How Bad of a Year are the NFL Referees Having?

We have said this many times before, that sports officials are imperfect humans like everyone else, and will make their fair share of mistakes, again like everyone else.  The problem we are seeing is that when a questionable call is made, and the ENTIRE crew (including replay officials) after conferring as a team STILL can’t make the correct call, then we all have a serious issue.

Questionable calls INITIALLY made will never go away, and I think most players, coaches and fans can live with that.  It’s the final call made after reviewing said play and conferring with one another that STILL isn’t right that gets everyone up in arms.

Here are the five most controversial calls/non-calls we have seen in the NFL so far this season:

Here are the top five eye-raising calls/non-calls this season, so far:

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1. In Week 1’s Giants-Cowboys game, the NFL admitted to two missed calls, both in the end zone: a pass interference call against Rodgers-Cromartie and a missed defensive hold on tight end Daniel Fells on third down prior to the Giants giving the ball back to set up Dallas’s game-winning drive. Final Score: Cowboys 27 – Giants 20

2. Week 4’s Monday Night Football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Detriot Lions came down to a final call, now known as Batgate. Dean Blandino, the NFL’s head of officiating, admitted that the referees botched the call at the end of the

Seahawks’ win over the Lions, when Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright intentionally, and very visibly batted the ball out of the end zone. But there is nothing to be done about it now. The final score? Seahawks 13 – Lions 10

3. On Oct. 12, during the game, referees failed to notice 18 seconds leaking off the clock on a Steelers possession, leading to the suspension of side judge Rob Vernatchi for a single game. They say the outcome of the game was not directly affected by this call, but a second consecutive officiating gaffe on Monday Night Football was pretty concerning.

4. The Cardinals were driving late in the first half against the Seattle Seahawks when Carson Palmer connected with tight end Darren Fells. Seattle picked it up thinking the catch was completed and the

tight end fumbled, but officials ruled the play an incompletion. So the call in question is, ‘What is a catch?’ Well, before the Cardinals could continue their drive, the referees stopped the game to finally review the play. Arizona luckily kept possession and the kicker was able to tack on a field goal to close out the first half with a 22-7 Cardinals lead. Final score: Cardinals 39 – Seahawks 32

5. In one of the Baltimore Ravens’ most excruciating losses, there were of course plenty of penalities that effected the game, but none like Jacksonville’s last-minute win over the Ravens that never should have been. In the final seconds, and literally the clock was at 00:00, the refs missed a huge call on the offensive line that cost the Ravens the game. NFL spokesperson Michael Signora confirmed to media on Monday that the game officials in Sunday’s 22-20 win over the Ravens failed to flag the Jaguars for a false start penalty that would have wiped out the eventual, 53-yard field goal by the Jaguars.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and we’ll never live in a perfect world.  But these officials are supposedly the best in class, working games played by the most talented athletes on the planet in their respective sport.  Here’s hoping these questionable calls are reduced as a result of proper communication with one another in order to allow for a fair conclusion of a game.

How an Entire Officiating Crew Messed Up One Play

A couple weeks back, football fans around the country were treated to a wild, nail-biting finish of the Miami-Duke football game.  What got lost in the commotion as time ran out was the fact that the Hurricanes’ winning touchdown shouldn’t have counted.

Due to multiple mistakes made during that crucial play, the entire officiating crew from that game has been suspended for two conference games by the ACC.  What we can’t understand is, how could so many of these infractions went unnoticed by the ENTIRE crew?

In a news release, the ACC detailed four mistakes missed by the on-field crew and replay officials, including replay erring in not determining that a Miami player’s knee was down. That would have ended the game with a Duke win instead of the remarkable, eight-lateral touchdown by the Hurricanes that spanned 49 seconds for their 30-27 victory. The result could end up impacting who wins the ACC Coastal Division.

The suspended on-field officials are referee Jerry Magallanes, Terrance Ramsay, Mike Owens, Jim Slayton, Robert Luklan, Bill Dolbow, Michael McCarthy and Tracy Lynch. The replay official is Andrew Panucci and the replay coordinator is George Burton.

