Tuesday, March 04, 2014

On Race and Umpires

Stuck on a lot of long plane rides (unlike Zack Greinke), I found this article about how racism plays into umpires' calls:

As Major League Baseball camps reawaken for spring training over the next few weeks, the same scene will repeat across the country: A pitcher will take the mound. A batter will stare back. And behind him, an umpire will tense in anticipation, ready to call a ball or a strike depending on where the pitcher throws the ball.

How much would you expect the race of the umpire and the pitcher to determine the outcome of the call? That's the question Christopher A. Parsons, Harvard Business School visiting associate professor in the Finance unit, poses in Strike Three: Discrimination, Incentives, and Evaluation, a paper published in 2011. [...]

In order to determine the effect of racial discrimination on baseball games, Parsons and colleagues Johan Sulaeman of Southern Methodist University, Michael C. Yates of Auburn University, and Daniel S. Hamermesh of the University of Texas at Austin waded through pitching data for every Major League Baseball game from 2004 to 2008. When the data was analyzed, they found that indeed, race matters.

When umpires and pitchers are a different race or ethnicity, the umpire is slightly more apt to call a pitch a ball, which favors the batter. Although the effect is small—averaging about one pitch a game—it is consistent and statistically significant, ruling out simple human error.

What was more surprising, however, is how pitchers reacted to this trend. For a select number of games in 2007 and 2008 the researchers also analyzed where the pitchers threw the ball over the plate. They found that when the umpire and pitcher were of a different race or ethnicity, the pitchers were less likely to throw the ball to the edges of the strike zone—"painting the corners" in baseball parlance—and more likely to throw it straight over the plate where it is easier to hit.

In other words, the pitchers seemed to compensate for discrimination by throwing the ball in areas where the outcome was less subjective, even if it meant potentially hurting their own performance.

"That little bit of conscious or unconscious discrimination spills over into the entire game," concludes Parsons. "It might only directly affect a pitch or two a game, but indirectly it affects every pitch through tiny little changes. Ultimately, when a black pitcher is pitching to a black umpire, he is more likely to win the whole game." [...]

The most significant finding in the paper to Parsons is when umpires don't discriminate. During the time the researchers investigated, MLB had installed cameras pointed at the strike zone in a third of ballparks as a way of monitoring umpires' accuracy. They found that when cameras were present, umpires made calls the same no matter the race of the pitcher. "They didn't install these cameras to look for racism, but it turns out those incentives really matter to umpires," Parsons concludes. When an umpire's job was on the line depending on how accurately he called strikes, then he was more likely to work hard to make his calls fair.

For the sake of argument, what happens when a tiny-headed pitcher pitches toward a tiny-headed umpire?


Steve K said...

Most shocking aspect of the story... a Son was reading an HBS article!

Fred's Brim said...

By "reading" you mean "skimmed the first paragraph," right?

BJ Killeen said...

Dr. Dean Edell once said you can make any study conclusions come out any way you want them. With the amount of money on the line in baseball, I hardly think Kershaw has time to think before a pitch, "let's see now, the batter is Cuban, the umpire is Irish, my catcher is Canadian, I think I'll throw this curve ball so it ends up on the left corner of the plate." Seriously??!!

Fred's Brim said...

"This SOB is not giving me anything on the outside of the plate. He's gonna get a burning cross on his front lawn tonight!"