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Study: “Major League Baseball umpires express their racial/ethnic preferences when they evaluate pitchers”

Jul 1, 2011, 3:12 PM EDT

bob-davidson-umpire AP

I recall everyone discussing a study in which it was posited that umpires tend to favor pitchers of the same race a few years ago. Perhaps it was an earlier version of the study whose publication was announced earlier this afternoon, perhaps it was a different study.  I’m not sure.

But either way, there is a newly-published study to that effect out in the latest issue of the American Economic Review. Here it is in full. Here’s the abstract of the study, as set forth at the Freakonomics blog:

Major League Baseball umpires express their racial/ethnic preferences when they evaluate pitchers. Strikes are called less often if the umpire and pitcher do not match race/ethnicity, but mainly where there is little scrutiny of umpires. Pitchers understand the incentives and throw pitches that allow umpires less subjective judgment (e.g., fastballs over home plate) when they anticipate bias. These direct and indirect effects bias performance measures of minorities downward. The results suggest how discrimination alters discriminated groups’ behavior generally. They imply that biases in measured productivity must be accounted for in generating measures of wage discrimination.

I haven’t read the full study yet. All I know is that, when it last made the news, it caused a stink.*  I presume it will cause a new stink now.  And the stink will likely have very little connection whatsoever with the underlying data because, let’s face it, we as a nation are unable to talk about race without making ourselves look silly and self-conscious and obnoxious and guilty and sometimes all of those things in between.

But let’s not have that stop us now! Go ahead, folks, react!


*I’m positive I blogged about the study the first time I heard about it too, but I can’t for the life of me find it, either in the HBT archives or in the old Shysterball archives.  If anyone else can find it, please let me know, because I’m curious to see what I thought of it at the time. Not that it would stop me from having a different response now. I’m nothing if not inconsistent when the facts on the ground or my personal experience and/or disposition changes about a matter.  I can just be annoying that way! 

  1. Ari Collins - Jul 1, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    Sounds about right to me. Racism isn’t always conscious, and it’s usually institutional.

    • florida727 - Jul 1, 2011 at 7:45 PM

      Study: “Major League Baseball umpires express their racial/ethnic preferences when they evaluate pitchers”
      Pure, unadulterated bullsh*t. The “abstract” offers no PROOF that the accusation is true/accurate. And the p value doesn’t support the argument either. Just another attempt at inflammatory journalism. Must be a slow news day.

      • paperlions - Jul 1, 2011 at 11:52 PM

        Obviously you don’t know what the purpose is of an abstract or that research and journalism are not the same thing.

  2. shaggytoodle - Jul 1, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    Is that why Bob Davidson didn’t let Nyjer Morgan take first base after he got plunked vs. Tampa a few weeks ago?

    • Ari Collins - Jul 1, 2011 at 3:38 PM

      But uh oh. There’s a big difference between saying that the umps are, as a collective, favoring their own race, and saying that one decision by one ump was racist.

      Which, to be fair, isn’t what you’re saying. But it is what you’re asking. And the answer is, “We can’t know.”

  3. Jack Marshall - Jul 1, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    This is the kind of study that stopped me from reading Freakonomics. Undeniably, everyone has biases that express themselves in subtle or not so subtle ways. There seem to me to be so many confounding variables in this study, however, that its data is unusually suspect, and the presumed analogy between baseball strike calling and employee evaluations is forced to the point of absurdity. Why is it presumed that the umpire’s bias is only expressed toward the pitcher ethnicity, and not the batter’s ethnicity? Or the individual player himself? Or his status as a rookie or a a veteran or a superstar? Or the team? Or the team’s manager? Or the home crowd? How does a white Jewish umpire express his biases in a dual between a black Catholic batter with a nasty personality against a Hispanic pitcher who he threw out of the game the day before on a pitch one inched off the plate outside in the strike zone height when the umpire has a low strike zone?

    It reminds me of the theory that came up last year about the anti-Semitic umpires costing Hank Greenberg the home run record.

    • Ari Collins - Jul 1, 2011 at 3:49 PM

      I’m no statistician, nor do I play one on TV, but if the statistical reliability is high enough, then the it’s true no matter how the other variables play out. (I think. PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong.)

      • Professor Longnose - Jul 1, 2011 at 7:12 PM

        Ari, I read through the first part of the article, and the authors report that the effect is not statistically significant. The p value is 0.34, which means there’s roughly a one out of three possibility that the numbers support the conclusion only by chance. Generally a 1 out of 20 chance (p = .05) is considered statistically significant.

        There’s a lot of interesting data there. I haven’t read the part where they consider that pitchers change their strategies in reaction to this bias, but the first part, the actual effect, is not proved.

    • patsandsox - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:11 PM

      I find it beliveable, and sad. Yet as a Red Sox fan I have to say it didnt seem to effect Pedro, his stats were consistantly awesome. CC Sabithia seems to do pretty darn well as a man of color so I am not sure I believe it.