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The ACC said the on-field officials should have penalized Miami for an illegal block in the back at the Hurricanes’ 16-yard line. Had that been called, the ball would have been placed at the Miami 8-yard line and the game would have been extended for one untimed down.

The ACC said the referee “did not effectively manage communication” after the officials picked up a flag on a block in the back at the Duke 26-yard line. According to the ACC, the replay official was not involved in the decision to pick up the flag — doing so would have violated NCAA replay rules — and the on-field crew appropriately decided themselves to wave off the flag.

Finally, the ACC said the on-field crew failed to penalize a Miami player for leaving the bench area and entering the field prior to the end of the play. This penalty would not have negated the touchdown because it would have been enforced as a dead ball foul.

“The quality of our officiating program is of the highest importance to the league and its schools, and the last play of the game was not handled appropriately,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a statement. “Officiating is an extraordinarily difficult job but our players, coaches, programs and fans deserve the best that can be offered. We will continue to strive to meet that standard.”

We understand that this type of play is rare, and it’s not easy to see everything that’s going on, given the chaos that is taking place.  But to have several potential penalties go unnoticed by everyone in the crew is truly remarkable.  These guys really shouldn’t be allowed to officiate championship-level games for quite some time. Time to brush up on the rules, fellas!

Are you Ready for Robot Umpires in the World Series?

Today we thought we’d turn over our blog to SweetSpot blogger David Shoenfield of ESPN, who’s recent blog post included an interesting analysis of the umpires’ strike zone thus far in the MLB playoffs.  Like almost every year, much has been made about the umpires ability, or inability to keep a consistent strike zone throughout a game. David’s take on the pitching numbers, as well as his analysis of PITCHf/x technology makes for an interesting read.  Enjoy!

The biggest decision of the postseason might not be when Ned Yost decides to go to his bullpen in a big moment or who Terry Collins elects to start in his outfield or what pitch Noah Syndergaard throws to Eric Hosmer with two runners on base. The biggest decision might already have happened.

With the Kansas City Royals clinging to a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Ben Revere of the Toronto Blue Jays was batting with runners on first and third and one out. Closer extraordinaire Wade Davis was on the mound trying to send the Royals back to the World Series. The count was two balls, one strike. Davis threw a 97 mph fastball, high and away, in a similar location to where he had just gotten a strike called on the previous batter,

The biggest decision of the postseason might not be when Ned Yost decides to go to his bullpen in a big moment or who Terry Collins elects to start in his outfield or what pitch Noah Syndergaard throws to Eric Hosmer with two runners on base. The biggest decision might already have happened.

With the Kansas City Royals clinging to a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Ben Revere of the Toronto Blue Jays was batting with runners on first and third and one out. Closer extraordinaire Wade Davis was on the mound trying to send the Royals back to the World Series. The count was two balls, one strike. Davis threw a 97 mph fastball, high and away, in a similar location to where he had just gotten a strike called on the previous batter, Dioner Navarro, who ended up striking out.

Revere took the pitch. Plate umpire Jeff Nelson had a decision to make: ball or strike?

As Joe Sheehan wrote about Nelson in particular after that game and umpiring in general, “They’re guessing whether this small object moving at ridiculous speed went through an imaginary box. Much of the time, they guess right. Some of the time, they guess wrong.”

 who ended up striking out.

Revere took the pitch. Plate umpire Jeff Nelson had a decision to make: ball or strike?

As Joe Sheehan wrote about Nelson in particular after that game and umpiring in general, “They’re guessing whether this small object moving at ridiculous speed went through an imaginary box. Much of the time, they guess right. Some of the time, they guess wrong.”

As with the earlier call to Navarro, Nelson decided it was a strike. The replay, the strike-zone graphic on the TV broadcast and the PITCHf/x tracking data suggested Nelson decided wrong.

When I asked Davis on Monday about the pitch, he didn’t break, remaining stone-faced. “I thought it was a strike,” he said.

With the count then 2-2, Davis threw a curveball that Revere swung at and missed. After the game, which ended with Josh Donaldson grounding out, Revere was livid about the call.

