The Umpire Strikes Back
We’re unlikely to tell it straight. Slant is the best to which we can aspire.
Over more than a decade (2008-2019), Major League home-plate umpires made every pitch call correctly on one team roughly twice per season. Among the 114 umpires with at least 5,000 called pitches during that time, the range between the least accurate and most accurate umps is narrower than 4 percentage points, ranging from 86.2 percent at the low end to 90.1 percent at the high end, with an average of 88.5 percent.
Pat Hoberg is a newer umpire than that and he umpired a “perfect game” in the Houston Astros’ Game 2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2022 World Series, his first appearance in the Fall Classic, per Umpire Scorecards, which tracks umpires’ ball and strike calls over the course of every MLB game. As confirmed by video technology, he got every ball and strike call right. It was the first perfect umpiring effort since such data began to be collected in 2008.Hoberg was also 2022’s top-rated umpire overall with a remarkable accuracy rate of 95.5 percent.
Umpires have one job and one job only: They are arbiters of reality. They observe, analyze, and evaluate what happens on the baseball diamond. Ball or strike. Fair or foul. Safe or out. That they err more than 10 percent of the time is a function of how hard it is. That’s why MLB is moving inexorably toward robot umpires calling balls and strikes. Unlike humans, robot umpires don’t blink, don’t get distracted, and aren’t fazed by weather, glare, or who is pitching.
According to long-time umpire Joe West, “[t]hree ways you can miss a call: lack of concentration, lack of positioning, lack of timing.” Robots don’t share those problems. But there’s more to the story, too.
Robots aren’t bamboozled by biases. As I like to say, on our best days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles, squinting and tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, focused, assertive truth-tellers. However, on many days, all too much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, short-sighted, partisan, arrogant, easily distracted confabulators. It’s an unfortunate reality, but reality nonetheless.
Using data from Major League Baseball on 756,848 pitches over 313,774 at-bats in 4,914 games (two full seasons), Jerry Kim of Columbia and Brayden King at Northwestern found that umpires, overall, called a strike on 18.8 percent of pitches that were actually out of the strike zone and a ball on 12.9 percent of pitches that were, in fact, strikes. However, exhibiting the “Matthew Effect,”behind-the-plate umpires were reliably more generous in their calls with highly regarded pitchers than they were with lesser hurlers.
For two decades now, Major League Baseball has used technology to determine, after the fact, the accuracy of umpiring decisions. This information is then used to incentivize umpires by, for example, assigning more-accurate umpires to lucrative play-off games. Despite such incentives, MLB umpires favored high-status pitchers, more often over-recognizing their pitches (calling balls strikes)and less often under-recognizing them (calling strikes balls). Umpires generally widen the strike zone for high-status pitchers and shrink the strike zone for low-status pitchers.
More specifically, umpires are 25 percent more likely to call a ball a strike for the five-time All-Star than for a pitcher with no All-Star appearances and are 14 percent less likely to call a strike a ball for a five-time All-Star than a non-All-Star. The more All-Star appearances, the greater the advantage. The pitchers who benefit the most are those pitchers who have a lot of All-Star experience and have a reputation for controlling the strike zone. Thus, for example, Greg Maddux (eight All-Star games) got more calls than Randy Johnson (10 All-Star games).
Obvious conclusion: Umpires, like all humans, are biased and make mistakes in favor of their biases. One particular umpire (and some of his mistakes) is the subject of this week’s TBL.
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The Umpire Strikes Back
Joe West umpired his first Major League game in September 1976. By the time he retired, 45 years later, he had worked 5,460 MLB games, more than any other umpire in history, as well as six World Series and three All-Star games. West was on the field for Willie McCovey’s 500th home run, Felix Hernandez’s perfect game, and Nolan Ryan’s fifth no-hitter. He was behind the plate when Orel Hershiser broke Don Drysdale’s record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. West’s crew threw Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell out of a playoff game in 1988 for having pine tar on his glove. He was behind the plate as Dwight Gooden out-dueled Nolan Ryan in a 2-1 Mets victory over the Astros in the classic 1986 NLCS.
He claims, only partly in jest, never to have missed a call.
West was 23 years old when he reached the majors but, even then, his deportment wasn’t up to snuff. “The supervisors in every league I’ve ever worked have discussed my temperament with me,” he admitted at the time. “They think I’ll grow out of that, and I do, too.”
Spoiler Alert: He didn’t grow out of it.
A photographer once took a picture of “Cowboy Joe” (also a country music singer-songwriter, albeit not a very good one) on a horse. As Joe tells it, he said, “‘Look at the prick on that horse.’ I said, ‘It’s a mare.’ He said, ‘I know. Look at the prick on that horse.’”
