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Strike three: Umpires show racial bias, study suggests


McGill, US researchers find ethnic discrimination at play in Major League Baseball calls
Umpires calling Major League Baseball Games are more likely to call strikes in favour of pitchers who share their race or ethnicity, suggests a new study by researchers at McGill, Texas and Auburn universities.

Christopher Parsons, an assistant professor of finance in McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin and Auburn University, analyzed more than two million pitches over three Major League Baseball seasons, from 2004 to 2006.

“There’s an approximately 32-percent chance that a called pitch will be called as a strike,” explained Prof. Parsons, one of four co-authors of the study. “What we found is that if the umpire and the pitcher share the same race or ethnicity, this figure increases by about one percent.”

This effect is magnified in situations where there is comparatively little scrutiny on the umpire: in stadiums that are not equipped with computerized monitoring systems; at poorly attended ballgames; and on pitches unlikely to determine the outcomes of individual at-bats.

Still, a small percentage of the average 75 pitches umpires call per game is enough to make a difference, Parsons noted. “Because baseball is such a close game, a pitch here and there can have a great influence on the outcome of a single game.”

Moreover, because pitchers’ salaries are negotiated based on their statistics, and because close to 90 percent of the 100 umpires whose calls were analyzed for the study were Caucasian, the research suggests that non-Caucasian pitchers may be at an economic disadvantage. Though such racial discrimination can have a significant impact on a pitcher’s future career, Parsons stressed that bias in baseball can be easily eliminated.

“Most ballparks now have some sort of monitoring system in place that wasn’t there when we did the study,” he said, adding, “If bias cannot easily be eradicated that way, Major League Baseball can mix things up a bit more in terms of the race ratio of pitchers and umpires.”


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