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Watching the Detectives, II I
2003-05-07 15:30
by Mike Carminati

Watching the Detectives, II

I have been railing against MLB's use of the Questec Umpire Information System (UIS) as an a tool to evaluate umpires since the issue flared up late last summer. I have to admit that author of The Diamond Appraised,Craig Wright, via Rob Neyer's column, makes some excellent points as to why the tool could be very useful as a training device using Randy Massarotti's column as a jumping-off point.

Craig points out the inanity behind the statement, "In the past, there have been pitches that are a little off the plate that are hittable pitches that we'd call strikes. If we call them strikes now, we're wrong." The self-importance of that statement fully displays the need for umps to be reined in.

Wright also has the stats and the smarts to show that Massarotti's contention that "pressuring the umpires to call a smaller strike zone than what the umpires want to call, which results in fewer called strikes, more walks, and longer games" is as, I called it, specious at best:

First of all, the walk increase of 5.1 percent over last year, as reported by Massarotti through games of April 23, has taken a nosedive as the sample size has increased. It is already down to +1.8 percent through games of May 4 (for both seasons). And if the comparison is made via the more logical "walks per inning" rather than "walks per game," the increase falls further, to 1.1 percent.

And in the realm of statistical significance, that's absolutely nothing. It is so meaningless that the umpires could actually be calling more strikes and still produce by chance a result like that in this sample size.

And you know what? That is exactly what is happening.

With the supposed pressure of their calls being tracked by Questec, the umpires are calling a slightly higher -- not lower -- percentage of strikes in 2003 than they did in 2002...

In case you are curious, the emphasis on calling higher strikes has resulted in a higher percentage of strike calls. The percentage of strikes called used to routinely be between 29 and 30 percent. As you can see for 2001-03 it has been consistently around 31 percent. The last two seasons and this one have the three highest marks of all the seasons since 1991...

[I]t is a fact that since MLB changed the strike zone (shrinking it in the rule book but raising the former de facto standard of the umpires) the percentage of pitches taken has gone down, not up, even though the percentage of called strikes has gone up.

I think that the UIS system can be a valuable tool in training umpires. It can show them blind spots in their balls-and-strikes calling.

However, using it as a a tool to evaluate umpires, that is a measuring stick to be used in all intsances, is at best misguided. An umpire calling a game pitched by two junk ballers will invariably recieve lower grades than one behind the plate with two fastball pitchers. The UIS system is far from perfect especially with breaking pitches.

I think that the UIS is being used inappropriately to force a strike zone that the umpires don't like down their throats. Perhaps with the recalcitrance of today's umpires, one could argue it is necessary.

I guess it comes down to whether using a system that is inherently inaccurate and biased against certain types of pitchers is preferable to withstanding the umpires calling a strike zone that is approximately 36" wide and 18" high instead of the reverse as the rule book indicates. At least that's the corner that MLB has painted itself into.

Maybe I'm a hypocrite since I do prefer the new, actual strike zone and dislike the misuse of the UIS system.

I do have one piece advice though: If the umps and MLB had been enforcing the batter's box all along, the umpires would not have conceded the outside corner to the pitcher, and we would have had the real strike zone all along. But neither side of the argument wants to hear this advice right now.

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