Umpires Disproportionately Eject Non-White Players

Anthony Rendon was ejected from a game earlier this month for … not contesting the strike zone. He flipped his bat down, faced away from the umpire, and did not visibly open his mouth. He was tossed by Marty Foster, for, what crew chief Joe West described incorrectly as ‘throwing equipment.’ (The pathologization of a non-white player’s actions after the fact to justify an ejection by a white ump is the subject of an entirely different set of analyses.)

After the game, Rendon actually went on record to say that umpires, like players, should be held to specific standards and demoted if they fail to meet those standards. This statement is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One, as most Nats fans know, getting Rendon to say anything, particularly anything of substance, to the media is pretty tough. He is, to forgive the pun, a pretty close-mouthed guy. For another, he points out that umpires, like players, are now doing their jobs in the Statcast era – we know, to a pretty refined degree, how well or not well they’re performing.

Players can be subject to replays that will tell them if their hand left the bag for the fraction of a fraction of a second, such as what happened to Jose Lobaton for the last out in the 8th in 2017 NLDS Game 5 (stay salty, my friends). But a home plate umpire’s word, particularly about the strike zone, is law. I understand ball vs. strike calls not being subject to replay. Even as someone who thinks most of the league’s pace-of-play ‘innovations’ are utter nonsense, I can’t see a good system in which every pitch could be subject to review. (Though, if the manager could make it one of their challenges, that’d be a start.) Umpires, therefore, should be held to the same standards, including performance reviews, as the players whose games they call.

The other thing that makes Rendon’s statement noticeable is that he’ll be facing the same umpiring crew in the final game against the Mets of this series and is likely to face them again this season. Saying that an umpire isn’t, in effect, doing their job commensurate with how Rendon is doing his is putting a pretty wide target on his own, and his team’s, back.

But beyond this instance, Rendon’s relatively mild approach to being struck out looking was disproportionately punished. He was ejected for not doing a whole heck of a lot, a punishment that seems incredibly disproportionate to a ‘crime’ that didn’t seem to go against MLB rules, written or unwritten.

I quickly tweeted out asking for an analysis of non-white versus white players in similar circumstances, because I had a hard time picturing a white player (like, say, Kris Bryant) being tossed for the same thing. Since no analysis existed, I did my own.

My analysis of available player ejection data from 2015-2017 led to the unmistakable conclusion: Non-white players, and Latino players in particular, are tossed at rates completely disproportionate to their representation in the league.

Methodology

Here’s a spreadsheet of data I compiled, mostly using Umpire Ejection Fantasy League data. I decided to limit it to 2015-7, in part because of use of Statcast and relatively consistent replay rules.

I also came at this analysis assuming any particular non-white and Latino player was as likely as any white, non-Latino player to be ejected, and so compared player ejections with league representation percentages for particular ethnicities. However, in doing analysis on position players only – that is, excluding pitchers – I didn’t have the league representation percentages adjusted for position players.

A major limitation in my data is having to hand-assign players as being white or non-white, and Latino or non-Latino. This was done using country of origin and knowledge of US-born players, and therefore is limited by my personal knowledge, particularly for US-born players. For instance, Marcus Stroman’s mother is from Puerto Rico and he was offered the chance to pitch for Team PR in the WBC. For the purposes of this analysis, he was classified as ‘nonwhite’ and ‘Latino.’

I also don’t know how players self-identify; I’m assuming Anthony Rendon, whose family is from Mexico and who was offered the opportunity to play for Team Mexico, self-identifies as Latino, but I don’t know if he’s stated that specifically. For non-US-born players, I also classified all players born in Latin American countries as Latino, but again, that’s not the same as asking for someone’s self-identification and that’s not the same as how any particular umpire perceives any particular player. For example, Francisco Cervelli, who is Italian and Venezuelan, was classified as non-white and Latino for this analysis.

I also classified Latino players as ‘non-white’ for the purposes of this analysis. While many Latinos self-identify as white, the Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball, where I got the league demographic data, identifies them as non-white and calculates them in the total of ‘players of color.’ So I maintained this classification for the purposes of this analysis. Any mistakes are unintentional; I welcome comments with suggestions for re-categorization.

