Baseball bettors and fans are almost as superstitious as the players in the game itself, so when we notice certain trends with the man behind the plate should we take notice or write them off as chance?
Baseball bettors can handicap the hell out of baseball game, taking into account the starting pitchers, the starting lineups, the bullpens, the ballpark, the wind, injuries, what uniforms the teams will wear and whether or not the manager took his Metamucil before the game.
Many MLB bettors also look at how home-plate umpires might affect the outcome of a game. But we wonder - how much weight should we give this particular factor? Are umpire stats worth noting at all? Individual umpires possess biases, not necessarily for or against certain teams, but certainly in the way they call balls and strikes; can bettors use these biases to pick winners?
Not Sides, But Maybe Totals
Umpires may hold, shall we say, “feelings,” toward certain players, or managers or teams. But from what we can tell MLB umpires almost bend over backwards to avoid any sense of bias. They're not trying to help certain teams win or lose; every game in on TV, and such biases would be exposed almost instantly. That's why we don't put much credence in the idea that bettors can pick winners based on who the home-plate umpire is.
But how about the totals?
It seems to make baseball sense that home-plate umps with generous strike zones would benefit pitchers, and possibly lead to lower-scoring games. Likewise, it would seem that umps with tight zones would be of benefit to the hitters, and perhaps lead to higher-scoring games.
But as those who have crunched the numbers have found out, for the most part OVER/UNDERS tend to even out over the course of two/three/four seasons with individual home-plate umpires.
According to numbers provided by thelogicalapproach.com, in 2011 eight umpires had their totals lean toward the OVERS by at least eight games. That pack was led by Dana Demuth, who called 26 OVERS in 34 games behind the plate. But the following season half of those umps called more UNDERS than OVERS; Demuth went 15-16 on the totals.
Also in 2011 five umps called at least eight more UNDERS than OVERS; in 2012 three of those umps pulled a reversal, calling more O's than U's.
Similar stats can be found for the 2012-to-2013 outlier umps.
Last year 14 umps varied by at least eight games from .500 on their totals; those calling more OVERS included Scott Barry (19-10), Angel Hernandez (22-11), Marvin Hudson (21-13) and Tim Timmons (23-10); while those calling more UNDERS included Ted Barrett (9-21), Eric Cooper (9-20), Phil Cuzzi (11-22), Kerwin Danley (7-22), Dan Iassogna (10-21), Jim Joyce (11-21), Bill Miller (10-24), Paul Nauert (12-20), Paul Schrieber (11-19) and Dale Scott (12-20).
We won't be surprised when most of those umps reverse themselves on their totals this season.
A Game-By-Game Basis
Watching games is always a good idea for bettors, because there's always a chance to pick up some useful information that won't be found in the boxscore. And watching how a home-plate umpire calls a game can occasionally come in very handy.
For instance, let's say a good pitcher gets clipped for five runs in five innings. Now, did he genuinely have a bad outing, or did he have “help?” Did he have poor velocity and/or location that night, or did he get squeezed a bit by the man in blue? It's one thing if a pitcher can't hit his spots; it's another if he gets absolutely no help from the HP ump. And it can only take a call or two to cause problems.
Even in games they don't have money on bettors can watch for pitchers getting squeezed. Next time out that pitcher might be getting a better price, and might benefit from a kind call or two. Those things also tend to even out over the longer run.
In this instance, instead of handicapping the ump, a bettor might be able to use what he saw in a recent performance to get a good deal on a pitcher's next start.
Yes, umpires, especially when behind the plate, can have a significant impact on the outcome of a game. But is there evidence that certain umps favor or slight certain teams? If there is, we're not aware of it.
The balls-and-strikes aspect of the game can be measured; some umps expand the zone, some call it tight, and ump stats are becoming readily available. Also, some umps will trend one way or the other on OVER/UNDERS over certain periods of time. Longer-term, though, most umps, as with many other betting factors, seem to trend toward a 50/50 split. Not all, but most.
So while a home-plate umpire's past performance might help point us in the right direction when handicapping an MLB game, it might also mislead us. We wouldn't base a pick on it.