More on Blown Calls: which sport is worse?

Posted on August 17, 2010


Here are a couple of quick addenda to the last post on the different types of challenges that officials face in different sports, and how this should affect decisions about introducing technology (or expanding its use) to overcome the “human error factor” in officiating.

First, I want to point to the articles that prompted me, even though I never quite got to their specific controversies. After one famous blown call in baseball earlier in the season, which I blogged about more than 5 times, and a renewed interest in expanding the use of replay technology in baseball, ESPN conducted a little study to find out just how big a problem blown calls are in baseball.

It turns out they are a HUGE problem if you are sloppy with your statistical reasoning, as the ESPN copy-writers were; or a surprisingly small problem if you spend more time with the numbers. Nate Silver, a baseball-turned-political statistician of the highest order, did the latter; and just about all you need to know about the implications of the ESPN study are in this little post of his. (Many of the comments are also worth reading.)

What the two-week study of every single call in every single major-league baseball game reveals is that the ump crews blow about one call (and not necessarily a game-deciding one) every 4 games. And on the calls that seem controversial to a television viewer in real-time, they are wrong only one in 5 times, which is extraordinary given how fast the plays are and how cognitively challenging (if not impossible) it is for a human brain to process these snap judgments.

So an interesting question arises: assuming similar studies have been conducted in other sports, how do baseball umps rank against other sports’ officials? [Click on the button below to read more…]

Of course, as I suggested in the last post, this question is a little unfair. Baseball umps are almost always making calls on black-and-white rules; they are also able to be positioned right where the action will take place; and these situations usually involve two players trying to do different things, rather than competing, say, for the same ball.

And now for a second addendum to the previous post. This blog recently gained quite a number of soccer (i.e. football, futbal, etc) fans, mostly from outside North America; and mostly, I presume, with no interest in baseball. If this is you, you probably didn’t see or wouldn’t have been interested in the 5 posts I did following the famous blown call that led to denying a pitcher a so-called “perfect game” earlier this season. (It would have been only the 21st perfect game in well over a century of major-league baseball.)

Those posts were mainly prompted by the huge reaction and emotional debates that ensued. Even President Obama had to weigh in, if I recall correctly. So much of my analysis was less about the blown call or what we should do to prevent such mistakes in the future, and more about why it is that we have such a strong reaction to these things.

And some of those queries should pique the interest of reflective soccer fans (and I shall assume that is you if you are a soccer fan and you’re still reading a blog like this). The reactions to blown calls in the World Cup were almost identical to the reactions that American baseball aficionados displayed.

Here then are links to the parallel issues. As I discussed in the previous post, both soccer and baseball have historically treated the officials as “part of the game” and been hesitant to mess with their role. I discussed that in the “imperfect game” posts here.

Controversies arising over blown calls in any sport also reveal the extent to which we are driven by an irrational quest to eliminate chance and randomness from sport and from life in general. An official’s blown call is just one bit of randomness and bad luck (or good luck, for the other team), but depending on how you count, there may be dozens, hundreds, or billions of these factors at play in any baseball or soccer game. We pretend that if we can deal with the ref’s mistakes (say with replay) we can get closer to making the final result be decided by skill alone. This is a delusion that affects not just how we think about sports, but about almost everything important in life. This is an occasional theme in this blog, and my “imperfect game” post was here.

The pitcher’s “perfect game” was blown by the umpire on what would have been the last play of the game. If the blown call had happened much earlier, all of the dynamics of the game would have changed, and we would almost certainly not have made a fuss about it. This reveals a general end-game cognitive bias we have, where we place much more emphasis on late events in a game than on earlier events, even in cases where they contribute equally to the final result. I discussed that bias briefly here. Again, this is related to other powerful cognitive biases (such as the recency bias) where we attach irrational importance to certain bits of information when forming our judgments or reacting emotionally to events. (For a good overview on cognitive biases, start here.)

Again, I rehearse some of these points primarily for my newer soccer-connoisseur readers. I am of course quite interested in whether these kinds of observations drawn from one sport resonate with fans of a different sport.