This is the question addressed in a new study by economists Christopher Parsons, Johan Sulaeman, Michael Yates, and Daniel Hamermesh.
In the new study, Hamermesh’s team analyzed the calls on 2.1 million pitches thrown in the Major League between the 2004 and 2006 seasons. Controlling for all other outside factors, such as the pitcher’s tendency to throw strikes, the umpires’ tendency to call strikes and the batter’s ability to attract balls, researchers found evidence of same-race bias — and the data revealed that the bias benefits mostly white pitchers. Not surprising, since 71% of MLB pitchers and 87% of umpires are white.
The highest percentage of strikes were called when both the home-plate umpire and pitcher were white, and the lowest percentage were called between a white ump and a black pitcher. The study also found that minority umpires judged Asian pitchers more unfairly than they did white pitchers. It’s a significant disadvantage for Asian pitchers because the MLB doesn’t have any Asian umpires. Interestingly enough, Hamermesh’s research found that the race of the batter didn’t seem to matter — the correlation was only between the pitcher and the home-plate ump. Rich Levin, an MLB spokesman, refused to comment on the research findings.
I don’t have much time to write much, but here is my quick take. This is an interesting study, which I had a chance to see a few weeks ago. When a similar study was done in the NBA, I immediately thought that baseball would be a better testing ground for this type of behavior. I had actually begun collecting some data when this study rolled across my desk. The most interesting aspect of this study is that the discrimination that exists shrinks in QuesTec ballparks, when umpires are being monitored.
The good news is that the effect of the bias is very small, a little less than one pitch per game. And I don’t think there is much that can be done to alter this (except more QuesTec), as it is probably the result of something deeply rooted in the human psyche. I don’t believe that umpires set out to make calls along racial lines, it just happens.
Kudos to Rich Levin for not pulling a David Stern and having a conniption. This is research of an interesting question, and I hope that the league work with the authors as opposed to castigating them. This should generate some good discussion. If you wish to comment—and I encourage you to do so—please behave yourself with such a sensitive issue.