Just how bad was Sean Barber last night?
If you watched last night’s Mariner game, a 3-2 loss to the Oakland A’s in 12 innings, you likely noticed that home plate umpire Sean Barber was really, really bad. This was his first major league game behind the dish calling balls and strikes–he is a replacement umpire filling in for Tim McClelland, who is going to miss the 2014 season with a back injury. So, like it or not, Barber is probably here to stay, at least for the 2014 season. Still, if this is a “tweener” AAA/MLB umpire, I’d hate to see the guys that aren’t on the short list to get major league work.
Scott Weber over at Lookout Landing took a look at the Pitch F/X data, and yes, it was as bad as we thought. Scott determined that Barber missed between 32-50 calls, depending on how you call borderline pitches on the edge. That number already seems high, but let’s see if it’s really as bad as we think. Rob Neyer of Fox Sports wrote an article last night looking at how race impacts balls/strikes called, but I’m not trying to look at race here. The important thing to take away is that Pitch F/X shows umpires generally get about 14% of calls wrong based on the official strike zone. Neyer estimates that because of the margin of error of pitch f/x, it may be closer to 10%. So, missing 10-14% of all ball/strike calls is about average for an umpire. That’s really bad, by the way. So, the average umpire has a big hand in the outcome of the game.
Sean Barber is not an average umpire. There were 363 pitches thrown in yesterday’s game. It’d be easy to just take the two possible figures, 32 and 50, and divide by total pitches thrown to get Barber’s miss%. But, obviously, Barber doesn’t have to make a call on every pitch. There are foul balls, swinging strikes, and balls put in play. First, there were 12 hits in the game, and two errors, though both errors occurred on the same play. So, there’s 13 pitches Barber didn’t have to call. We’re down to 350.
Next, we have to add up the balls in play that were outs. There were 22 ground ball outs and 11 fly outs. So, there’s another 33 pitches that Barber didn’t have to call. We’re now down to 317 pitches that Barber may have had to call.
Of course, there are more pitches than just balls in play that an umpire doesn’t have to make a call on. I went through the gameday log pitch-by-pitch and found 90 combined swinging strikes and foul balls. We’re now down to 227 pitches that Sean Barber actually had to make a call on. I was surprised there were that many fouls and swinging strikes. Before crunching the numbers, I had guessed about 30 foul balls and didn’t consider swinging strikes (not with any sort of purpose, just because I’m dumb, and forgot to,) which is far fewer than the actual total.
So, if Barber missed 32 pitches, the minimum amount he missed according to the Pitch F/X data, Barber got 14.1% of pitches he had to make a decision on wrong. On the high end, if he missed 50, that number shoots up to 22%. That’s absolutely awful. That’s close to a fifth of a starter’s workload of pitches called wrong. Obviously any single bad call can impact the outcome of a game, but to miss 14 to 22 of every 100 pitches is just not major league caliber. If this is the best baseball has to offer when a long-standing umpire goes down, I am not impressed. Because no umpire should miss this pitch:
Sometimes, bad umpiring stands out, and when the numbers are crunched, the idea that he was worse than normal is not true. It’s easy to understand–obviously, the really bad calls are going to stick out in your mind, especially when it’s your team getting hurt. This time, the numbers proved that both A’s and Mariners fans weren’t seeing things and overreacting. Sean Barber was just legitimately terrible. This was the worst umpiring I’ve ever seen in a game, and after the emotions died down, the facts still back up that assessment. If this is what we can expect from the next generation of umpires, a Pitch F/X called strike zone can’t come soon enough.