By the time West retired, “His crown for most needless arguments, ejections, and spotlight grabs had already long been secured.”
He wasn’t the best umpire, either.
Baseball writer Rob Neyer offered a common opinion on West: “By nearly any measure, Joe West is an awful umpire. He’s got a well-earned reputation for turning situations into conflagrations and making himself the center of attention. The numbers don’t help him much, either.”
In a comprehensive study of 11 seasons of MLB data by Boston University’s Mark Williams, West was the umpire with the second-highest percentage of bad ball-and-strike calls when working behind home plate. Over those eleven seasons, he averaged 21 incorrect calls a game, or 2.3 per inning, compared to the Major League average of 14 per game, 1.6 per inning. West made even more errors than Angel Hernandez, widely regarded as baseball’s worst umpire, and was clearly among the lower performing umps.
Poor decisions and poor deportment are a lousy combination.
Nearly 40 years ago, Hall of Famer Joe Torre, then Atlanta Braves manager and much more recently the umpires’ boss as MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, said about West: “He goes out of his way to look for trouble. He always does.”
West didn’t mellow with age. Or retirement.
As originally disclosed on reddit, and chronicled by Awful Announcing (more here), West got into a heated rhubarb with other editors recently about his Wikipedia page, and even threatened legal action after his edits weren’t accepted on account of Wiki’s conflict of interest policy. Among other things, he tried to remove information about his having been suspended, to remove other unflattering details, and he didn’t like being called “controversial.”
“He’s not gonna back away from confrontation. It’s just not in his make-up,” Giants analyst Mike Krukow said about West.
“Crewchief22,” signing off as “Joe West” (who wore “22“ on his sleeve as an umpire and a crew chief) and later acknowledged to be West, asserted he was “tired of correcting your lies” and called on Wikipedia to “either reinstate what I wrote or erase the entire page.” As he explained (essentially arguing balls and strikes), “I constructively corrected the bullsh*t that was on this page.” Crewchief22 said he would have his attorney “file charges against Wikipedia,” which led to
West being ejected from the game the account being blocked.
West, used to being in charge and getting his way, was a slave to his emotions and his biases. In his reality, the way he saw it was necessarily the way it was.
We aren’t nearly as self-aware as we think we are. To the extent we are aware at all, we frequently recognize behavioral and cognitive weaknesses in others – especially the most egregious examples of our opponents. But we will almost never recognize them in ourselves. That’s because everybody else is expressing opinions while we are stating facts. Or so it seems.
That reality – that failing – is bias blindness, our well-established tendency to see the existence and operation of cognitive and motivational biases much more in others than in ourselves. As Daniel Kahneman, the world’s leading authority on human error, explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”
Bias is everywhere. So is bias blindness, no matter how willing – and even eager – we are to deny it. As Jesus said: “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own.”
From a large and representative sample, more than 85 percent of test respondents believed they were less biased than the average American. Another study of those who were sure of their better-than-average status found that they “insisted that their self-assessments were accurate and objective even after reading a description of how they could have been affected by the relevant bias.” On the other hand, participants reported their peers’ self-serving attributions regarding test performance to be biased while their own similarly self-serving attributions were free of that bias.
In the “Author’s Message” to his thriller, State of Fear, in which the scientist hero questions the global scientific consensus on climate change, the late Michael Crichton made the point that “politicized science is dangerous,” and then added, not satirically, “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.”
We are emotional more than rational. Our beliefs, preferences, and choices can and do change, often for poor reasons, and which choices often foreclose or limit later choices. Finally and crucially, these weaknesses are mostly opaque to us. They leave no cognitive trace.
When Jane Curtin was asked if the person she was mimicking for a screen role knew that she was the source material, she replied, “I used to do my aunt when I was doing improv, and she always thought I was doing my other aunt.”
George Washington’s brilliance shown through in his awareness of his bias blindness, as reflected by his famous Farewell Address.
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
Warren Buffett put it really well.
“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
As an important study found, physicians “who were ‘completely certain’ of the diagnosis ante-mortem were wrong 40 percent of the time.” After all, as Russell Warne argued, “if you believe that the universe is made of cheese whiz, you’re going to build a cosmic cheese whiz detector.” And, as Martha Deevy, director of the Financial Security Division at Stanford’s Center on Longevity pointed out, “investment fraud works best on highly educated men, who think they’re too smart to be scammed.”
Who better to illustrate it than Dr. Sheldon Cooper?
