Wednesday, June 08, 2011

On a Book, Two Pitches & Rage

Umpires have biases. And we want them to.

To illustrate that, I want to talk about two pitches from the Cleveland series. Not two pitchers, mind you – just two pitches. Seriously. But first I want to talk about a book, then how it changed how I watched baseball forever, and finally about why I flew into a rage on Wednesday night.

The Book
The book is called Scorecasting by Tobias J Moskowitz and L. Jon Weerthem. It looks like it’s similar to the book Freakonomics, except that it focuses exclusively on sports. I say “seems” because I haven’t read it yet, at least not completely. However, if you have an iPad or iPhone, you can download the first chapter for free – and just that much has changed forever how I watch baseball.

The chapter is about a bias that umpires have because they are, with the possible exception of Joe West, human. And humans are far more willing to forgive an error of omission over an error of commission. That is, we are more willing to forgive an error caused by doing nothing over an error caused by doing something. And thus humans are for more willing to commit an error of omission over an error of commission, because it gets us into less trouble. I’ll give an example from the book:

“In a well-known psychological experiment, the subjects were posed the following question: Imagine there have been several epidemics of a certain kind of flu that everyone contracts and that can be fatal to children under three years of age. About 10 out of every 10,000 children with this flu will die from it. A vaccine for the flu, which eliminates the change of getting it, causes death in 5 or every 10,000 children. Would you vaccinate your child?”

Most parents opted to NOT to vaccinate their child, despite it halving the chances of their child dying. The thought of doing something to the child which would cause his or her death was worse than the though of doing nothing and doubling the chances of death.

The Games
The same bias is statistically apparent in umpires when it comes to calling balls and strikes and now I can’t help but notice it.

In 2007, installed the pitch f/x equipment in all the ballparks, providing data on 2 million pitches, including 1.15 million called pitches. Suddenly we could see from data how accurate umpires were in calling balls and strikes, and whether there are any circumstances that made them less accurate. It turns out there are.

A ball that is in the strike zone is called accurately by an umpire 80.2% of the time. But that number dives if there are two strikes on the batter (and it isn’t a full count). Then, a ball in the strike zone is called a strike just 61.3% of the time. He’s almost twice as likely to mistakenly count a strike as a ball. Again, don’t forget – we KNOW that these are really strikes from the f/x data.

The same thing happens the other way on pitches outside the strike zone on three-ball counts, though it’s not quite so drastic. A pitch outside the strike zone is called a ball 87.8% of the time, but if there are three balls (and it’s not a full count) it’s only called a ball 84% of the time.

The reason? Because calling strike three or ball four ends the at-bat. It’s active – it affects the game far more than giving the batter and pitcher another pitch to resolve the at-bat themselves. The incentive is toward the error of omission rather than that of commission.

Incidentally, this is most apparent on borderline pitches. Over all counts, a borderline is called a strike 49.9% of the time – almost literally a coin flip. But with a 2-strike count (again not a full count) it’s called a strike just 38.2% of the time. And with a three ball count, it’s called a strike 60% of the time. The percentages become even more extreme on 3-0 and 0-2 counts.

So yesterday, in the bottom of the tenth, I completely understood the call I saw. Holding a 3-2 lead, Twins pitcher Phil Dumatrait was trying to get the first save of his career. It wasn’t going to be easy. There were two outs, but a runner was on second base, and Shin-Soo Choo had worked a 3-1 count.

The next pitch was a fastball, right on the inside edge of the strikezone. It could have gone either way, but I never doubted which way it would be called given what was at stake. Sure enough, it was strike two.

The at-bat was decided by the players on the next pitch. Shoo grounded out to first base.

The Rage
That study has made me anticipate called pitches and at-bats in a different way, usually bringing a level of peace to what I saw. It had the opposite effect on Tuesday night.

In many ways, it was the exact same situation. This time the Indians led by one in the top of the ninth and had two outs. But the Twins had a runner on second base and Michael Cuddyer was trying to drive him in.

I should also mention that isn’t a terrible situation for a baseball team. Historically, a team in that situation has still won almost 11% of their games. That’s the kind of hope that can make a fan slide forward in their seats a bit.

But there was one critical difference: the count was 2-2, not 3-1. Indians closer Chris Perez threw a fastball in a very similar place that Dumatrait would a day later, though maybe a touch more outside the zone when looking at the f/x placement. Cuddyer took the pitch, confident it was outside. But home plate umpire Adrian Johnson punched him out, ending the game.

Cuddyer’s reaction was telling. He exploded. It’s rare to see any Twin confront an umpire. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Cuddyer, of all people, get frontal with an ump. But this time he nearly pounced on him, reacting so aggressively that the Cleveland announcers thought he might have bumped him. It took two coaches to hold him back when Johnson tried to walk away.

Watching on my bedroom TV, I was going nearly as ballistic. It’s one thing to make a bad call. But to make a bad call that didn’t need to be made, that could have been avoided so the players could resolve the game instead?

This may be a bias that we, as fans, want to reward. For the first time, I thought about whether or not I really want to take that kind of call out of an umpire’s hands. Don’t we want someone who prompts the batter and pitcher to resolve their conflicts themselves? Even if it might not be a perfectly accurate call.