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How Much Do Umpires Determine?

How Much Do Umpires Determine?

Well, the answer is, until last year, we controlled absolutely everything.
Since the replay challenge rules that came in effect for the 2014 season, we now control somewhat less. I’ve seen at least 75% of challenges overrule the initial call on the field, and in the spirit of the game, this is an awesome improvement.

The spirit of baseball has never asked if the ump thinks he was safe/out, the spirit of baseball only asks if he was IN FACT safe/out.

With that said, however, there is still plenty of room for umpires to manipulate the outcome of the game. The biggest spot that this occurs is not that final contended ‘out’ in the bottom of the 9th, it is without a doubt behind the plate and regarding the Strike-Zone where the umpires have the most influence.

Believe it or not, most umpires will often question their own SZ before anyone else gets a chance to. If there was a pitch that was right on the edge of the paint, the ump might call it a strike or a ball, but you can believe that if he doubts his call, he will call the opposite the next time that exact same pitch is thrown. This idea is called “evening-out” and it’s the basis of the umpire-pitcher relationship. If the pitcher is picking corners, he knows that if the ump calls it a “ball”, for the 1-0 count, the pitcher *TRUSTS* the umpire to make the right call when it counts on the 3-2 full count, and more often than not, “Strike 3, batter’s out!” will be the holler as the umpire rings up the batter.

The Blue didn’t give it to the pitcher on the 0-0 pitch, but he gave it to him on the 3-2.

Pitchers can work with this. They can throw their game and trust that the Blue will call a fair game.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, I think that the most illustrated event of what can go wrong between the umpire-pitcher relationship was illustrated in this 60 seconds YouTube clip:

I happened to watch that game, and I remember that umpire having an unstable and uneven Strike Zone. Pabelbon had every right to be annoyed with the Blue that game. You saw that even though the ump called it a strike it was high and maybe a little outside. All day long he was calling strikes “balls”, and now when Pabelbon actually pitched what he thought was a ball, the ump calls it a “strike” and Pabelbon expressed his confusion.

One day a few weeks back, I remember watching a game where the 1st three pitches of the game had the ball *completely* within the strikezone. It was obvious watching it and the SZ Tracker confirmed it. All 3 were called “balls” including one that was right down the pipe..

What’s a pitcher supposed to do with that?

Where does he go on the 3-0 pitch?

I think that the veteran pitchers that have been doing it a long time, even guys with horrendous ERAs like Colon, have an advantage when it comes to the umpires with small/dynamic SZs.

Experienced pitchers know to shake it off and just start fresh and trust the umpire.
Newer pitchers, on the other hand, might lose their cool. Newer pitchers might panic on that 3-0 and throw a floater right down the middle thinking “what do I gotta do to get a strike?”. A more experienced pitcher might put it at the knees and paint the outside and trust that what the ump called a “ball” before, he would call a “strike” this time.

Which brings me to Plate Umpire Jerry Layne who will be tending the NYM@NYY matchup tonight.

80% of Layne’s games end up OVER the total. Pitchers accrue an average ERA of 4.10 when he’s behind the plate and this is obviously on the high side.

Layne has a SMALL Strike Zone which will lead to many issues with pitchers who depend on their breaking balls and curveballs. I wonder what Dickey’s ERA is when Layne’s behind the plate? Knuckleball pitchers must have a rough time with small strike zones.

Tonight we have a couple newbies (Zack Wheeler and Vidal Nuno) to MLB who only started pitching in the big leagues in 2013.

What kind of a night will these guys have?

Will they have the experience and control necessary to not only concentrate on their own pitching (where both are averaging over 4.00ERA), but also on Umpire Layne’s small strike zone?

How do you throw curves, sliders and breakers when the ump takes 6 inches off the edge/bottom/inside/top of the StrikeZone? Wheeler, who already relies heavily on his fastball, might be condemned to showing it to all the NYY hitters one too many times. Once that predictable 2-seamer floats right down the pipe…expect that label to get peeled again and again.

The bottom line is this: When pitchers don’t feel safe throwing their junk on 3-2 counts, they avoid the 3-2 count. When an umpire robs a pitcher of his confidence to throw strikes, there is a massive shift in advantage towards the batter. If a pitcher feels he needs to avoid the 3-2 count, then what’s that translate to? More predictability. After all, that’s how hitters hit the ball! That’s exactly what the fastball-changeup relationship is all about where a pitcher throws a heater followed up by an off-speed pitch thereby fooling the batter into swinging early.

  • If a batter can visualize the pitch before it arrives, that ball will have the label peeled.

So if a pitcher feels that he can’t ever get behind in the count, due to an unstable ump or an ump with a particularly small SZ, then it means that the batter can EXPECT strikes in the early count and therefore will have an easier time visualizing the pitch before it arrives.

This dynamic SZ seriously amplifies any pitching advantages as well. Great pitchers that have better aim will have no problems adjusting their zone to meet the umpire’s SZ; meanwhile, high ERA pitchers will have an already uphill battle turned that much more steeper. The reverse is true as well! Umpires that have a huge SZ will find favour in higher ERA pitchers. The great pitchers will have all kinds of room that they don’t need or use (although it can’t hurt), and the lesser pitchers will find forgiving called-strikes on pitches that may have been well outside, downstairs, inside or upstairs. They can put a little more junk on the ball and therefore the large strike zone will mitigate pitching advantages! In other words, if you have a 4.00ERA pitcher vs a 2.00ERA pitcher, with an umpire with a LARGE strike zone, the pitching advantage is far less than if you had those exact same two pitchers but with an umpire with a SMALL strike zone.

Definitely it’s a critical factor in every game where an umpire is to one extreme or the other.

  • These considerations will impact ML predictions as well as TOTALS.

The other point to talk about is what I call the “Grandiose Umpire”.

These kinds of umpires suffer from delusions of grandeur where they pretend that the crowd is there to cheer THEM! It makes them feel like heroes the louder they can make the stadium cheer.

Take an umpire like David Rackley, for instance.

The home teams in which he’s umpired games are a 100% 6-0 record.
Today, the visitors Texas have Rackley on their hands as they face Houston.

Houston, bar-none, has the worst record in the league.

If they somehow manage to pull a win out, it will only strengthen the case that sometimes umpires have more to do with the outcomes than the players themselves.

Some of Rackley’s conquests this year:
STL@PIT (Home Underdog won)
ARI@SDP (Home favourite won)
CLE@LAA (Home favourite won)
MIN@KCR (Home favourite won)
STL@PIT (Home Underdog won)
TOR@TBR (Home favourite won)

Let’s see what happens with the +122 Houston underdogs tonight.

If they win, how much you want to bet it was because of a shifty, biased SZ, on behalf of an umpire suffering delusions of grandeur and hero-complex?

Anyway, tonight’s umpire consideration is:

  • Neither NYM nor the NYY have scored or allowed less than 4 runs in their last 3 games.
  • The Mets might be 29th in hitting (.OPS) but they are 4.8R/G on the road and they are 4.1 vs LHP.
  • Both NYM and NYY have established vulnerable pitching that’s well over 4.00ERA.
  • Both NYM and NYY pitchers are relatively new to MLB umpires.

So due to all of these facts, combined with an umpire who has a small strike zone, there will be more telegraphed pitches and they will be hit. Also, it’s to be noted that Layne is 4-1 to the home team.

For these reasons, we like the OVER in the NYM@NYY contest, as well as the NYY ML.

Tonight’s unofficial prediction: NYY wins 7-3 going OVER the total of 8.5.



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