Lastly, the umpiring corps has, as far as I know, not changed dramatically year to year. It’s a notoriously narrow pipeline and one almost entirely composed of white men. Analysis showed that some umpires toss players more than others, but this hasn’t been controlled for brawls. Additionally, the numbers of players tossed is a reflection of the number of games worked, which I haven’t controlled for.

This analysis isn’t meant to ascribe ejecting non-white and Latino players to any particular bad actor within the umpiring corps but to show a pattern of behavior.

 

The data:

2015 2016 2017 Grand Total
Non-white 50 52 29 131
Latino 39 42 22 103
Non-Latino 11 10 7 28
White 50 38 44 132
Non-Latino 50 38 44 132
Grand Total 100 90 73 263

 

Non-white players being ejected accounts for almost 50 percent of total ejections, despite players of color never being more than 42.5 percent of the league. Latino player ejections account for 38 percent of ejections, despite Latinos never being more than 31.9 percent of the league. Non-white, non-Latino players (of whom most are African-American), accounted for about 11 percent of ejections, fitting with representation in the league, except that no Asian players were ejected in this time period, and Asian players made up between 1.2 and 1.9 percent of the league. So, non-white, non-Latino, non-Asian players make up about 9-10 percent of the league and 11 percent of the ejections.

2017 is, therefore, a bit of a fluke. Of total players, nonwhite and Latino players were actually not tossed any more often (relative to their representation in the league) than their white peers.

 

Percentage of Total Ejections 2017        Percentage of the League
Non-white players ejections 39.7% 42.5%
Latino players ejections 30.1% 31.9%
Non-white, non-Latino players

ejections

9.6% 10.7%
White players ejections 60.3% 57.5%

 

I then controlled for two things:  pitcher ejections and ejections by non-home plate umpires, figuring that most pitcher ejections were as a result of beaning batters (which, yep, keep tossing them), and non-HP ejections might result from ejections during brawls, arguing slide calls, or in circumstances dissimilar to Rendon’s.

 

2015 2016 2017 Grand Total
Nonwhite 31 36 26 93
Latino 23 26 19 68
Non-Latino 8 10 7 25
White 26 26 32 84
Non-Latino 26 26 32 84
Grand Total 57 62 58 177

A few things became noticeable. One, overall ejections seem to be dropping, but non-pitcher, HP umpire ejections are holding pretty steady. Two, in 2015 and 2016, non-white position players comprised the majority of ejected players. Not only were non-white position players being ejected at a rate disproportionate to their representation in the league, they were being ejected more often than their white peers.

Latino position players were also being ejected by home plate umpires at rates disproportionate to league representation in 2015 and 2016 – 40 percent of ejections in 2015, despite Latino players being 29 percent of the league, and 42 percent of ejections in 2016, despite being 28.5 percent of the league.

For 2017, non-white and Latino players were ejected slightly more frequently than representation would account for.

Percentage of Total Ejections 2017 Percentage of the League
Non-white players ejections 44.8       42.5
Latino players ejections 32.8 31.9
Non-white, non-Latino players

ejections

12.1 10.7
White players ejections 55.2 57.5

So, is 2017  a step in the right direction or a flukey year or something else? No idea, and with the 2018 season being nascent, it’s hard to say. If there have been interventions on the part of the MLB or the umpire’s union, fantastic, but those interventions have not, as far as I’m aware, been made public.

I also know we won’t know for a while about 2018 ejections because ejections aren’t all timed equally. One of the weird things about this data is that white players tend to be ejected in early months, and non-white and Latino players make up the majority (or at least a disproportionate percentage) of ejections after May.

April    May   June   July   August Sept. October Grand Total
Nonwhite 14 17 27 24 22 25 2 131
White 18 37 16 15 19 24 3 132
Grand Total 32 54 43 39 41 49 5 263
April May June July August Sept. October Grand Total
Latino 10 14 18 20 18 21 2 103
Non – Latino 22 40 25 19 23 28 3 160
Grand Total 32 54 43 39 41 49 5 263

What this means is that the early ‘eye test’ for white and non-white players being ejected at similar rates won’t bear out in later months.