      Do I believe that some red neck individual umps may be racist and let it affect their judgement? Yes. But I do not think it is institutional or how do you explain Bob Gibson, Jaun Marichal all the way up to CC today?

      These black and white articles create outrage, make great big splashes and get me to read them, but I take them with several grains of salt when I apply simple logic to them

      • Ari Collins - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:26 PM

        It’s not that guys like Sabathia and Pedro and Gibson disprove this in any way. If the study is stastically meaningful, then the question is: how much better could their results be had they gotten the calls?

  4. b7p19 - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    That explains why the “Padres” haven’t won a World Series.

  5. Ari Collins - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    Also, nice Angry White Ump picture.

  6. ILoveBaseball - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    We’re talking about a group of supposedly grown men who consistently and intentionally insight arguments. It seems the primary factor in their behavior is their testosterone level rather than the content of their character or their level of fairness.
    They often act like 10 year old children of racist parents.
    The results of this study are absolutely no surprise.
    I feel bad for the “Padres”.

  7. evanhartford - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    I think this is interesting, but that’s about it. There is a certain universal bias inherent in all of us, but we’re just too boring to write about unless group us all together and publish “Freakeconomics”.

    When you compare this to the problems/conspiracies regarding the NBA referees, Olympic judges, and The “Brady Rule” in the NFL, its almost meaningless.

  8. proudlycanadian - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    Is this why Frank Francisco blew todays game against the fillies in the top of the 9th? Had I but known, I could have bet against the Jays.

    • jjschiller - Jul 1, 2011 at 6:19 PM

      Frank Francisco blew todays game because Juan Rivera can’t catch a flyball.

  9. tuftsb - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    Angel Hernandez is consistently ranked as one of MLB’s worst umpires. Is it because racism goes both ways?

    • 24may98 - Jul 1, 2011 at 5:20 PM

      No it’s because Angel was misnamed, strives each day to show he’s indeed a really a d*k.

      • 24may98 - Jul 1, 2011 at 5:23 PM

        No it’s because Angel was misnamed, and strives each day to show he’s indeed really a d*k.

  10. thowardlee10 - Jul 1, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    A review of the article referred to here that appears in the latest issue of the American Economic Review was published in the Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) “Baseball Research Journal”, Fall 2010.

    The review, written by Phil Birnbaum, editor of SABR’s statistical journal, “By the Numbers”, focused on the statistical methods used in the study (originally published in August 2007, not sure where).

    His conclusion is that, the evidence for bias among MLB umpires is statistically significant in this particular study., However this is not conclusive for bias in general as the study itself has a significance level of .04, which means that one time in 25 this study’s findings would be achieved by chance.

    He recommends that the same study be performed using different years, and if bias continues to be observed at the same level, there would then exist stronger evidence to support what the authors assert in their hypothesis.

    • professorperry - Jul 1, 2011 at 5:17 PM

      This. Needs more data. Wouldn’t be shocking.

    • Professor Longnose - Jul 1, 2011 at 7:18 PM

      I just read through the first part, and the p value for the bias is 0.34, not statistically significant. Is that review online?

      • thowardlee10 - Jul 1, 2011 at 8:21 PM

        The review is available online to SABR members only. I think the p value for bias you are referring to at 0.34 refers to umpire evaluations when race/ethnicity are matched between umpire and pitcher.

  11. 24may98 - Jul 1, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    QED: The Umps are not “blind.”

  12. frankbullit - Jul 1, 2011 at 5:52 PM

    In all seriousness, I like the contemporary label of “institutional” that precedes “racism” in the contemporary parlance of the term. It makes the label of “racism” stick, and doesn’t allow the accused a defense. I love it! Brilliant sophistry! And the accusers thought “Whitey” was slick.

  13. frankbullit - Jul 1, 2011 at 5:56 PM

    Using the logic evoked by this article, you’d think the Umps loved Jews and radically Fundamental Christians: Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton couldn’t miss the strike zone at the peak of their game.

    Hmmm… Using this logic how does one explain Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard perennial continually leading the league in strikeouts? Does Adam Dunn have a non-white wife or step-parent?

    • jjschiller - Jul 1, 2011 at 6:24 PM

      Run with this. You’ve made a couple of really excellent points here, and are proving yourself to be quite a thinker.

      • frankbullit - Jul 1, 2011 at 6:35 PM


        I’m just using the thinking tools provided by the contemporary “racist” arguments. Men like Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron(and the many in their company) were victims of “racism” in our free country. These current accusations and allegations not only tarnish what the aforementioned men achieved.

      • jjschiller - Jul 1, 2011 at 6:41 PM

        Oh no, I agree with you. Racism pretty obviously died when we started sharing drinking fountains.

      • frankbullit - Jul 1, 2011 at 7:29 PM

        Comparing “balls and strikes” to Jim Crow Era segregation is absurd and proves my previous point. Way to sensationalize a non-issue on something that is truly irrelevant in the world of politics: balls and strikes. I never heard real men like Aaron, Robinson, or Mays complain about umpires after their retirement… Trust me, those men went through undeserved sh-t that would make the many of us gangsta bloggers cry.

