MLB UMPIRES AND PITCH COUNT: Expansion and Contraction
Avid baseball followers have all seen it! Suddenly, an Umpire's strike zone seems to expand or contract as the game reaches the later innings. We've all seen games that we pegged as OVERS suddenly make us smile as 7 runs go across the plate in the first 4 innings, and we have had times where those games end on the same 7 runs on the last pitch!
Most frustrated fans tend to think that the "Umpire wanted to beat traffic", or that the "Umpire had money on the UNDER", but there may be a more simple, less sinister, reason for the sudden scoring droughts in baseball games. For that matter, how many games have you seen that were 0-0 in the 5th inning that ended in a final that exceeded 10 runs?
What happens when a pitcher, like Kuroda (LAD), hits the 5th inning with a "no hitter" but leaves the stadium with an 8-5 Final? What happens when John Garland gets drilled by one hit after another, and one walk after another in the first 3 innings, but suddenly catches the edges of the zone and pitches a gem for his remaining innings of play?
How many "no hitters" are accompanied by a large run total for the winning team?
King Maker Factoid: Three of the last Four no hitters had final scores in which the winning team scored 6 or more runs. 7-0, 10-0, 4-0, 6-0....Since 2002 Five of the last Nine "no hitters" saw the winning team score 6 or more runs: 10,10, 8, 7, and 6!
Shutouts become blowouts!
Blowouts turn into Unders!
"No hitters" are accompanied by high loser totals!
Is this a coincidence? Or is there a psychological explanation for the fact that Umpire's tend to stay strikingly close to a 300 AVERAGE pitch count night during the span of a season?
You would be surprized at the similarities between the pitch count of an OVER UMP and an UNDER Umpire!
How does an Under Umpire like Laz Diaz maintain an average pitch count that is only 10 pitches less than Gerry Davis, one of the toughest OVER Umps in the league?
Here are your splits:
Gerry Davis 2007 22-12 OVER
AVE Pitch Count per game 298.
Average Runs, per game, in 2007: 9.60
Lazarro Diaz 2007 22-14 UNDER.
AVE Pitch Count per game 288
Average Runs, per game, in 2007: 8.00
*If you'll notice, there's almost 2 runs, per game, on average, in disagreement between these two umpires.
I believe the roots of this phenomenon came during the years of sparring between the league and its officials under the reign of Sandy Alderson (Executive VP of the Commissioner's office: Now Padres CEO).
The following is a reference to a NY Times Article that highlighted the viewpoint of Alderson in 2001. The statements are very telling!
Source: Murray Chass, The New York Times, July 19, 2001, p. D1.
"This summer saw a dramatic controversy in major league baseball. Sandy Alderson, baseball's chief of operations, was worried that games were running to long. In what became a problematic phrase, he instructed umpires to "hunt for strikes" in order to decrease the number of pitches that had to be thrown. Alderson cited a two-month study that purportedly found a "correlation between very high pitch counts and a misapplication of the strike zone." Pitch counts were averaging in the 280s, and he felt that figures in the 270s were attainable through more accurate umpiring. He said "I've told those averaging around 310, that's unacceptable and it's evidence of a very small strike zone and we have videotape to support it."
One can only guess at the level of impact that opinion had on today's Umpires. The Umpires that we see today are a rather select group of workers with VERY LITTLE turnover in their ranks, so we have a large sample of Umps that were part of arguments that inspired the following articles:
"Call More Strikes, Umpires are Told"
by Murray Chass, The New York Times, July 14, 2001, p. D1
"Looking at Pitch Counts is Unfair, Umpires Say"
by Murray Chass, The New York Times, July 15, 2001, Sect. 8, p. 4.
"Baseball Retreats in Dispute over Umpires' Pitch Counts"
by Murray Chass, The New York Times, July 19, 2001, p. D1.
I have tracked Umpires for a few years, and many of you know that I am reluctant to handicap a game without the presence of an umpire in the data. You've seen me use them in nearly 80% of all of my analysis. Most of my understanding of the importance of an Umpire stems from the turbulent exchanges between the Commissioners office and the legal representatives of the Umpires in 2001.
This year, I ran into a stretch of 50% handicapping, and I had to tear down my systems and reassess my numbers. Frankly, since the advent of Quest-Tec, the Umpires seem to have taken the pitch counts of their games VERY seriously. The normal tendencies of certain umpires took a serious turn, in many cases, and the effect on the lines, and especially totals in certain games was astounding.
When I went through my numbers, I saw the pitch counts begin to stand out!
*I have come to believe that an Umpire may be inclined to call more strikes if the game begins to exceed the percieved 300 pitch mark at the end of a game. This is only my opinion, based on my own research. Further analysis will reveal whether the trend is worth expanding upon.
But the pitch counts of Umpires have been attacked so much in recent years, and I find it hard to believe that they don't have an interest in maintaining a number that falls as close to the "percieved baseline" at the end of the year.
For instance, if an OVER Umpire has walked 7 batters in the first 3 innings, and several hits occur after long at bats, then the pitch count starts to approach a high number almost immediately. This would push the total pitches far past 300, so it may be possible that the Umpire might open up the strike zone to stifle the pitch count.
A good example is this recent game between the Angels and White Sox: John Garland and Javier Vazquez got severely touched up in a game that was set at 8.5 for a total. I felt as if the Sox would attack Garland because he was facing his old team and he had a really tough OVER Umpire to deal with. Garland has trouble against this type of zone, and it showed! He walked 4 batters, gave up 7 hits and reached 109 pitches by the end of the 6th inning. The trouble was that Vazquez hit 111 pitches after 6 innings, so the pitch count was sitting at 220 with 3 full innings to go!
Frankly, most of the guys that pegged the OVER were VERY happy after 5 runs were scored BEFORE the bottom of the 2nd inning! But suddenly, the first pitch, called strike came into effect!
Here's the Box Score:
There were only 88 more pitches in the 7th, 8th, and 9th (6 total relievers!), and Garland and Vazquez's pitch counts were in severe decline before the 5th inning.
*8 out of 12 batters looked at a called first pitch strike between the bottom of the 4th inning and the beginning of the bottom of the 6th inning! That number is fairly staggering for two pitchers that were having trouble finding the zone in the beginning!
This is scandalous talk, and simply an observation by a gentleman that has followed the Umpires for many years. But one cannot easily dismiss certain numbers that back up the assumption that an Umpire's strike zone is more malleable than we once thought it was. The sample-size is currently too small to make a strong assessment of the moving zone.
This is certainly not a sign of cheating in any way! This is potentially the sign of a psychological adherence to the rules and expectations of Major League Baseball. I'm basing this assumption on documented altercations between the league and its officials in the past over this very issue.
As time goes by, we will examine the dangers of assuming that an Umpire is an OVER Ump or an UNDER Ump, based solely on the peripherals. There are extensive mental, physical, and statistical issues that affect the total, and outcome of a game.
It's important to note that Umpires are not in a position to "cheat", nor do they attempt to alter the outcomes of a game. This is simply a mere discussion about the possibility of a psychological expansion and contraction of the strike zone as the pitch counts stagnate or inflate.
My findings are still a work in progress, but it's my opinion that the angry comments of disgusted fans, managers, and yes, gamblers, has a POSSIBLE basis in fact.
Clearly, the umpires would think my assumptions are preposterous, and maybe they are. This is what an unidentified umpire thought of the concept:
''It's insane,'' the umpire said of the pitch-count instructions, speaking on the condition he not be identified. ''Call this pitch, don't call that pitch. You can't umpire that way.'' (Chass, NY Times)
What do you think?