Umpires are supposed to get every call right to the point where they have virtually no impact on the outcome of the game. Therefore, whenever an umpire does affect the outcome of a game, people start to take notice.
Everyone knows the bad umpires: Angel Hernandez, Jim Joyce (not necessarily a bad career, but he had a really bad call that cost a pitcher a perfect game), and Joe West, but nobody seems to know who the best in the league are. As umpires, they’re cursed to go unnoticed for calling good games, only seeing the spotlight when they perform poorly. Well, not anymore! I’m going to shed light on who are really the best and worst umpires in Major League Baseball. Then, when you turn on your favorite team’s game you can know exactly what to expect when you see who is standing behind home plate.
Before I get started, I want to give a huge shout-out to Umpire Scorecards on Twitter. They are an online database that details how good or bad umpires do at calling balls and strikes for every game of the season. They did most of the heavy lifting for this piece. I just went a little further with their data to look at a few factors that the site was not keeping track of, and compiled all the data into visual charts.
The most important aspect when determining whether or not an umpire calls a good game is balls and strikes. While close plays and tags on the basepaths may play a role in determining a game’s outcome, they don’t come close to the effect balls and strikes have. Calling balls and strikes has two factors of its own: accuracy and consistency. Accuracy is exactly what you’d think it is: did the umpire in question call balls and strikes correctly throughout the game? Consistency is a little more complex. Think about being a hitter up to bat. If an umpire has an inconsistent strike zone, it would be very difficult to know whether or not an incoming pitch is a ball or strike. In a game that is decided in nanoseconds, any indecision could be devastating, but an inconsistent strike zone only promotes indecision. Will that pitch just off the outside corner be a ball or a strike? Who knows? Essentially, it would be better for the umpire to always call that pitch one way or another so both the hitter and pitcher know what will happen if a pitch hits that spot.
Here’s a graph detailing every umpire’s average consistency and average accuracy this season. There have been 99 umpires to have called at least one MLB game from behind home plate this season.
I made the dots blue, because...well, we’re talking about umpires. The red dot in the middle is the league average. As you can see, there is a direct correlation between accuracy and consistency. Better umpires are just better all-around. Personally, I put a little more value into accuracy than consistency, because an accurate umpire would also have a consistent strike zone, but nonetheless, consistency is important. Keep in mind that the data I’ve compiled only covers the start of the season through last Sunday. Also, while I included all umpires in my graph, I will only show you umpires with at least five games called this season. Anyone can have a few good or bad games, the name of the game is being able to call good games regularly, so these eight umpires do not qualify: Gerry Davis, Malachi Moore, John Bacon, Charlie Ramos, Nate Tomlinson, Kyle McCrady, Alex Tosi, and Lew Williams.
Here are the five most accurate and least accurate umpires from around the league for the 2021 season.
- Tripp Gibson: 20 G; 95.32 percent accuracy; 96.9 percent consistency
- Jeremie Rehak: 20 G; 94.85 percent accuracy; 96.8 percent consistency
- Alan Porter: 19 G; 94.75 percent accuracy; 96.5 percent consistency
- Edwin Moscoso: 24 G; 94.64 percent accuracy; 96.5 percent consistency
- Pat Hoberg: 23 G; 94.44 percent accuracy; 97.6 percent consistency
- Ed Hickox: 9 G; 90.13 percent accuracy; 94.1 percent consistency
- Rob Drake: 19 G; 90.92 percent accuracy; 95.3 percent consistency
- Adrian Johnson: 15 G; 91.03 percent accuracy; 94.5 percent consistency
- Kerwin Danley: 13 G; 91.28 percent accuracy; 92.8 percent consistency
- Joe West: 22 G; 91.3 percent accuracy; 94.7 percent consistency
Now, many of you are probably surprised that Angel Hernandez is not on this list. He’s definitely not good (19th-lowest accuracy: 92.31 percent), but he’s definitely not as bad as people say he is. His infamy has more or less come from a few huge mistakes rather than consistently poor games.
The next thing I wanted to look at is how experience plays a factor in accuracy. You’d think that as an umpire spends more time at the Major League level, they’d get better at calling balls and strikes. That’s not the case though.