Nobody thinks their sh*t stinks (“Stercus cuique suum bene olat,” said Montaigne). The “plasticity of disgust,” like “selective perception,” is a real thing.
In one major study of 661 adults, only a single one of them said that s/he is more biased than the average person. “People seem to have no idea how biased they are. Whether a good decision-maker or a bad one, everyone thinks that they are less biased than their peers,” said Boston University’s Carey Morewedge, an author of the study. “This susceptibility … appears to be pervasive, and is unrelated to people’s intelligence, self-esteem, and actual ability to make unbiased judgments and decisions.”
It’s the same sort of thinking that allows us to smile knowingly when friends tell us about how smart, talented, and attractive their children are while remaining utterly convinced as to the objective truth of the amazing attributes of our own kids (and, as I can attest, it’s even truer with grandchildren).
A key theme in Shakespeare, for example, has characters thinking that they are smart enough to fool others, all the while being fools themselves. Jane Austen, too, here in the guise of a modernization of Emma, wherein the heroine spends the entire movie trying to help others who don’t have a clue, oblivious to being “Clueless” herself.
On our better days, we might grudgingly concede that we hold views that are wrong. The problem is providing current examples.
As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” In that way, Hell is having our own way and being stuck with it. If we don’t find ways at least to mitigate our mental weaknesses and shortcomings, we will remain in Hell. We will have our own way, sure, but we’ll continue to be stuck with it.
Bias, like wisdom and wealth, compounds, making “our own way” particularly excruciating.
Naturally the dying man wonders to himself Has commentary been more lucid than anybody else? And had he successively beaten back the rising tide Of idiots, dilettantes, and fools On his watch while he was alive … Eventually the dying man takes his final breath But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ‘bout to miss And it occurs to him a little late in the game We leave as clueless as we came For the rented heavens to the shadows in the cave We’ll all be wrong someday
“Our own way” is inevitably human. Unfailingly and frustratingly human. We’re often wrong, but never in doubt.
As Hamilton recognizes, “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” is fundamental to the stories that are told, survive, and define our legacies.
History is written by the victors, after all. That’s why we, like Joe West, want to be in control of our narratives and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, like Joe West, we’re unlikely to tell it straight.
Slant is the best to which we can aspire.
Totally Worth It
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For the first time in history, a recent Gallup poll found, church membership among Americans has dropped to below 50 percent, and that up to a third describe themselves as having no religion. This change in religious belief and church attendance has instigated other social trends, most of them undesirable. There has been a sharp rise in extreme loneliness, with huge numbers of young men now saying they have no friends. Among teenage girls, there are rising levels of anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders, not to mention gender dysphoria. American fertility has declined to European levels. We are unhappier. Perhaps most disturbingly, drug overdoses and suicides have risen so sharply that the United States has become only the second industrialized country not at war to see life expectancy start to drop; the first, in the late 1960s, was the Soviet Union. These issues, a vast amount of social science literature shows, are influenced by religious belief and observance.
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This is the best thing I read this week (and the most important). The saddest. The creepiest. The loveliest. The most interesting. The most sensible. The most absurd. The least surprising. The best Super Bowl-related story. Revolt in The Villages. Crappy review. Barbell strategy failure. Luther against Christian nationalism. Factcheck: Consistent with my experience. RIP, Tim McCarver. RIP, Burt Bacharach.
It’s probably the most famous narrative in behavioral finance.
It’s also mostly wrong.
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There were 1,724 bank robberies in the U.S. during 2022. After just one in 2021, Denmark had zero last year.
Making financial decisions based on politics is almost always a bad idea. Illustrative example here.
The TBL Spotify playlist, made up of the songs featured here, now includes 250 songs and about 17 hours of great music. I urge you to listen in, sing along, and turn up the volume.
My ongoing thread/music and meaning project: #SongsThatMove
“Every sinner has a future, and every saint has a past.”
Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.
Thanks for reading.
Issue 142 (February 17, 2023)
On April 18, 2022, Hoberg missed the first pitch of the game but none thereafter in the all-time best umpiring performance before his perfect evening.
The “Matthew Effect” is a phenomenon whose influence reaches far beyond baseball. It gets its name from Matthew 25:29.
“For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
This idea is partly a matter of resources. High-status individuals tend to have more resources at their disposal, which they can use to achieve better results. But the Matthew Effect is also about perception, as in MLB.
Interestingly, high-status hitters didn’t get nearly the same benefit of the doubt, although their benefit was still significant. Veteran, Caucasian, and home-team pitchers also received measurable benefits from umpires. The called strike zone also varies with the count. Thus, for example, it is typically smaller than normal on 0-2 and larger than normal on 3-0.