Umpire Footwear

Recently I read a post written by Scott Lindholm that discussed whether the strike zone shrank as games progressed towards the ninth inning. While his article was intriguing, I questioned whether we can do something about preserving strike zone integrity and by extension, reducing bad calls in general with the technology that we have now.

While many baseball fans are watching what happens to the ball my primary focus is on people’s feet. It’s always struck me as interesting that many umpires have better posture than the athletes they’re standing near. Almost every umpire I’ve had the privilege to watch has a straight back. At my chiropractor’s office there’s a nifty poster of the same elderly woman bending over twice. Both images show that her knees are bent; however in only one of these images is her spine straight. Athletes are paid to be in peak physical condition while umpires are allowed to carry more weight. There are overweight umpires with great posture standing next to players who weigh less, but have poorer posture, and I’d like to explore why.

Before we get too much further I want to thank Cliff Wolf for reminding me of Joe Nathan’s 300th save which is where my inspiration for this originated. During our discussion of the blown call an umpire friend of mine named Chris Kamler explained that as the game progresses, the strike zone changes. That made sense to me since people are standing outside in all kinds of extreme weather, they may have things going on in their personal lives, and human error exists. No umpire can be expected to correctly call every pitch, but I believe that there is room for improvement, and it doesn’t have anything to do with eyesight or training.

Designed to be unobtrusive, I have spent a lot of time admiring umpire footwear. The majority of it is black; however Twitter followers of mine have alerted me to variations such as the white stripes that Jerry Meals once sported. Home plate umpires don a lot of gear to stay safe behind home plate. This is important to remember because in my world, footwear is measured in comfortable stand time and that equipment is a discomfort factor. It is physically taxing to stand for long periods of time, and when you think about what an umpire needs to be able to tune out to focus on a ball that can be moving in different planes at ninety-odd miles per hour, I’m equally impressed with the umpires as I am with those who are pitching, hitting, catching, and fielding.

From a professional standpoint it is really difficult to get good visuals of umpire footwear since it is rarely a focal point during games. Try watching feet at the next game you have up on your screen. Pitcher footwear is visible; up close shots depend on who is filming. Batter cleats are shown, and I can see coach and umpire footwear from time to time, but I have yet to watch a game where the camera zeroes in on umpire footwear. From talks with various players, coaches, and staff, I’ve learned that there is no standard foot measuring protocol in baseball. I assumed that there would be a file on every player as cleats are equipment whose failure can mean player injury, and there’s value in trying to discern if there’s an outbreak of a particular injury that could be attributed to a particular style and model, but if this data exists, I have not discovered it yet.

New Balance appears to be a popular brand with the umpires I’ve seen, and I’m wondering how umpires decide what size and width they should be purchasing. My assumption is that if players who tend to earn more than umpires are not being measured for footwear, neither are umpires, and that’s where I think we can make some reasonably conservative changes to a system that could benefit from optimization. I believe that no one is measuring total foot length, comparing that measurement to arch length, determining width from the greater of those numbers when appropriate, and working with umpires to insure that their feet as comfortable as they can possibly be.

If that is true, we should be able to measure all umpires, compare their measured foot size to the size they currently wear and come up with a variance. My theory is that variance represents the number of umpires who would benefit from a standardized foot measuring system and subsequent footwear change. Improving fit of umpire footwear will make umpires more comfortable, it will help them relax, and I believe that more comfortable and relaxed umpires will have more consistent strike zones and greater accuracy as games progress.

