August 28, 2009

"I've never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes."--manager Leo Durocher

I value strikeouts and walks over hits or runs as an indicator of a pitcher's talent because the former are totally in his control. However, that's not entirely true. Whether a pitch is a ball or strike is really in the hands of the masked man in black behind the plate who does his job best when no one realizes he's there (the umpire that is, not Joe Biden). The umpire must make a split-second decision on a 100-mph fastball and make the call knowing that 50 percent of the players and coaches on the field will be in disagreement, and that any mistake will be replayed 10 times on television while a talking hairdo dissects his abilities.

The relationship between a pitcher and the umpire is a tenuous one at best. The umpire gets booed when he sets foot on the field while the starting pitcher gets a standing ovation when he leaves. A pitcher (and his coaches and catcher) has to be a champion of his pitches but can't be so strong an advocate that he gets thrown out of the game. The umpire must make his decision free of any biases created by prior arguments with pitchers. And as is the constant travel and criticism weren't enough, there's the QuesTec system that second guesses every one of their calls in order to squeeze the strike zone horizontally and expand it vertically.

So a pitcher's results are a function of the umpire's calls. The question is how much? Since umpires generally alternate series between the NL and AL and get moved around the league, they are likely to see almost every team. Also, since they are only behind the plate once every four games, they should see a relatively even sampling of good and bad control pitchers.

Let's look at umpires and their reluctance/enthusiasm to call balls and strikes based on their results. To try to smooth out the variance in data, I've only included umpires who have been behind home plate 20 or more times (the most appearances is 29 by Jim Hoye), which comes out to be 66 umpires.

"They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on."--MLB umpire Nestor Chylak

An umpire with a liberal strike zone would be more likely to ring up a batter than give him a free pass, and hence, would have a higher K/BB ratio. The opposite would be true for an umpire with a conservative strike zone. For all MLB pitching, the average K/BB is 2.00 (2.03 in the AL, 1.99 in the NL), with that value being only slightly higher at 2.07 for starting pitching (2.06 for AL starters, 2.08 for NL starters). So again, we don't expect every umpire to be right at average, but we are interested if an umpire is at the extremes away from the mean, especially at a value of two standard deviations or more (denoted below with an asterisk).

Five Lowest K/BB Among 20-Home Plate Appearance Umpires

Tim Tschida 1.49*Randy Marsh 1.50Tim McClelland 1.55Jeff Kellogg 1.62Adrian Johnson 1.66

Five Highest K/BB Among 20-Home Plate Appearance Umpires

Paul Emmel 2.95*Charlie Reliford 2.71*Rob Drake 2.62Brian O'Nora 2.58John Hirschbeck 2.58

Five Highest BB/9 Umpires Among 20-Home Plate Appearance Umpires(bold denotes umpire was also on lowest K/BB list above)

Tim Tschida 4.43*Tim McClelland 4.34*Randy Marsh 3.84Jeff Kellogg 3.83Mike Everitt 3.75

Five Lowest BB/9 Umpires Among 20-Home Plate Appearance Umpires(bold denotes umpire was also on highest K/BB list above)

Paul Emmel 2.42*Charlie Reliford 2.48James Hoye 2.48Brian O'Nora 2.61Rob Drake 2.63

In the four lists above we have 12 different umpires with 8 appearing twice in corresponding tables (either high K/BB and low BB, or low K/BB and high BB). Again, there's a chance an umpire has seen consistently good or bad control pitchers, but as we approach two standard deviations away from the mean, it's hard to accept that as the only answer. Tschida and McClelland's numbers are particularly disturbing among umpires with small strike zones while Emmel and Reliford's are equally so on the other end.

That translates to Emmel (1.15) and Reliford (1.23) being responsible for two of the three lowest WHIPs and Tschida (1.68) and McClelland (1.63) yielding the two highest. The umpire with the second lowest called WHIP, Mark Carlson (1.22), has a reasonable K/BB ratio (2.32) and BB/9 (3.11), which may be closer to what we expect an umpire with consistent calls to yield.