      • Tim's Neighbor - Jul 2, 2011 at 6:14 AM

        Hank Aaron wrote an entire book about racism (including umpires) in MLB and beyond. Poor fact checking.

      • frankbullit - Jul 2, 2011 at 9:42 AM

        Tim’s NIeghbor,

        “I Had a Hammer” would be his autobiography where he most seriously tackles the issues of race. I don’t recall a chapter on balls and strikes. If there is, and I am wrong, I can admit it. If you have the book handy point it out, and I’ll “eat crow.”

  14. fengypants - Jul 1, 2011 at 5:59 PM

    U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

  15. royalsfaninfargo - Jul 1, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    I dont think umps are purposefully calling balls and strikes based on racism or even race. As someone pointed out above, how could a so-called “racist” ump be calling balls for a minority pitcher when there is a minority batter up. If the pitcher and batter are both black does the ump hate the pitcher more? Balls and strikes are judgement calls and hence are completely subjective. If race had anything to do with it I am sure this would have been a WAY bigger deal long before this study was done. Is there racism in Baseball? On some levels im sure there is, but NOWADAYS sports in general (not necessarily on fans parts) are among the most tolerant of professions.

  16. paradocks62 - Jul 1, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    The conclusion (“Major League Baseball umpires express their racial/ethnic preferences when they evaluate pitchers”) that is reached by the study is plausible. However, I suggest we all click on the link to the actual study and look at Table 2 (page 7). The data in that Table indicates that something other than racial/ethnic preferences are not expressed by the behavior of umpires, at least not in the way suggested by the authors of the article.

    If the authors’ conclusion is correct, Table 2 should reveal the following: (1) White umps preference White pitchers to non-White pitchers; (2) Hispanic umps preference Hispanic pitchers to non-Hispanic pitchers; and (3) Black umps preference Black pitchers to non-Black pitchers. The Table does support (1) but does not support (2) or (3). Contrary to the authors’ general conclusion (a race/ethnicity match between ump and pitcher reveals ump preference for the pitcher), Table 2 shows that Hispanic umps call strikes more frequently for white pitchers than for Hispanic pitchers. Even more surprisingly, given the authors’ stated conclusion, Black umps call strikes more frequently for White pitchers, Hispanic pitchers and even Asian pitchers than for Black pitchers. Something else is going on.

    Indeed, one more thing revealed in the authors’ Table 2, reveals the complexity of what’s going on. If the authors’ general conclusion is correct, than a White pitcher would most prefer to have a White ump behind the plate (because the White ump would call strikes more frequently than non-White umps). Yet, Table 2 of the author’s study indicates that a White pitcher is more likely to get called strikes from a Black ump than a White ump.

    Statistics are great but often misused and carelessly interpreted by the humans who employ them in their arguments. The authors’ conclusion, while plausible, is at best an over-statement and at worse unsubstantiated by their own data.

    • Professor Longnose - Jul 1, 2011 at 7:27 PM

      You are correct, but that is for the raw data only. The authors have created a methodology to adjust for a number of factors, which is it beyond me to evaluate.

      However, the authors report that overall the effect is not statistically significant.

      Interesting, too, in Table 2 is that Hispanic umpires call fewer strikes than white umpires, no matter who is pitching.

  17. jjschiller - Jul 1, 2011 at 9:25 PM

    Frank, you’re the one who took this article as an opportunity to give the world your opinions about contemporary complaints of racism. You took the balls and strikes and widened the horizon. I just made fun of you.

    Racism isn’t just having hateful words said to you in public.

    • frankbullit - Jul 1, 2011 at 9:48 PM


      I guess we are even. My silly examples of reading racial preference when looking at baseball stats was making fun of the likes of you, who allow media dolts to create “hysterias” where none exist. Yes, I think the behavior of Major League umps is despicable, but it has nothing to do with skin color.

      • jjschiller - Jul 2, 2011 at 11:34 AM

        The likes of me, huh?

        You attack the very concept of ‘institutional racism’ on the grounds that.. well, not really on any grounds. You seem to just think it isn’t right to claim a person is being persecuted against.

        Institutional racism is hard to point out, and hard to prove. That’s why it continues to exist. When ass-clowns like you say ‘Back in the day, that was some real racism! All these young gangsta’s are just whiners,’ you give racism the cover it needs to survive.

        A person has the right to be treated fairly. The fact that others had it worse has nothing to do with it.

        This is all separate and apart from the study, which I bet has plenty of flaws.

        As do you.

  18. macjacmccoy - Jul 2, 2011 at 12:47 AM

    ” let’s face it, we as a nation are unable to talk about race without making ourselves look silly and self-conscious and obnoxious and guilty and sometimes all of those things in between.”

    I agree the entire nation is like that and not just white america. Blacks, Hispanics, Eastern Europeans, Arabs, Indians, Natives , and the Orientals are just as silly and obnoxious when discussing race as white people but in my expierence are less self conscious and self aware about the things they say and do that they should be feeling guilty about when it relates to other races.

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