“It was terrible,” Revere said. “It changes the whole game. That should’ve put me in a 3-1 count. Now he has to throw me a strike. But instead it’s 2-2 and that puts me in the hole, and now I’m battling. It was a terrible call. You can’t call that. I was so ticked off.

“It was like six inches off the plate. If I swing, I can’t hit it.”

The first two games of the World Series have been mercifully free of umpiring controversies. The griping about the balls-and-strikes calls hasn’t reached the fervor of the earlier rounds of the postseason, at least not yet. New York Mets starter Jacob deGrom might have been squeezed on a couple of pitches when he walked Alex Gordon to kick off the Royals’ four-run fifth inning in Game 2, and Johnny Cueto might have been squeezed a few times early in the same game and Daniel Murphy barked at some strikes, but Twitter didn’t escalate into a “kill the ump” campaign.

Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson explained earlier this week how the game revolves around getting these calls right.

“You go from a 0-0 count to start to 1-0 or 0-1 and the at-bat changes,” he said. “A strike or a ball changes it drastically, and that’s what’s often overlooked. It’s not just whether it was a ball or strike, but now you’ve changed my approach, you’ve changed the pitcher’s approach. Maybe I have a chance to do something now, or maybe I don’t. The aggression levels changes on both sides. The expansion of the zone changes on both sides.”

The numbers Granderson referred to might be even bigger than you realize. Here’s the example he presented:

Batters after 1-0: .268/.374/.441

Batters after 0-1: .225/.265/.344

The questionable strike called on Navarro came on a 1-1 pitch. That call creates an even larger split:

Batters after 2-1: .250/.382/.405

Batters after 1-2: .177/.226/.272

And the Revere at-bat? How the pitch is called can mean the batter is nearly twice as likely, or half as likely, to get on base:

Batters after 3-1: .278/.574/.476

Batters after 2-2: .189/.286/.299

That’s why everyone gets so worked up over this, why we obsess over the pitch-tracking box, which is now ubiquitous on just about every televised game. “That’s a huge part of the formula,” Mets veteran Michael Cuddyer said. “The strike zone — good or bad — plays an enormous effect into the psychology of a player. In the end, you hope it’s a well-officiated game and that the calls don’t affect the outcome.”

And yes, players can be as focused on that graphic as we are. “It’s become more of mental thing; you’re sitting there and it’s all you’re thinking about,” Royals reliever Kris Medlen said. “I saw some pitches in some of the other games where I was like, ‘Whoa.’ As a pitcher, I’ll notice pitches that are balls that I may think are strikes, like a curveball where a catcher drops down but maybe it crossed the plate at the knees. But it works both ways. And most of the umpires are really good at their jobs.”

As a fan, I’ve wondered if we’d be better off without the graphic. It can take away from our enjoyment of the game as we grow more and more agitated with every call that we think goes against our team. Plus, the pitch location graphic might not be exactly accurate. As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote earlier this postseason, the strike zone on the TBS broadcast didn’t exactly correlate with the PITCHf/x data presented on Brooks Baseball and other sites.

All this, of course, has led to calls for robot umpires. In fact, one independent league used the PITCHf/x technology in a robot-umpire experiment this summer. Former MLB player and current MLB Network analyst Eric Byrnes was on hand and said it will change everything. “So if we have a chance to get it right, if we have a chance to get a pitch every time, why would we not?” he asked.

“You have to realize you have a human behind the plate who’s trying to eyeball something that’s moving very fast,” Granderson said. “You have a glove, you have a catcher, you have equipment, we possibly have a bat in that area, and I have to find a white ball and see where it’s at and make a call in a short time. Not only that, there are 40,000 or 50,000 fans cheering loud and screaming.”

Indeed, it’s possible Nelson might simply have been unconsciously influenced by the Kansas City fans. Research has shown that the biggest influence on home-field advantage in baseball is the size and shape of the park, but the home team also gets more favorable ball-and-strike calls.

So Granderson could envision a future with robot umps. “I think you definitely need to consider your options as technology continues to improve. Maybe it’s something where the robot umpire is telling the umpire, something like that.”