As you can see, there is a slight downward trend in accuracy as an umpire spends more time in the league. There’s a peak at umpires with four years of experience and then a slow decline until the end of their careers. Obviously, some of these data points have only one representative (there’s only one blue currently at the MLB level with 46 years of experience: Joe West; same goes with the data points at 10 years, 15, 18, 19, 21, 28, 32, 33, 37, and 40), but the data still remains for the other 21 levels of experience.
I have a theory regarding why we see this decline. It takes a long track record of excellence in order to qualify for a Major League umpire job. Once umpires get to that point, it’s very hard for them to lose that job. They can, but most MLB umpire firings are related to personal issues off the field, not poor performance behind home plate. Basically, once an umpire reaches the Major League level, he or she is excited and wants to do a good job, hence why we see improvement from in the early goings, but as the job settles in, umpires realize how secure their job is and consistently calling great games becomes much less urgent. Several very experienced umps still do — just look at the accuracy numbers for umpires with 31 years of experience (92.47 percent). It’s pretty good, but in general, umpires are not as spry as they were when they first started. Of course, that’s just a theory though.
Lastly, I wanted to look at how each team across Major League Baseball has been affected by umpiring. How many more or less wins would each team have? In order to determine this, I looked at the total run favor for each team. Total run favor is a stat created by Umpire Scorecards that determines how many runs were given, or taken from, each team by an umpire in any given game. This stat takes into account the situation of each called ball and strike as well to determine just how favored or unfavored each team was. For example, while a ball being called a strike on the first pitch of the game may not affect the outcome very much, a ball being called a strike in a 3-2 count with the bases loaded and one out when your team is down by two, would drastically change the outcome.
Here’s every team across MLB and how many runs they’ve been granted by ump calls:
The most favored teams are on the left. The least favored teams are on the right. That translucent pinkish line you see in the middle is the zero run line. Any team above it has seen favorable calls from umpires. The most favored teams in the league have been the Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, and Cincinnati Reds. Through last Sunday, the Rangers had been granted 23.49 runs this season just on umpires’ balls and strikes calls. They’ve been favored in 64 percent of their games this season. Seeing as how the average runs per game in the league is just under 4.5, we can assume that the Texas Rangers have been granted about 5.22 wins this season.
The least favored teams have been the Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and San Francisco Giants. I find this weird. Four of the league’s division leaders are in the bottom five for umpire favoritism. I currently don’t have a theory for why that might be, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The White Sox have been hit especially hard this year. They’ve been granted -15.59 runs this year. If their games had been called with perfect accuracy this season, the White Sox would have approximately 3.46 more wins than they do now.
Basically, every team and fanbase thinks umpires have it out for them. Take my friend and former Deadspin writer Jon Helmkamp. He’s a Red Sox fan, and he was appalled at how poorly this game from July 30 was being called.
The home plate umpire for that game was Ben May. He’s not a bad umpire in general (93.78 percent accuracy; 96.8 percent consistency), but he was having a bad game and Red Sox fans everywhere wanted to riot. I don’t blame them. That’s just human nature, but maybe we all just need to take a step back and realize the good that some umpires do for our favorite teams. After all, the Red Sox are the sixth most-favored team in the league this season. They’ve received favor in over 56 percent of their games this season. While it’s normal to be upset when you see your favorite player get called out on strikes on a pitch three inches off the outside corner, odds are that same thing happened to an opposing player. If we keep going after umpires for only doing the wrong things, then it’s only a matter of time before we no longer see human umpires in the game, and we all know the robot umpires aren’t ready for that kind of responsibility.
It could be coming sooner than you’d think. Already this season, an umpire was replaced mid-game by... no one.
There was nobody behind home plate for part of that game. Robot umpires took over, and did fine. It wasn’t perfect, but it did fine. Until the robot umpires have been entirely figured out though, we still have to deal with the human error element of the game. Just know that if you see Gibson, Rehak, Porter, Moscoso, or Hoberg behind home plate for one of your team’s games, you’re in for a good one, and maybe give those guys some props if you ever get the chance.