Baseball and the racist umpire examined

Baseball purists tend to lament the over-reliance on statistics that have moved the enjoyment of the game from a sporting endeavor to a mathematical equation. While the baseball researchers have – correctly — educated us about the weakness of judging a player by his batting average, they have also continued to introduce new statistical measurements that push the envelope of absurdity.

Can math prove racism? A study by researchers at Southern Methodist University is sure to ignite a debate over whether the race of players influences those statistics.

Researchers there have issued a paper that says white umpires call more strikes for white pitchers than non-whites.

Johan Sulaeman, a financial economist, at Southern Methodist University, analyzed 3.5 million pitches from 2004 to 2008 and found — claimed — that “minority pitchers scale back their performance to overcome racial/ethnic favoritism toward whites by MLB home plate umpires.”

In other words: Because they weren’t getting their pitches called strikes by the white umpires, minority pitchers had little choice but to throw more pitches “down the middle,” giving them a distinct disadvantage when measured against white pitchers.

Among the researchers’ findings, according to an SMU news release:

— From the starting pitcher’s perspective, a racial match with the umpire helped his statistics by yielding fewer earned runs, fewer hits and fewer home runs.

— Because the majority of umpires are white, teams with minority pitchers have a distinct disadvantage in non-monitored parks.

— There is no evidence that visiting managers adjusted their pitching lineups to minimize exposure of their minority pitchers to the subjective bias of a white umpire.

— In parks where baseball hasn’t installed cameras to monitor an umpire’s ability, pitchers of the same race threw pitches that allowed umpires the most discretion, apparently to maximize their advantage stemming from the umpires’ favoritism.

— A batter who swings is less likely to get a hit when the umpire and pitcher match.

The researchers claimed that because their performance was undermined by white umpires, minority pitchers earn between $50,000 and $400,000 a year less than white pitchers.

It’s comforting that the study found major league managers haven’t adjusted their pitching rotations to favor white pitchers. But it’s also possible that the reason they haven’t is because they don’t know about the study.

The next logical step in research to further prove an allegation of racism by umpires, is to examine the ball/strike calls based on the race of the batter.

In the meantime, it’s important to remember there’s a fair number of conclusions in the study that are based on assumptions.

(h/t: Chris Dall)