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Oct 14, 2019

Can an app make the call on baseball umpires?

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UmpScores lays bare the successes and failures of the guys behind home plate.

With the World Series just around the corner, we’re hearing a lot about players’ stats. Teams have been taught to use baseball’s copious amounts of data to exploit market inefficiencies and squeeze every last bit of productivity out of their players.

But another issue is when an umpire gets a call wrong. Major League Baseball is trying to make those instances less frequent. Over the summer, robot umpires helped officiate a minor league game. The goal is not only to improve accuracy of the calls, but to speed up the game and get more butts in the seats.

Boston University finance professor Mark Williams thinks there’s a way to use technology to make human umpires better at their jobs before we turn the reins over to the bots. He just launched an app that serves as a kind of “digital baseball card” for umpires.

It’s called UmpScores. You can see how many calls a given umpire has historically gotten wrong. I asked Williams what the idea is behind turning the spotlight on the umpires. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Mark Williams: Umpires on average make 14 bad calls a game. So that’s roughly 1.6 errors per inning. That can dramatically impact a game. So it’s really interesting to say, “Well, what areas are they weakest in?” You know, there are certain umpires, for example, that do very well in certain parks. There’s certain umpires that do very well with certain pitchers and certain teams. So the data is there, and all we’re doing is really creating the analytics.

Andy Uhler: So is [Major League Baseball] going to ask you if they should be using this app? Are the fans going to be able to write proverbial emails and letters about umpires that aren’t doing the job right?

Williams: Well, the hope here is that this app is going to highlight those really strong umpires and also give a tool that can be used by Major League Baseball to study their blind spots and areas where they could improve.

Uhler: So it sounds like you think they do need more help from technology. Is that fair?

Williams: Absolutely, I think human collaboration with technology will improve their performance dramatically. Behind home plate, there is no technology at all. Fans, when we’re watching on TV or if you’re live streaming, you have access to technology that tells you where the strike zone is and shows you the accuracy rate. But behind home plate, these umpires have to do it the old-fashioned way, just by human judgment. And humans make mistakes.

Uhler: Are you worried about call reviews and things like that, like we see in the NFL? Are umpires going to be scrutinized to that extent, where coaches are throwing red flags and asking that a strike call be reviewed?

Williams: Well, right now the ejection rate this year was over 220 ejections. It was 35% greater than it was last year. So there is increased frustration by players and managers, and I’m sure by fans, that the ejections are occurring, in part because of disputes of calls behind home plate. So there is a need to improve what’s going on behind home plate. I think there is a great opportunity here as well just for fans to learn more about how hard it is to be an umpire, the profession itself, and how [we] could improve it.

Uhler: You, of course, are a finance professor. This app is going to cost us a buck to download. Why not make it free?

Williams: Right. Well, baseball is a game of nines. Nine innings, nine people in the field, and I thought 99 cents was about right. This is a labor of love. I don’t expect to break even at all on this, but I do expect to help fans and hopefully better the game through the experience of being able to know your umpire.

Related links: More insight from Andy Uhler

Williams, a Red Sox fan, told me he imagines one day fans will turn his app into a sort of fantasy sports game. So instead of drafting a shortstop and getting points when he hits a homer, you’d be drafting umpires and get points for their accuracy behind the plate. Sounds crazy, but I also never thought I’d be in a fantasy golf league.

And if you’re not into fantasy umpiring quite yet, you might be interested in a different new app that evaluates a pitcher’s performance instead. It’s called PitchGrader. There’s a piece about it on The Ringer. It was developed by Wayne Boyle, a Long Island engineer who spent decades designing audio equipment. He only developed the app to help his kid make his high school baseball team.

The app takes pitch data and tries to predict a batter’s weaknesses, strengths, and most importantly, how to exploit them. After college baseball teams started using the app, it became Boyle’s new source of income. He charges $7,500 a year for amateur teams and $15,000 a year for pro teams.

And according to the trade publication Baseball Reference, like we told you earlier, baseball is trying to do what it can to speed up the game because slower games mean fewer ticket sales. Attendance has declined for six of the past seven seasons. And fewer admissions mean a lower gate, which means less money for teams.

But the league isn’t just talking about robot umpires to speed things up. Officials said they’re discussing limiting the number of pitchers a team can use in a given game. Last year, that number was a record high, 4.36. That’s time for an awful lot of peanuts and Cracker Jack.

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