Cuddyer agreed.

“As technology continues to improve, we’ll be able to find ways to improve the game, while not costing people their jobs,” he said. “The game will continue to evolve as the technology evolves.”

But the technology might not be there yet. Sportvision, creator of the PITCHf/x system that utilizes three cameras to track the speed, location and trajectory of every pitch, notes on its website: “The PITCHf/x service tracks and digitally records the full trajectory of live baseball pitches to within an inch of accuracy, enabling new forms of baseball entertainment and analysis for leagues, teams, broadcasters, and fans. The data-rich technology is the result of more than seven years and millions of dollars of research and development.”

Within an inch of accuracy.

OK, that sounds superaccurate, but tell Greg Maddux or Zack Greinke what an extra inch means for a pitcher. So when we — myself included — utilize all this terrific data in analysis, understand that there is actually a small margin of error involved. That pitch right off the edge of the plate that you think victimized your team? Maybe it was right on the edge. Plus, when we see the strike zone, either on TV or even in the graphics used on ESPN or other sites, they’re always the same size. Umm … Jose Altuve doesn’t have the same size strike zone as Kris Bryant.

 

Given all that, robot umps might not be any better than the living and breathing ones, at least not right now. They would, however, get the call on Ben Revere correct. (No, don’t even suggest instant replay on balls and strikes.)

So we’ll be left with batters complaining and pitchers complaining and fans whining at home. Medlen is quick to point out that hitters definitely complain more. “But I don’t blame them, I guess,” he laughed. “It’s hard enough to hit with a consistent strike zone.”

Cuddyer joked that it “depends on who’s behind the plate” and on who is doing the complaining.

Then there’s rookie outfielder Michael Conforto of the Mets, who was called up from the minors in late July. Speaking like the smart rookie he is, he said, “The umpires up here are pretty good.”

The MLB Umpires are Taking a Lot of Heat This Postseason. Is it Justified?

In our previous blog post, we discussed how a couple of obscure MLB rules came into play that caught each respective game’s umpires off guard.  And Game 6 of the most recent Royals-Blue Jays game not withstanding (was it a home run, or not?) the umps have had a pretty rough time overall in the series played to date.   However, it’s been the various size strike zones that have received the most criticism this post season. By far, an umpire’s strike-zone judgment constantly preoccupies players, managers and fans during the postseason like . While there’s plenty of outcry over balls and strikes in the regular season too, the stakes are much higher — and the complaints correspondingly louder — when an entire championship can hang on one errant call.

But when you really think about, has the overall strike-zone accuracy this postseason been that significantly lower than what it was in the regular season? It probably hasn’t been much worse than you’d expect if you picked a handful of MLB games at random.

Take, for instance, the Chicago Cubs’ NL Division Series Game 1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, in which fans and players found fault with an inconsistent strike zone. During that game, home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi missed 15 ball-strike calls, for a total accuracy rate of 88.4 percent. That’s bad — it ranks among the worst 10 percent of all MLB games this season — but consider as well that 10 postseason games have been played so far. In a sample of that size, the probability that we wouldn’t see a game called as poorly as the Cubs-Cardinals series opener was only about 34.9 percent, so the odds were good that some team was going to be on the receiving end of a bunch of bad calls. The Cubs simply had the misfortune of being that team.

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Despite that bad game, there’s nothing statistically unusual about this postseason’s umpiring performance. In the playoffs as of Oct. 10, the umps have an accuracy rate of 91.4 percent. Depending on how you feel about robot umps, that kind of accuracy may seem unacceptable, but it’s right in line with the season-long MLB average of 91.6 percent. And if you randomly chose a set of 10 games from the regular season, you’d find that the umpires were less accurate than they’ve been this postseason about 36 percent of the time.

Because MLB bases its postseason crew assignments on merit, we might expect the playoff umpires to have a better accuracy rate than the overall regular-season average. But as Grantland reporter Ben Lindbergh wrote about last year, since 2009 there’s been essentially no difference in strike-zone accuracy between regular-season and postseason games. So although it would be nice if the strike zone were being called more precisely in the playoffs, the umpires’ execution so far is almost exactly what we’d expect based on their performance during the regular season.

