Study suggests umpires favour Yanks at home

Home fans at Yankee Stadium react as home plate umpire Ed Hickox ejects Blue Jays batter Jose Bautista at home plate. (AP/Bill Kostroun)

Following a May 10 start against the Boston Red Sox during which he felt he got squeezed, veteran right-hander Ramon Ortiz voiced a sentiment shared by many others in baseball – the home team always gets more calls than the visitors at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.

“It’s hard pitching here in Boston, it’s the same as New York,” Ortiz said after allowing one run on four hits and five walks over five innings in a 5-0 Toronto Blue Jays loss that night. “I threw a lot of good pitches low and away and down inside and we didn’t get any pitch.

“It’s not accusing, but when the umpire gives the pitch to you the game is a different story.”

There’s no doubt about that, but according to a study of the strike zone over the past 2½ seasons by and Logan MacPhail of Bloomberg Sports using PITCHf/x data, Ortiz and those who think like him are only partly right.

This year, to the all-star break, visitors to Fenway Park and the Red Sox have virtually identical rates for called balls in the strike zone and called strikes outside the zone, although opponents at Yankee Stadium are getting about 3.3 per cent fewer ball calls in the zone than the Bronx Bombers.

That disparity roughly holds true at Yankee Stadium the previous two years, peaking at 5.7 per cent differential in 2011, while the number of called strikes out of the zone has varied by a maximum of 1.4 per cent for the home and away teams.

What those rates point to is a strike zone that gets slightly bigger for Yankees pitchers against visiting batters and slightly smaller for opposing pitchers facing the New York hitters.

Potential reasons for that advantage may range from the reputation of players on the typically star-studded rosters fielded by the Yankees to the potential talent disparities between the hosts and their guests.

But if you talk to people around the game, they’ll almost universally agree that umpires either get caught up in the environment they’re in, or by the players around them, and give the Yanks a few extra calls as a result.

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The feeling is the same about Fenway Park, although this year you’d be hard-pressed to find much of a difference.

Red Sox pitchers have a called ball in the zone rate of 17 per cent, compared to 16.8 per cent for Boston hitters, while the percentage of called strikes outside the zone is six per cent for both.

The largest disparity between the Red Sox and their guests came in 2011, when they benefitted from 2.2 per cent more called balls in the zone and called strikes outside the zone than their opponents.

What the data doesn’t show is when the calls are made in the game, when in the count they come, and how they may affect at-bats or innings.

And no matter what the objective findings show, there are those who have experienced the subjective in both ballparks that won’t be convinced.

“If those numbers don’t show a difference,” one long-time baseball man says, “then they can’t be true.”

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