Making ‘Blue’ Work for You: Handicapping MLB Umpires

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So, you decided this would be a good year to start betting on baseball. Maybe you were in withdrawal after March Madness ended. Perhaps you signed up for DirecTV, and they threw in the Extra Innings™ package. Or, just maybe, you found this fantastic website and some really cool guy wrote this excellent article extolling the virtues of betting on baseball. Whatever the reason, the important part is, you’re here now. And our very own Adam Burke has some excellent thoughts about it on his latest “Bettor’s Box” podcast.

As a baseball bettor, there is no shortage of information. If you’re like me, you probably dream about spin rates and launch angles. You find yourself watching the pitcher take a comebacker off the shin and think to yourself, “I don’t know why he’s still lying on the ground, the exit velocity was only 82.74.” You feel superior to your friends when they rave about a pitcher because, in spite of his ERA of 1.98, only you know his xFIP is 4.87, and that can only mean one thing: REGRESSION IS COMING!

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It can be easy to get overwhelmed with all the info and stats that are readily available on the interwebs. The challenge, as it often is with raw data, is sorting it into relevant, actionable information. But there is one critical piece of data that is often overlooked. It’s easy to find; it’s easy to understand, and, most importantly, it correlates directly with how you should wager. What is it? What is this magic data of which you speak? Great questions. It’s not a “what,” it’s a “who.” As in, WHO is the guy calling balls and strikes?

First, a little history. Before 1977, each league had their own umpires with their own unique equipment. The NL umps wore inside chest protectors, while their AL counterparts still used the outside or balloon-style protectors, like the one in the article picture. In 1977, it was mandated that all new umpires would wear inside protectors, with the cumbersome balloons grandfathered in for veteran umps. The last umpire to wear outside protection was Jerry Neudecker, who retired after the 1985 season.

Cool story, bro, but how is that relevant to my bets tonight? Glad you asked. We’re getting there. In the days of different protectors, the American League was a high-ball league. The cumbersome protectors didn’t allow the umpire to get as low to the ground as his NL counterparts. Consequently, lower pitches were below his field of vision and were usually called balls. Because of this, the American League batters saw more hittable pitches up in the zone than their senior circuit brethren. This made for some interesting World Series games as players often had to deal with a brand new strike zone on baseball’s biggest stage.

Now, of course, those days are long gone. The good news for us is the fact that individual biases have replaced them. Simply put, in spite of precise guidelines about what defines the strike zone, balls and strikes remain very subjective. Some umps have a big zone, and some have a zone the size of postage stamp. You might say their inconsistencies are very consistent. This excludes a couple of umps who seem to vary their zone based solely on their mood, their daily horoscope, or the leftover bones from a KFC 3-piece that they’ve thrown on the ground looking for a discernible pattern (Looking at you, CB Bucknor and Angel Hernandez). If you want to take a deep dive into umpire accuracy, strap on your green eyeshade, and check out this excellent article from Fangraphs.

So, what does that mean for betting purposes? It should be pretty straightforward. A bigger zone means more balls are called strikes. That means fewer walks, more strikeouts, fewer baserunners, and more batters swinging at pitches outside of their comfort zone. And that should mean fewer runs. Conversely, a smaller zone should mean the exact opposite. More walks, fewer punchouts, more baserunners, and more runs. It should be very simple. Check the umps. Make your bet. Cash your ticket. Rinse, lather, repeat. Retire to the Caribbean and drink hurricanes on your deck while you watch the sunset over the ocean every evening.

Not so fast there, Jimmy Buffett. The correlation that you would expect to see is not as nearly as definitive as you might expect. In fact, in 2017, taking the bottom ten full-time umpires in runs/game, NONE of them placed in the top-10 when it came to punchouts. The highest match was Cory Blaser, who saw the 8th fewest r/g and rang up the 13th most batters. And only Blaser was in the bottom ten in hits given (5th fewest) and walks (6th fewest). Unfortunately, when it comes to betting unders, Cory is an outlier, not the rule.

Btw, if you start doing umpire research, you begin noticing CB Bucknor’s name everywhere. One year, he’s near the top in runs allowed, the next year he’s near the bottom. Same with his hits and walks. He’s the Forrest Gump of umpires. Everywhere you turn, “Hey look, there’s CB Bucknor!”

The numbers held up a little bit better when it came to overs. Of the top ten umpires with the highest number of runs allowed, five of them were ranked in the bottom 13 for fewest Ks. Walks were somewhere in the middle, with three in the top 14 of walks given. And finally, four of the top 12 in hits allowed made the list. Not surprisingly, the most significant correlation was between the over and hr/g, with seven of the top ten also making the top ten in dongs allowed.

So, where does that leave us? Well, when it comes to unders, unless Cory Blaser is behind the dish, it leaves umpire stats as a tool with a lot to be desired. Overs, on the other hand, are a little more actionable, especially if you’re looking at one of the four boys in blue who checked the boxes of fewest Ks, most hits, and most homers. Those four “over” achievers were Manny Gonzalez, David Rackley, Sam Holbrook, and Brian Gorman. Three of those four were also in the top ten in O/U percentage. NOW maybe we’ve got a little something. Gonzalez, Rackley, and Gorman were a combined 53-23 when it came to totals. Meanwhile, Holbrook was exactly .500.

A final note.Umpire stats are just one more tool in your bag. They are not a magic bullet or the path to instant riches. Part of the problem is umpire assignments aren’t announced until the first game in a series. After that, you can figure where everyone will be by merely remembering they rotate clockwise around the diamond. First to home, home to third, etc., but there’s nothing you can do about that first game. In fact, the way I usually run, there’s a good chance the first game will have Cory Blaser behind the plate. The next game? Well, here comes CB Bucknor! And much like the real Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

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