Umpire performance seems to be a hot topic right now. ESPN has enough material to create countless segments of recent blown calls, and the prospect of expanded replay review is becoming ever more likely. For the foreseeable future, though, umpires will continue to retain full control over all ball and strike calls. While the strike zone is supposed to be uniform, we see considerable variance in the zone from umpire to umpire.
We are fortunate to have more than five years of PITCHf/x data on most umpires, so I thought I’d use this data to pick out a few umpires who add a little personality to their strike zones. It is extremely hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that, while this technology allows umpires better evaluate previous decisions, umpire-specific called strike zones don’t seem to be changing much.
The heat maps below plot ball and strike calls for each umpire relative to major league average. Yellow zones indicate areas in which an umpire calls a pitch a strike at least 10 percent more often than other umpires, while blue areas indicate areas in which an umpire is more likely to call a pitch a ball. Umpires tend to struggle most with pitches that are thrown hard, so most heat maps plot only the different types of fastballs that pitchers throw.
Ideal match-up: Pitchers who can pound the lower part of the zone with a sinker or running fastball.
As the strike zone can vary on any given day, players tend to gripe the most about inconsistency. Bucknor has won the coveted “worst umpire in the majors” award by player consensus vote in three of the last eight years. While most gripe about inconsistency from Bucknor with regard to ball and strike calls, he has actually developed a tendency to call a tight zone laterally. It’s easy to see why many complain about pitches on the left and right edges of the plate when Bucknor is behind the plate; he rarely calls these pitches strikes.
BB/9: 3.6 (lowest in the majors)
(Really) weak match-up: Left-handed hitters.
Pitchers with control issues can breathe a sigh of relief when Eddings puts on his mask. The veteran umpire operates with a liberal zone from top to bottom, even if he does squeeze the right corner of the zone a little bit. I included ball and strike calls for Eddings going back to 2008, because he calls one of the clearest and most difficult strike zones in the league for left-handed hitters.
K/9: 18.3 (highest in the majors)
Unfortunately ideal match-up: Pitchers who often throw (hanging) breaking balls up in the zone… Barry Zito, anyone?
I included Everitt primarily because he leads the league in strikeouts per game. He also is unique because he calls a fairly liberal zone for breaking balls to left-handed and right-handed hitters. Everitt’s high strikeout rate should regress. He has, after all, called two Houston Astros games. He also doesn’t call a wide zone for fastballs.
Match-up: Timmons calls a zone that is perfect for left-handed power hitters with solid plate discipline.
The former head of the minor league umpires’ union likes low fastballs on the corners, but that’s about it. Going back to 2008, Timmons has exhibited the desire to be picky when it comes to breaking balls on the corners of the zone and fastballs up in the zone. Given his track record, his high walk rate this season is entirely believable.
*Thanks to baseballheatmaps.com for the heatmap data and thespread.com for other umpire statistics.