Lessons From the Recent MLB Playoffs: Know thy Rulebook

There has been no doubt that the the MLB 2015 playoff series have been nothing short of dramatic.  Three of the four series went the full five games, and right up until the final game, either team in its respective series had an equal chance to come away as the victor.

And as usual, the umpire crews were kept on their toes in each series, especially the Dodgers-Mets and Blue Jays-Rangers series.  Under unusual (or perhaps bizarre) circumstances, the umpires in each of those two series were left to deliberate, consult and figure out just what the right call should be made, given the plays they encountered. Although umps are regularly reminded to be prepared for any scenario in a regular season game or playoff series, not one, but two unique ANYTHINGS certainly did occur under their watch.

Game 2 of the Dodger-Met series looked like a carbon-copy of game 1 – the Mets seemingly in control behind terrific pitching of Noah Syndegard.  Then all hell broke loose in the third inning with Chase Utley’s slide/tackle/take-out of Ruben Tejada at second base.  Was it legal? Was he safe? Should he be ejected?  These and other questions were swirling around Chevez Ravine as to the proper call of the play. Depending on which team you were pulling for, Utley was either a hard-nosed play doing what needed to be done for his team, or a dirty outlaw whose past reputation for such plays hardly surprised anyone.  While putting Utley back on second base after the replay reversal, even though he failed to touch second base, was the correct call, should the “neighborhood play” been applied since Tejada was so close to the bag?  Or should Utley been called out for obstruction, or for ejected for intent to injure Tejada (the League is supposed to be making player safety a priority, right?).  At the end of the series, the Mets came away with the victory, but with one less shortstop.

Umpire jackets

With the Rangers-Blue Jays series, an even more bizarre event took place that your average ump doesn’t see every day.  The Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo, was at bat during the seventh inning in Game 5 of this past Wednesday, when Blue Jays’ catcher Russell Martin got a little lazy returning a ball back to the pitcher.  Instead of the usual clean throw back, the ball hit Choo’s bat and went into foul territory.  The Rangers’ Rougned Odor was on third base, and headed for home once he saw where the ball landed. After much deliberation, the umps ruled that since Choo was still in the box, and did not make an attempt to interfere with throw back to the pitcher, the ball was in effect “live”, and the run was allowed to score. Like the Mets in their series, the Blue Jays went on to win their series, so the play did not factor into the final outcome.

Moral of these stories?  Be prepared for ANYTHING, because ANYTHING can occur at ANYTIME!

Baseball Umpires Factor Into Game Wagering, and Not For the Reasons You are Thinking

When putting up money to bet on a sports event, bettors want to know as much information as possible about what they are betting on in order to make the best decision. What many many bettors don’t consider – and the minority of hard-core gamblers do  – is that  baseball umpires can make an impact on the game, which is why more and more bettors want to know exactly who is assigned where on each crew daily prior to putting down their money.

As most of you know, a four-man umpire crew will usually work the same baseball series throughout and simply rotates clockwise from 3B (third base) to HP (home plate). For example, today’s first base umpire will work behind home plate tomorrow with today’s home plate umpire moving to third base tomorrow. Some umpires call a baseball game much differently than others in terms of balls and strikes, favoring certain starting pitchers more than others and often affecting how many runs are scored and whether a total goes over or under the number set by a sportsbook.

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Those with a smaller strike zone also tend to favor hitters, leading to more totals going OVER than UNDER. For this reason, many baseball handicappers who wager on totals track umpire assignments and keep a record of statistics and betting trends associated with them based on when umpires are behind home plate.  With the sophistication of so many database software options these days, tracking this performance can be easily done, and analyzed instantaneously.

With the post-season quickly approaching, the activity in baseball wagering will be taken to the next level, as will the scrutinizing of the umpires’ past performance.  While their performance will we widely accessible due to the increased interest found at this time every year, it’s almost eerie to sense that many eyes who are monitoring and tracking your almost-every movement on the field, all for the sake of one’s potential windfall.