"The job of arguing with the umpire belongs to the manager, because it won't hurt the team if he gets thrown out of the game."--manager Earl Weaver

Okay, so there are some umps that are more likely to call strikes and others that call more balls. Perhaps if this were due to incompetence, we'd see more on-field complaints about the calls, which would lead to more ejections. Through Sunday, August 23rd, there had been 138 ejections, with 84 being coaches and 54 being players. Of the 138 ejections, 70 (or about half) were for arguing balls and strikes.

Bill Hohn has ejected seven players and managers for balls and strikes calls, easily the most in the majors this year. Hohn is likely best known for his July 29th overt celebratory fist bump with Marlins catcher John Baker at the end of the same game when he tossed Bobby Cox and Brian McCann over a called strike (the ball looked outside). Hohn also appeared to bait the Braves by going over to their bench before the ejections. Strange game. Strange officiating. Of Hohn's seven ejections over balls and strikes, five have been Braves, with Cox being tossed twice. Even though ejecting Cox -- who leads MLB with 148 career ejections -- isn't really a sport, add the fist bump and well, perhaps MLB should be looking more closely at this situation.

Of the 66 umpires on our list, 38 have issued at least one ejection for arguing balls and strikes, while 31 have not, for a total of 63 ejections. That means all 66 umpires averaged 1.0 ejection each, whereas the 38 that have issued an ejection averaged 1.8 each (really puts Hohn's 7 into perspective).

The batting team would argue when a strike was called and the pitching team would argue when a ball was called, so we'd expect there to be as many arguments about one as the other. But oddly enough, of the four umpires at the two extremes, only Emmel had any ejections. Of the 12 umpires in the 4 lists above, 7 accounted for 11 ejections, or right at the league average. Of those, Everitt had three ejections and Johnson and Emmel had two each.

Incidentally, my favorite ejection this year was by Don Briggs, a high school ump in Iowa who ejected an entire section of the bleachers, or more than 100 family members and friends at a game last June. The ejectees reportedly left without kicking dirt or throwing tantrums, so perhaps we should send a video of the game to Lou Piniella.

The bottom line is there is disparity among umpires in terms of calling balls and strikes, and in turn, the stats of the pitchers who must live with those calls. While not every pitcher that gets Tschida or McClelland behind the plate will see a lower BB/K and a higher WHIP than normal, the data suggests they may not get the benefit of the doubt with close pitches that they might get with other umpires. And the opposite may be true with Emmel and Reliford calling pitches.

However, Bobby Cox should likely keep his mouth shut the next time he sees Bill Hohn on the field.

Speaking of Braves, current and former, I couldn't let this week's column pass without mentioning the rejuvenation of John Smoltz this week and what it means to your fantasy staff. While Smoltz has been magnanimous with his comments about the Red Sox patience, there's a difference between being tolerance and assistance. While pitching against the Padres will aid anyone's career stats, and going to the NL from the AL also helps, the word is Smoltz's ailing pitching was cured with just a few days of work with Dave Duncan and Chris Carpenter.

They figured out that Smoltz was having a problem not being consistent with his footwork, but perhaps even more helpful, Carpenter showed Smoltz how he was tipping his pitches. So yes, Duncan is the world's greatest pitching coach and Carpenter should get the Cy Young just for his observations, one has to wonder what the Red Sox were doing besides just waiting for Smoltz to fix himself.

All those factors put together will make Smoltz a fantasy contributor the rest of the way. He won't equal what he did against the Padres (W, 5 IP, 9 K, 3 H, 0 BB), but he has a good defense and offense behind him for a team that wins more than it loses. My only fear is that game where he grabs his shoulder in the third inning and is done for the year. If he avoids injury, he will be a solid fantasy contributor the rest of the year.

Thanks to everyone for the complimentary notes last week on the Tommy John column. After reading it, did anyone else cringe when they heard Johan Santana was having elbow pain?

Let's hope he doesn't have a meeting with Dr. James Andrews planned.

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