Is the home plate umpire a racist?

For the past week or so in the Sabermetric blogosphere, there’s been a rather interesting discussion of a paper by a quardrivirate of writers looking at an interesting question: Is the home plate umpire a racist?  For their data set, they looked at all “called” pitches in the years 2004-2006, that is all pitches that were either a called ball or a called strike.  Then, they looked at the percentages by differing combos of racial groupings for umpires and pitchers.  For example, what percentage of called pitches were strikes when the umpire was White and the pitcher was Hispanic?  Their conclusion was that there was evidence of bias, although the bias seemed to disappear when people were watching closely (on a 3-2 count, when a large crowd was at the game, or when MLB was spying on them with the QuesTec system.) 
The story was picked up by MSNBC, United Press International, and Time Magazine.  The actual statistical minutiae have been hacked to death by countless Sabermetrically inclined bloggers (for a lively read not for the statistically faint of heart, go here or here or here or here), and I’ve been participating in the discussion here and there.  The general consensus has been that if there is any discrimination at play here, it’s probably on the order of one pitch out of a few hundred or so.  (I found that the most egregious combination might have resulted in a change of 1 pitch out of 170.  For a starter, you’re talking about one called pitch every 3 or 4 games.)  But, there are all sorts of methodological problems, mostly stemming from the fact that most umpires and pitchers in MLB are White.  It’s not a firm case that the effect seen is real, but let’s for a moment say that home plate umpires really do discriminate based on race.
I’m not here to re-hash the statistics.  Instead, I’m more interested in wearing my psychologist hat to explain a little bit of why it might be the case that there is evidence of racial bias.  After all, if I had each of the MLB umpires in a room with me, they would probably all swear up and down that they were not racists, that they did not call the game any differently based on the race of the pitcher, and that they were offended by the very thought of their discriminating.  After all, other than the morons who populate the KKK, no one ever proudly proclaims “I’m a racist.”
But, it’s not quite that easy.  Humans have been shown over and over again to display something called in-group bias and not even know it.  We like people who share some common feature as us, no matter how irrelevant that feature is.  Ever look more kindly on someone because he belonged to the same fraternity as you, despite the fact that you went to different schools at different times in different states?  Researchers, led by social psychologist Henri Tajfel, did a series of experiments a few years back that showed how minimal a connection was needed for a discernable effect.  In one experiment, they fooled the people into believing that they had been classified into groups based on their mathematical ability when in reality they had been randomly assigned.   When asked to divide up resources among members of their group and members of an “other” group, they gave more to people in their own group than the other group. 
A few years later, the researchers re-ran the same experiment, this time dropping the pretense of mathematical ability being the grouping factor and just outright telling people that the assignments were completely random.  (I think they actually pulled names from a hat in front of them to drive the point home.)  But, people still showed favoritism to people in their group, despite having nothing else in common.  Not that any of them were aware of it.
You can perhaps see how this would become racism very quickly.  Skin color (which isn’t the same thing as race — and some people would argue that there is no such thing as race) is easily discernable and easy to use as the basis of forming a group (or as Kurt Vonnegut said, a granfalloon).  I don’t want this to be seen as an excuse for racist behavior.  Racism has no place in fair competition or in any gentlemanly pursuit.  This in-group bias is something to be recognized and overcome.  That’s a lot easier said than done, but it’s not impossible.  Humans have violent urges too, but we control those (usually).  And to the umpire’s credit, if there is a bias, they certainly haven’t let it overrun their judgment.  Again, even the most generous estimates of the magnitude of the bias say that it’s 1 pitch in 100.  My point is that before you start blaming the umpires, consider a brief look in the mirror.
The umpire may be falling prey to a fairly widespread human trait.  But, not all the time.  Remember, the bias (again, making the assumption that it’s a real effect) disappears in situations where more people seem to be watching.  This too appears in the professional literature.  People, who all deny that they are racist, will still exhibit mildly racist behavior, but will reduce it or stop when they know that someone’s watching.  Technically, it’s called positive impression management.  Colloquially, it’s called putting your best foot forward or “watching what you do because your mother-in-law is in the room.” 
All this is to say that the umpire is human, and that this sort of finding, even if it is a little disconcerting, is something that all of us would run up against if we were placed behind the plate with one of those clicker thingies


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