What if they deserve it?

None of this has addressed a fundamental question in considering ejections: Some guys have it coming. I tried to control for this in considering repeat offenders – that is, if there are certain players who, by virtue of reputation and absent any racial dynamics, just get tossed a lot.

Of the guys who’ve been tossed more than three times, the results are … very unsurprising:

Ian Kinsler    4    
Josh Donaldson    4
Mike Napoli    4
Matt Kemp    5
Yunel Escobar    5
Bryce Harper    7

Of these repeat offenders, Escobar and Kemp are non-white, and the former is Latino. The rest are the kind of love-’em-or-love-to-hate-’em white guys you might expect to make up such a list. So again, the eye test of ‘Bryce gets tossed too,’ doesn’t bear out when you look at the number of different players tossed total.

For ‘three-peaters’ – guys tossed 3 times in the past three seasons – of the 13 tossed three times, only two, Joey Votto and Justin Turner, aren’t Latino. And for players tossed once or twice – so not for having a rep as a showboat or arguer or ‘disrespectful’, 57 Latino and 115 non-Latino players have been tossed in 3 years. So, 33 percent of ejections have been for Latino players, despite the fact that Latinos averaged at 30 percent of the league’s players during this time. For non-white players, 76 non-white and 96 white players were ejected once or twice, meaning 44 percent of players ejected once or twice weren’t white, with the league averaging 41.5 percent non-white players during this time.

In totality, 36 percent of the players being tossed are Latino, and 46.5 percent of the players being tossed are non-white, both higher than their representation in the league.

If ejections are the league’s way of dealing with argumentation at the plate, we should consider that Latino players and non-white players are already disproportionately disciplined by their fellow players – and brawls are more likely to break out between players of different ethnicities.

We should also consider why players are perceived to ‘have it coming’ to them for arguing, ‘showboating,’ or other displays of either enthusiasm or disrespect, depending on your perspective, and why Latino and non-white players are dinged for it so more than their white peers for what are likely similar behaviors.

Umpiring by largely white umpires on increasingly non-white players is a cross-cultural conversation, one that’s monitored by 40,000 fans, TV viewers, and the ever-watchful eye of Statcast. The league has a vested interest in solidifying its presence in Latin American countries and in trying to encourage African-American players – who are a decreasing percentage of players overall – to continue with the game.

I don’t pretend to know what’s in an umpire’s heart (I assume pine tar and certificates for failed eye exams). I didn’t do this analysis to say that any particular umpire is actively thinking that they should eject a non-white or Latino player because they are non-white or Latino. What I discovered in doing all of this is that there is a very clear pattern of behavior among umpires when it comes to player ejections when the Statcast era is taken in its totality. An action may cause harm – in this case, an ump being more likely to throw out a non-white player – without any specific racist intent.

Additionally, the idea that umpires are enforcing ‘respect’ (and Joe West said that was Foster’s intent in tossing Rendon – “You have to do something or he loses all respect from the players.”) on non-white and Latino players is particularly galling. If non-white and Latino players are disproportionately perceived as ‘disrespectful’ of the game for similar actions as their white peers, such as tossing a bat after a strikeout, then the issue is perceptions and not players.

This, of course, is a societal issue beyond baseball. Analyses of behavioral perception by white teachers show that they tend to ascribe disrespectful, aggressive behaviors to non-white students at higher rates than they do to white students or than black teachers do with black students. Analysis of school punishments shows that black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rate than their white peers without any evidence they’re misbehaving more. So this is not a problem unique to player-umpire dynamics, but instead is one indicative of broader structural societal dynamics.

