ESPN study shows umpires miss 20% of close calls

I’ve got a lot to catch up on, but as I was getting set to write about ref stuff from the last few months, this came up.

ESPN looked at two weeks’ worth of MLB games and examined the calls.  They set aside calls that were not close, saying the umpires got all of those right, and focused entirely on what they called “close” calls.  In games between June 29 and July 11 this year, there were 230 fair/foul or safe/out calls that the conductors of the study deemed “close” (that’s an average of 1.3 per game).  Of those, they looked closely at replays and found that 151 (65.7%) were correct, 47 (20.4%) were incorrect, and 31 (13.9%) were still inconclusive after replay.

I’m going to set aside the study for now and assume that the methodology and numbers are correct.  Instead, let’s focus on the numbers:

Is the 20% number really as dreadfully horrible as the Hall-of-Famers in the article say it is?  Consider Jim Bunning:

“That’s high,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher. “They shouldn’t be allowed to miss [that many].  I have seen some calls this year that just — that curl your hair.”

Really?

I’m not sure I’d do that well if you put me at third base or home plate and gave me some close out/safe or fair/foul calls.  I welcome the data–unlike some league administrators (I’m looking at you, NBA), I believe that more data and more discussion about officiating will help public perception of officials by a boatload–but right now, since 20% is the only point on the graph, I don’t have anything to compare it to.

I wonder if ESPN or someone else would do a similar study of the last few College World Series games.  Now, to be sure, some of the calls will be more difficult in the pros–liners are hit that much faster, players slide in just a bit craftier–but I’d imagine a bang-bang play is just as close in Little League as it is in the majors.  Do officials at lower levels miss more than 20% of “close” calls?  How about in triple-A?  There are fewer cameras in those ballparks, so there would likely be more “inconclusive” results, but still, from what remains, do minor league umpires have a higher or lower success rate?

I like the numbers.  But given how freakin’ hard it is to get an extremely close play right, I’m not convinced 20.4% is a bad number.  Right now, it’s just a number with no context.

Incidentally, how is it that an article so critical of officiating errors manages to misspell “Galarraga” at the start of the 11th paragraph?  That was way easier to get right than any call that the umps missed…given the lack of time pressure and complete availability of reference work available to ESPN’s writers and editors.

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About Paul Hamann
I am a basketball referee in Washington State, working mostly high school games.

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