Umpires are Improving

Fact: one of the most exciting areas of study right now is catcher defense, and catcher pitch-framing. A little bit of the shine is off, but we’re still making discoveries, and the whole thing is exciting because at last we’re able to put some numbers to something that’s long been suspected or known. Previously, we were left with guesswork and anecdotal evidence. Now we have an understanding of who’s good and who’s not good, and though it’s all still evolving, more and more people are aware of it, and more and more people are talking about it.

Yet conversations about pitch-framing are seldom just about pitch-framing. Practically every time it comes up, the conversation turns to whether or not this ought to be left to skill. Sure, some catchers receive better than others, and it can make a meaningful difference. But why should it be that way? Why can’t umpires just call consistent strike zones for everybody? Why can’t we just have automated, perfect strike zones, to even the playing field? And so on and so forth. It’s exciting that we’ve identified pitch-framing as a talent, but people are split on whether or not they want this talent to keep having an effect.

So, conversations about receivers often end up as complaints about umpires. Indeed, we can all recall instances in which blown calls were made that were all but inexcusable. I think most people agree that strikes should be strikes and balls should be balls, or else the integrity of the game is jeopardized. But for all the complaining people do about umpires, we have to acknowledge one fact: umpires are getting better. They’ve been getting better for at least a few years.

In terms of calling the strike zone, at least. I don’t know if they’re getting any better at bang-bang plays at bases or traps. Probably not? But calling the strike zone is a part of their job, too, and it’s the biggest part of their job, and the numbers say they’ve been making progress as a group.

I mentioned this briefly on Wednesday in talking about Justin Masterson, but I figured this is worthy of its own post. Occasional FG writer Matthew Carruth runs StatCorner, and on the player pages you can find measures of the rate of pitches in the zone called balls, and the rate of pitches out of the zone called strikes. Bad calls, basically. Check out what’s been happening to the league averages during the recent PITCHf/x era:

Starting Pitchers

Year zTkB% oTkS%
2007 22.0% 9.2%
2008 19.2% 8.2%
2009 17.4% 7.9%
2010 15.2% 8.1%
2011 15.2% 7.5%
2012 14.4% 7.4%

Relief Pitchers

Year zTkB% oTkS%
2007 23.5% 8.5%
2008 19.8% 7.7%
2009 17.9% 7.6%
2010 15.7% 7.5%
2011 15.9% 7.0%
2012 15.0% 6.9%

The column headers should be intuitive, since I already noted what they would be. Just a few years ago, one in five pitches in the strike zone was called a ball. Last year it was more like one in seven. There’s been steady progress in that department, and there’s also been steady, if slighter progress in pitches out of the zone getting called strikes. The trends exist for starters and relievers alike, which, yeah, why wouldn’t they? And they’re pretty hard to ignore.

What might be driving this? Any number of things. Maybe there’s something to the idea that catchers are getting better at receiving quality pitches, but then it’s curious that they wouldn’t be getting more balls called as strikes. As PITCHf/x has become available to us, it’s also been available to umpires and to their superiors. Umpires all try to get better, their superiors all want for them to get better, and maybe umpires have just become more aware of their previous flaws. Only in the past few years have they been able to be confronted by so much information. It wouldn’t be surprising for there to be a response. The more data there is, the better umpires can be evaluated, and the more umpires can grow. And maybe the more consistent umpires have been rewarded while the lousier ones have been worked with or penalized.

The StatCorner strike zone, naturally, isn’t perfect, but strike-zone imperfection or inconsistency isn’t going to explain away the trends above. I’d consider that not a major source of error, but a minor one.

Of course, we’re still looking at less than 90% of pitches in the strike zone getting called strikes. That’s not close to good enough by many people’s standards, and some people won’t accept even 1% mistakes. Umpires, without question, remain flawed when it comes to calling the zone, and they’ll never be perfect so long as they’re human, because humans are incapable of perfection at even the simplest tasks, and calling balls and strikes isn’t simple. Never having done it myself, it’s probably terrifying! Balls fly fast and pitchers annoyingly make them move around, as if the velocity didn’t make judgment tricky enough. The argument for an automated strike zone is always going to have reason to exist, until or unless an automated strike zone is implemented.

But so long as we have red-blooded humans crouching behind the catchers, everyone can agree that it’d be good for them to get better, and the numbers say they’ve been getting better. It’s something, at least. It’s not about either having problems or resolving problems; life isn’t that binary. Reducing the frequency of mistakes is progress, and better than the alternative.

Incidentally, the other day on Clubhouse Confidential, they were talking about rising strikeout rates, a trend of which many of you were probably already aware. There’s no question that there are a ton of factors at play, there, but one wonders if improving umpires might be a contributing variable. Five years ago, roughly one in five pitches in the strike zone was called a ball, and pitchers struck out 17.5% of batters. Last year, roughly one in seven pitches in the strike zone was called a ball, and pitchers struck out 19.8% of batters. It’s probably not not a factor, even if it isn’t a major one. But maybe it’s a major one, along with the other major ones.

Umpires: flawed. But, umpires: improving. As long as we’re going to have human umpires calling the strike zone, steady improvement seems like a welcome compromise.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Maverick Squad
9 years ago

How many of these missed calls by umpires are line ball decisions- maybe alot of these uncalled strikes are pitches that are maybe just on the edge of the zone- 50-50 calls.
Maybe all this virtual strike zone stuff we see on TV is helping umpires improve their game- they see where they make mistakes and maybe work to correct it.
It would be interesting to see (maybe someone has done it) where most of these missed strike calls are in the zone, and maybe what type of pitches. Anectdotally to me it seems umpires don’t like calling the high strike.
Also maybe the reason the % of uncalled strikes is so high is because the umpires use a strike zone different to that defined by the rules- an ‘unofficial’ stike zone. Thus these calls, while technically incorrect, are correct for the zone umpires use and thus aren’t so bad since the players understand these zones.

Bad Bill
9 years ago
Reply to  Maverick Squad

Either a pitch catches the black, or it doesn’t. There is no 50/50 margin on inside/outside. (Knees and shoulders, I’ll give you.) Tennis has already demonstrated that a technological means for making that same call can be INCREDIBLY accurate, without impacting the flow of the game, even though the served ball, as hit by a top male player, is moving even faster than in baseball. I agree that it would be interesting to know where the misses are.

9 years ago
Reply to  Bad Bill

Judging the ball as it hits the ground makes things quite a bit easier in tennis. Not to say that it’s impossible in baseball, but it’s harder.

Aaron (UK)
9 years ago
Reply to  Tim

If anything, it’s harder in tennis, as you have to track (or model) the deformation of the ball as it bounces.

Cricket manages pretty well with Hawk-eye, including a predictive element. Though when decisions are reviewed, the original decision stands unless there was a clear error (i.e. a ball that would have just been clipping the stumps isn’t turned into an lbw, but if an lbw was originally given, that is upheld).

9 years ago
Reply to  Tim

I agree. It is harder. Every player has a different strike zone. There is no perfect line at the top and bottom of the zone. And it has to be adjusted every time a new batter enters the box. I am sure that batters will find a way to influence the data entry in their way. I can see A.J. Pierzynski decking Peter Bourjos for not standing tall enough in the batters box.

Greg Simons
9 years ago
Reply to  Bad Bill

As my father, a long-time umpire, has drilled into my brain, the black is not part of the strike zone. The ball has to cross over the white part of the plate to be a strike.