To work on addressing this as a structural issue, the league can change how it handles ejections. A few proposals:

  • All plays over which a player is ejected are automatically reviewable, including balls vs. strikes. If an umpire ejects a player on a strike call that, on review, is revealed to be a ball, the player isn’t ejected. If a player makes contact with an umpire, they should be ejected but if players see that there is a clear and objective appeals process to an ejection, my guess is that they’re more likely to calmly walk off than explode.
  • All ejections should be reviewed as part of a rigorous rating process for umpires. Umpires who repeatedly eject players for calls that, on review, they should not have made (such as a bad ball vs. strike call) should experience some form of penalty – by being demoted, retrained, or fined.
  • Umpires’ ability to call balls vs. strikes compared with what Statcast determines is in or out of the zone should be made publicly available. If an umpire is consistently below a certain percentage of accuracy, they should be demoted or retrained.
  • Player strikeout rates should be adjusted for umpire accuracy the way player defense is adjusted for particular ballparks.
  • Diversify the umpire corps. Currently, umpires are generally older white men who feel tasked with enforcing ‘respect’ from young, increasingly non-white players. I’m not saying that simply hiring more people of color (including women of color) is a cure-all for these kinds of issues, but diverse perspectives may mean a decrease in unintended slights between players and umpires, and a general change in player-umpire dynamics.
  • Radically, I would also like strike calls to be reviewable. They would cost a manager a challenge if incorrect like any other play. If a manager challenges – and is correct in challenging – strike calls repeatedly, then the umpire, and not the player or manager, should be held at fault.

If this sounds like we can replace a home plate umpire with Statcast for calling balls vs. strikes, then I’m for it. As the cliche goes, I didn’t watch the game for the umpiring, and if a computer can do what the umpires are doing in a fashion that doesn’t disproportionately penalize players of color, then I don’t see a downside.

I co-host Resting Pitch Face, a bi-weekly baseball podcast with a Nationals bias. I can be reached on Twitter at @sydrpfp.

 

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Sydney's work can be found on twitter at @sydrpfp on Twitter and on the Resting Pitchface Podcast.

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TKDC
Member
Member

This is interesting, but I think we need better data. You are taking pitchers out, who are in my guestimation, the whiter half of players, but then using the overall percentage of white versus non-white players as a benchmark. Well, if you were just looking at the percentage of position players that were nonwhite, probably a higher number, it might very well line up with the number that are ejected. Also, not all pitcher ejections are for beanings and also not all beanings result in ejections. Since you aren’t making value judgments on the merits of ejections, I think it… Read more »

evo34
Member
evo34

“Non-white players being ejected accounts for almost 50 percent of total ejections, despite players of color never being more than 42.5 percent of the league.”

Have you ever heard of a significance test? Your data fails horribly to support your conclusion.

fleur
Member
fleur

Err… Maybe ejections relate to conduct and not race?… Just a guess

Tom Oltarzewski
Member
Tom Oltarzewski

Fortunately, you can write your own whole article supporting that point if you like! Be sure to find data supporting your claim.

fleur
Member
fleur

I don’t have the data … I am only saying that in order to approach this statistically you sort of need to grade the level of conduct leading to an ejection… I.e mean words are different than pushing an umpire…

weezy
Member
Member
weezy

Thanks for the article, interesting stuff here.

Looking at this information and watching baseball for a long time, if one believes that there is no racial component to how umpires and players interact, I feel like we haven’t been watching the same game (or even living on the same planet).

sportsfreak2744
Member
sportsfreak2744

Did you control for the ethnicity of the umpire?

Doug
Member
Member
Doug

There are so few non-white umpires (and one of those is Angel Hernandez) that it’s probably hard to statistically separate out ethnicity from Hernandez being an idiot.

Michael Augustine
Member

How do you account for the context under which the ejection was warranted? How often to non-white players argue calls versus white players? How long did they keep it up and what did they say? Limiting ejection data to just 3 years makes me invoke the principles of the bias-variance tradeoff. There isn’t a black or white (excuse the pun) process to tossing a player. That is completely up to the umpire and their tolerance level. Two players reacting to a call the same way, one would be unacceptable to one umpire, tolerable to the next. “…tossing a player under… Read more »

Tom Oltarzewski
Member
Tom Oltarzewski

This idea of race-baiting doesn’t really make sense to me here. The author had a hypothesis (A white player wouldn’t have been tossed), and looked for data to either confirm or disprove the hypothesis. That’s different than, say, a comment above claiming that ejections have only to do with conduct, but presenting no data to support that claim. If we could never use science to test a hypothesis, it would take away the core of the scientific method. That’s not to say the conclusions of this article are 100% rock solid fact, but it seems like a perfect first look… Read more »

