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Umpires and Performance

The Kansas City Royals play in Major League Baseball's World Series this week – for the first time in 29 years. We in Kansas City couldn't be happier (Go Royals!), so we thought we would take a look at managing high performance in baseball. However, we will explore the performance not of the players, but of the umpires.

Specifically, we look at Major League Baseball’s efforts to improve home plate umpire performance. Major League Baseball (MLB) executives have taken a number of actions over the years to improve umpiring performance and, not surprisingly, an old, reliable management tool has finally helped them succeed.

In the early 1990s, MLB’s Sandy Alderson sought to get more “uniform enforcement of the strike zone.” That is, the league knew that umpires tended to interpret the strike zone as slightly smaller than specified by the rule book, leading to inaccuracy in actual calls. Additionally, the league knew there was too much variability in balls and strikes called by different umpires, which had the potential to affect the competitive fairness of the game.

Through various efforts by MLB, umpires were able to steadily increase their strike call rates from the mid-1990s to 2013 as reported in a study by Brian Mills.1 But what is most interesting is how the league was able to improve the accuracy of ball and strike calls over the last five years (since 2009), due to feedback on results.

In the figure below, you will notice the substantial and steady improvement in ball and strike call accuracy by umpires. Technology allowed the league to set up systems where accuracy could be adequately measured and provided in a timely way. The technology (called Zone Enforcement or ZE) that was implemented in 2009 provided all home plate umpires a report after each game, showing them the accuracy of all of their ball and strike calls. While they began receiving feedback starting in 2007, it was not until 2009 – with the use of the ZE technology – that umpires got immediate feedback after every game. The accuracy improvement is graphed below.2

While the study author asserts that MLB’s action of firing three umpires in 2009 helped accelerate this performance improvement, the change is actually more likely traced to the fundamental management tool of providing timely feedback on results. With the ZE system and the process of sharing the data frequently, umpires were able to improve performance dramatically, and to see the results as they improved.

A few things to note regarding this example of Major League Baseball and umpire performance:
  • The use of the ZE system no doubt improved the quality of results, but MLB could still have used an effective feedback system in the early 1990s when they determined to tackle this problem. In fact, there was a technology tracking system they used starting in 2001. The difference was that they did not provide the feedback consistently or quickly to the umpires. For example, in 2001 they used it in only four ballparks. Even with cruder tracking systems before 2001, MLB could have had an impact by providing consistent, objective, timely feedback on results.

  • Feedback on results can be effective for any work situation – union, non-union, skilled, technical, creative, etc. The umpires tend to be an autonomous, unionized group and were not that amenable to having their work monitored, but feedback on results was effective in helping them improve their performance.

  • These were experienced umpires, and MLB did not institute any new training program to change performance. The umpires were the ones who were in charge of performance. When the monitoring system was set up to give them consistent and immediate feedback on results, they were able to quickly improve their performance. “Performance management” is owned by those doing the work, and a good feedback system is the tool that can most help them do this.

  • One conclusion drawn by the author is that the initiatives taken with umpires to call the strike zone by the rule book has led directly to fewer runs being scored overall, attributable to more dominant pitching because of the bigger strike zone. This very well could be an unintended consequence of increasing the accuracy of strike calls, and MLB may consider future rulings to mitigate this impact. This consequence is not the fault of the monitoring and feedback system, as it is performing exactly as it was intended.
So making results transparent, objective and timely is very likely to improve performance. This is much more effective than evaluation systems that usually involve some kind of judgment, reward or punishment. It simply requires the hard thinking and persistence for managers to think through the required outcomes, best measures for those outcomes, and systems that can best let the workers be in charge of their performance.

1Mills, Brian M., Expert Workers, Performance Standards, and On-the-Job Training: Evaluating Major League Baseball Umpires (August 27, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2478447

2From Mills, Figure 10, pg. 52.

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