first World Series in 1903, when the Sox were known as the Americans. And no, I’m not a Yankees fan.
They’re just plain awful. I don’t have a favorite team but I do enjoy a good game. This is hard because the umpires miss soo many calls. I have to change the channel sometimes it’s so bad. Just love the game and it should be more professionally called for what they are paid good job or just plain awful. Just sayin.