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Are Umpires Racist? Maybe.

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Well, I just came across

this little study

mentioned in


magazine. Apparently, major league baseball umpires are racists.

Yeah, I just thought they were blind fools who needed glasses. (Sorry, Ria.) I never suspected racism. But you can’t argue with the numbers.

Actually, you can. And I will.

Daniel Hamermesh, a Professor of Economics at the University of Texas, analyzed 2.1 million pitches thrown from 2004 to 2006 and concluded that one pitch per game is called wrong because of a racial reason – or one percent of the 2.1 millions pitches analyzed. If the umpire is white and the pitcher is white, the umpire will call that one pitch a strike. If the umpire is white and the pitcher is black, the umpire will call that pitch a ball.

No wonder Roger Clemens got as many wins as he did; the umpires like him. And I’ve really got to wonder how Dontrelle Willis is still able to pitch in the majors.

Here’s my primary problem with this study, as it’s relayed to me by Time magazine. I’m not told when this one wrongly called pitch occurs in the game. Is it the second pitch of the game when no one’s on base and the call results in a ball one instead of a strike two? Or is it in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and a full count and the blown call results in Armando Benitez grooving a pitch down the plate resulting in a grand slam?

The story also doesn’t tell us how Hamermesh graded the pitches. On what basis he decided if the pitch was a ball or a strike. Did he look at video from center field cameras? That video can be wrong because the cameras are always at an angle. They’re never dead-on center, they’re always up and to the side, so what appears to be a ball may indeed nick a corner if you’re standing at the plate.

Did he rely on Ques-Tec? Well, that has many of the same problems. The cameras that provide the images that make the Ques-Tec zones are situated at different spots in every stadium, so those zones are always just a touch off. Plus, it’s also dependent on how the operator calibrates the settings, and there are just some pitches that Ques-Tec isn’t equipped to handle.

Did Hamermesh decide himself, or did he have a retired major league umpire sitting with him and telling him what the call should’ve been?

The story also tells me that Hamermesh concluded that umpires do best when the stadium is packed and/or it is a big game. Well, I don’t know about Hamermesh, but I think lots of people in the sports field do their best work when there are more people watching. They know they’ve got to be more careful. A D-Rays/Royals match-up just doesn’t have the importance of the Yankee/Red Sox tilt. Should the umpires be better in big games than in the small ones? No. They should umpire all games the same. But that’s human nature, and besides, as anyone who ever watched the late Eric Gregg call a big game – say Game 5 of the 1997 NLCS – knows, just because you work a big game doesn’t mean you’re going to call a good game.

I’m not disputing that the umps get the calls wrong. They’re human. And because of the problems mentioned above, using replay to check balls and strikes will be just as inaccurate for those judgment pitches.

If there’s any bias in umpiring, it’s the bias of experience. Umpires are going to call strikes for Greg Maddux that they won’t call for Wandy Rodriguez. It’s not because they’re racists; it’s because Maddux has been making that pitch to the exact same spot for 20 years. They know that he meant for that pitch to go there, and if it’s close to the plate, they’re going to give it to him. Wandy’s still young, and he’s not established his reputation and sometimes that curve’s just not going to break the way it should and they’re not going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not saying the umpires aren’t racists. I’m just saying that this study doesn’t prove it. Just like that much derided study of NBA officiating that found racism there – a study so ludicrous the NBA players didn’t even believe it.

But I want to end with this: Hamermesh concluded that the home plate umpires calls one pitch per game wrong. One pitch. Think about that. These guys see hundreds of pitches a game. They get into crouches behind catchers. They get knocked in the head and leg and chest and other places by bats and foul balls. They’re out there when it’s 20 degrees, and when the heat index is 120 degrees. They don’t have a home stadium. They travel to a different city every three to four days. And yet, despite all that, they call one pitch per game wrong.

Instead of screaming racism, perhaps someone should be congratulating them for being nearly perfect night after night. They miss one pitch a game. They get right all of the others. In how many other professions do you have such a degree of perfection?

And frankly, I’ve got to ask: isn’t there something more important a professor of economics can be doing? Like debunking the flat tax or the Laffer Curve?

Then again, what do I know? I happen to think the umpires do a fantastic job. Most of the time. – John Royal

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