Unfair Strike Zone?

Research Shows How Pollutants Lead to Bad Calls
by Annie Dankelson | Illustration by Jason Keisling

James Archsmith considers himself only a moderate baseball fan. But the assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics’ recent research slides headfirst into a topic that riles up many of the game’s aficionados: botched calls by the ump.

Archsmith wasn’t interested in proving that your team should’ve won such-and-such game. Instead, he was trying to figure out how air quality affects labor productivity during high-skilled tasks, and he settled on a unique subject: Major League Baseball umpires. Their cerebral yet high-pressure work and geographic variation, as well as the availability of pitch-tracking data, made them ideal for determining which pollutants impact performance.

By comparing the pitch-tracking information with Environmental Protection Agency stats from around stadiums, Archsmith and colleagues Anthony Hayes of the University of Ottawa and Soodeh Saberian of the University of Manitoba found that their hunch was correct: Higher levels of certain pollutants led to worse calls.

“We’re not physicians. We’re not epidemiologists,” Archsmith says. “But that’s possibly a pathway that is interfering with cognition with the umpires.”

Using data from PITCHf/x, a system in ballparks that uses multiple cameras to track each pitch’s trajectory, Archsmith evaluated umpires’ mistakes within an inch or two. After comparing that with stadiums’ air quality—the Los Angeles parks were “absolutely the worst,” he says, with other high-traffic areas like his Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park also showing large effects—he saw that carbon monoxide and fine particulates had a significant negative impact, while ozone and nitrogen oxides didn’t. The umps’ constant travel helped pinpoint that.

“We pluck an umpire out of one city and then observe that umpire in a different city several days later,” Archsmith says. “So we’re actually able to identify the effects of these pollutants separately, which other studies that look at just one place aren’t really able to do.”

Archsmith, who teaches students how to similarly analyze large data sets, might have other baseball-related research on deck. But he notes that the lesson here isn’t just that we should lay off the officials when calls don’t go our team’s way.

“This is actually something that’s the center of a big policy debate in the United States right now. How should we be setting environmental quality standards?” Archsmith says. “This is saying maybe we should be a little bit more cautious about what these standards should be.”

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