Michael Augustine
Member

The problem with that is it’s not a hypothesis (and the example you cite is one of several that occur in this piece) because the author isn’t asking a question in the abstract, they are making a statement; it’s not “ARE Umpires Disproportionately Ejecting Non-White Players?”. The actual title is as good as an assertation. If I’m misunderstanding the premise, then that’s my fault but I go by what I see. And I’m sorry but when you base a premise on race and then make comments about how one race isn’t susceptible to the same treatment without concrete proof IS… Read more »

sabrTooth
Member
sabrTooth

BOOM.

The article needs to be recognized for what it is. While race-bating may be a bit of hyperbole, the title is a clear indication of what the writer wanted to say. And if that’s not the case, they should have been more careful with what they titled it as. I think that’s were some of the naysayers are getting lost in.

Tom Oltarzewski
Member
Tom Oltarzewski

TBH I feel like this is more a quibble with the title. Let’s say I watch Giancarlo Stanton take some ugly swings and say “huh, I think Stanton is striking out more,” and go look at his stats to find out if he is. If the evidence agrees that he is striking out more, I might write an article titled “Giancarlo Stanton is striking out more” I don’t think anybody would argue that I should have chosen the title “Is Stanton striking out more?,” because part of my article would include the data proving that the title is right. I… Read more »

Tom Oltarzewski
Member
Tom Oltarzewski

A few folks are claiming that we can’t claim to know an umpire’s intent when tossing a player, but reading this article, I think it’s not actually relevant. The author isn’t claiming to know intent, simply looking at the proportions of players who have been ejected to see if there’s a pattern there (and found signs of a pattern). TO me that’s similar to, for example, a study on beanballs. We can’t know exactly which hit-by-pitches were intentional and accidental, but we can look at the data set to see if there are patterns in terms of what types of… Read more »

Alex Chamberlain
Member

The initial hypothesis here is brilliant. Kudos. I’m jealous I didn’t think of it. And, acknowledging the limitations of the data, the results — primarily for non-pitcher ejections by the home plate umpire — are pretty resounding (for the dorks concerned with statistical significance, a two-proportion Z-test confirms this is significant at 99% confidence when compared to the racial makeup of Opening Day rosters).

Considering how whiteness dictates the unspoken rules of baseball — stoicism over celebration, with guys like Puig, Gomez, etc. shamed for their expressiveness — these results are wholly unsurprising.

Alex Chamberlain
Member

I’m not actually sure if a z-test is more appropriate to use her than a chi-squared test, but that would also be statistically significant at 99% confidence… I’m about half a decade removed from doing anything meaningful with my education so I’m a bit rusty.

TKDC
Member
Member

I don’t think the whole “have fun v. have a stick in your ass” thing really relates all that closely with ejections. I’ve actually never seen a player ejected for exuberant celebration.

sportsfreak2744
Member
sportsfreak2744

Ah yes, blaming whiteness for everything does qualify as brilliant in some circles.

foxinsox
Member
Member

Both hypothesis and (inconclusive) results are very interesting. My next question is whether incorrect ball/strike calls are biased. That would give you a large sample that could potentially support statistical significance tests…

ryancc
Member
ryancc

So I wanted to see if some of these repeat “offenders” that seem to be driving up the ejection stats were the issue or if the umps were unfairly ejecting them. Looking at hte Latino players first, so far I’ve found Sean Rodriguez’s 3 ejections are all for fighting (fair). All of Yunel Escobars are for arguing Balls and Strikes (once while in the field). Looking at the replays I’d say 3 of those are definitely deserved, one is borderline, and the last not so much. Miguel Sano was ejected twice for arguing B/S and once fighting. While the 2… Read more »

eldurko
Member
Member

Based on the nature of the analysis, wouldn’t it be more prudent to assign the “% of the league” statistic based on plate appearances rather than number of players? The logic would be that a player does not have an “opportunity to be ejected” by virtue of being on the roster, but by being at the plate.

Curious if that changes anything, as bench players and utility players (and the entire NL!) may skew the results a bit.