Umpires Favor All-Star Pitchers Even When They Don't Deserve It

Umpires Favor All-Star Pitchers Even When They Don't Deserve It
Umpire DJ Reyburn signals a strikeout by the Minnesota Twins on Sept. 8 in Minneapolis
Photograph by Bruce Kluckhohn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

The adage “your reputation precedes you” neatly summarizes what we all suspect: People with better reputations often get the benefit of the doubt when they need it. Just how much reputation matters is open for debate, but two business school professors have taken a good shot. Using two years of data from Major League Baseball, Jerry Kim of Columbia University and Brayden King at Northwestern University found that behind-the-plate umpires are reliably more generous in their calls with highly regarded pitchers than they are with average hurlers (pdf).

The systematic bias persists, the researchers say, in spite of strong disincentive. Behind-the-plate umpires are quantitatively graded on their accuracy, and these grades help determine lucrative playoff assignments. Even so, for pitches hitting the exact same location, umpires are more likely to call a strike if the pitcher has a better reputation. More All-Star appearances means fewer called balls:

This happens at every part of the strike zone. The chart below compares the probability a true strike will be called as a ball in different parts of the strike zone for pitchers with 10 or more All-Star appearances and for pitchers with none. The All-Stars get calls in their favor no matter where the pitch lands.

In addition to the obvious in-game advantage, the bias has a cyclical effect. The best pitchers get the benefit of the doubt, which enables them to win more; more wins lead to more All-Star game appearances—which in turn lead to larger benefits in future seasons.

Kim and King’s paper describes the Matthew Effect—a concept based on a verse from the Gospel of Matthew that posits that high-status individuals get more credit for something they didn’t necessarily do, compared with low-status people who won’t get that same benefit. This allows high-status people to reach greater achievements and garner accomplishments over time, creating an avalanche of success and reputation. It’s the same concept as “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

Think about how often this happens in the business world: A high-profile executive gets a lot of funding, support, resources, and attention to start his next project—and those early advantages by themselves will make it more likely he succeeds, compared with an unknown person who might have had the exact same idea but without the reputational advantages. A similar phenomenon happens in music: Listeners will be more likely to rate an unknown song higher simply if told that others already liked it. The reputation of the song seems to make it sound better.

The authors also point out that high-reputation people can take advantage of this dynamic. Top pitchers can pitch more aggressively, knowing they will get the benefit of the umpire’s call. In the business world, top individuals can take more risks, knowing they will have the benefit of the doubt in case they fail. People with lesser reputations, however, can’t afford to take the same amount of risks, again creating a cycle where the big get bigger.

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