Umpires Impact on Baseball Games

mlb umpiresWhen you’re handicapping a baseball game, there are copious amounts of information to consider, more so than any sport (fact due to sheer volume of games).  At any given time, you have to consider the starting pitcher, the men in the bullpen, the starting lineups, and the players on the bench for both teams.

However, the men usually overlooked are the ones wearing blue night in and night out. The umpires aren’t quite as crucial of a part of the game as the players are, but there is no doubt that there are some interesting betting trends to follow when you talk about umpires in the bigs.

Homer Umpires

Part of the nature of sports as we know them is that home teams play better than road teams. Not only do home teams get to stay in their normal living spaces and not have to worry about where to eat, where to train, how to contact friends and family, and all of that, but the grounds are familiar as well. A home team in baseball knows where exactly all of the quirks of the stadium are at, and the hosts also know just how the sun shines into the stadium on a bright day.

It’s also natural for umpires to give just a tad bit of a hand to the home team. Sure, even the most objective ump will want to call games right down the middle, but there is a little more emotion there when the call is going the way of the home team. We’re not saying that games are fixed by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when you’re a traveling umpire to have the 35,000 fans in attendance cheering on a call that you made.

Some of the worst calls that are made in baseball all seem to favor the home side, and if you don’t believe us, just go back and look at the tape of the home run that wasn’t in the Oakland/Cleveland game and the strike three call against Tampa Bay when it traveled to Texas earlier this year.

Home Team Wins by the Stats

That said, the home teams won 53.29% of all of the baseball games played in the 2012 season.

Theoretically, the stats for the umpires should have ultimately fallen right around the same distribution as well. However, of the 82 umpires that called games in 2012, 20 officiated wins for the home team at least 60% of the time, and four umped at least 70% of his games in favor of the hosts.

Sometimes these are tremendous trends that you see over time. Other times, it’s just a matter of a bit of luck. If the average price for a home team that an umpire is calling a game for is -150, his home team winning percentage should be a heck of a lot higher than an umpire who is calling games in which the average home team is just -110. Remember that these regular umpires essentially get the same number of games that a full-time starting pitcher would, so the sample sets are all relatively small.

Larry Barksdale, for example, went 26-8 for home teams in 2012 with a profit of 16.93 units. He also went 17-8 +7.84 units in 2011, 20-13 in 2010, and 20-14 in 2009. It is clear that this is a man that you want to be watching out for when he is umpiring games, as over a sample size of 126 games, Barksdale has officiated the home team the win in a stunning 65.9 percent of his games. Not surprisingly, Barksdale is 6-4 for home teams through the first quarter of the 2013 season, and we would expect that trend to continue.

However, Andy Fletcher is a totally different story. He led home teams to a 24-7 mark in 2012, the best winning percentage for an umpire with more than 15 games behind the dish. In 2011, he went 23-11, which still makes him look like a big time homer umpire. Then again, Fletcher also went 15-16 in 2010, 15-19 in 2009, 17-16 in 2008, and 9-9 in 2007. Also, when you look back at the games that Fletcher officiated in 2012, his average price for home teams was a whopping -158.

Managing the Strike Zone

Here’s where umpires can really get you. Strikeouts are the easiest way to see unders come up in games. If an umpire has a more liberal strike zone, he is more likely to end up ringing up batters and causing more swings at pitches that batters would normally take. Year in and year out, the pitchers that have the most under games under their watch are also the ones that ring up the most batters. Consequently, more strikeouts generally means fewer walks, and fewer walks means fewer runs.

Last season, Bruce Miller had the lowest walks per nine innings stat in the game at 2.08. Not surprisingly, he also had a 3.49 K/BB ratio, one of the highest in the game, and he also had a 20-13 record for under bettors. It’s not a totally foolproof plan, but we have to remember that this is all about playing the percentages. Angel Campos had the highest BB/9 ratio last year amongst umpires at 3.83, and he also had a very high ERA of 5.21 for opposing pitchers. However, the end result was only a 7-9 record for over bettors, which seems to go against common logic. Looking back at Campos’ games though, he issued 26 walks in his first two games, and after that, his numbers really settled back into form over the long run, making him a relatively average umpire.

The average umpire rings up right around 15 batters per game. Anything above 17 is remarkably high, while anything below 13 is remarkably low. The average walk total per game for an umpire is around six. Virtually every umpire will feature around 63-64% of his catches as strikes. If you see numbers in the 61% range, you have to be a bit concerned that the umpire has a very small strike zone. Anything in the high-64s or 65% target is a ton.