While I could end this now, I know there are followers of mine who would be disappointed if I did not bring up the fact that I could be completely wrong about everything I’ve written previously. There are four possibilities for us to consider: My theory is right and action is taken to improve footwear fit. I am wrong and nothing needs to be done. My theory is dead wrong. I become a laughingstock in the footwear world, my fitter card is revoked, and I am shunned by peers and colleagues who are appalled at my waste of investigative research dollars, or I am right and no action is taken. The following paragraphs take a look at what happens under each supposition:

Let’s cast me as an avaricious footwear consultant who charges hefty sums to investigate the seamy side of baseball footwear. I’ve convinced the union to hire me and unfortunately, after meticulously measuring each umpire, I find that they are already wearing footwear that fits. Time and money have been wasted, I have a fee coming, but the strike zone shrink and bad calls remain faithful to historical trends. Incidentally someone told me that players were happy as long as the strike zone was consistent and they knew what to expect so we shouldn’t hear more complaints from people like John Smoltz who recently advanced the strike zone shrink theory that Scott Lindholm addressed in his article on the subject.

Our second scenario involves me being wrong without any investigation or corrective action taking place since none is needed. We assume that umpires are wearing footwear that fits since their ability to perform their job related duties depends on them having good footwear. These are grown men who are presumably intelligent enough to recognize that the human body changes over time, and they realize that they need to be measured every time they purchase footwear to take into account forces like gravity pulling their arches down and flattening out their feet. Here my assumption is wrong, but there is no money spent, and again, the strike zone remains the way it was with no significant variation.

Scenario number three involves me being correct about a percentage of umpires wearing footwear that does not fit, however nothing is done about it. No one is measured so money is not spent, but instead of umpires wearing footwear that benefits them, they are donning hosiery and footwear that undermine their health, safety, and comfort. In our first scenario our monetary expenditure was wasted because data proved that I was wrong. Here I am right, but we don’t have a concrete dollar amount for what bad calls due to the discomfort of footwear fit are costing those umpires as accountable people who have earned the right to stand on a diamond and wear that uniform. It’s probably not a value that can be expressed as a pure function of money although there may be attorneys who would disagree.

Our fourth and final scenario requires me to be correct, and proactive change occurring since umpires aren’t part of a roster the way that players are. What I foresee: umpires being measured, those numbers compared to their current footwear, and some necessary changes taking place as we discover who needs a different size. While you can hire a company like Saberfeet to come in and analyze a footwear and distribution system, you can walk into a shoe store for free to have your feet measured.

Anyone can search Google, find the Brannock website, and read up on how feet should be measured for the greatest degree of fit accuracy. Under this system I predict that the number of bad calls will decrease while strike zone integrity improves. I’d expect to see umpires with the most disparity in current shoe size to measured foot size improve their percentage of good calls, but overall I believe that we would see better calls across the board as we’ve reduced the discomfort associated with standing for long periods of time in shoes that do not fit.

I try hard to be a positive person, and I could rhapsodize about a better world where the strike zone was set at the beginning of a game and never changed, but the problem is, I don’t really care about the strike zone. As a fan, a mother, and someone who knows what I do about footwear basics, I’m concerned about the feet, ankles, knees, hips, spines, shoulders, and necks of umpires everywhere. More than that, I’m concerned about the players, the fans, managers, coaches, and whoever happens to be reading this who has not had their feet properly measured by someone who knows how. Hint; here’s how you can be the change you want the world to see.

An MLB strength and conditioning coach I had the good fortune to speak with told me that players get mad when their feet hurt and I can’t blame them. What if instead of enhancing performance, the cleats that an athlete endorses are actually harming him? Flying wood from a broken bat can easily injure a player. Damage from footwear is not as visible, or immediate, and unless something changes we will continue to watch games that could be better, safer, and more enjoyable simply because someone decided to ignore my suggestion that everyone be measured for footwear. Two minutes is ample time to measure a set of feet. The data is easy to collect, the time increase is negligible, and the health benefits are incalculable as footwear can affect your ability to breathe properly and disperse oxygen to tissues in need of nutrients and waste removal.

I’d imagine that you would rather not have your team suffer from the same treatment the Rays received from Marty Foster when Joe Nathan picked up save number 300. While Foster later apologized, that still rankles, and if you’re like me, you sit and wonder why you love a game that can figuratively rip your heart out of your chest. Love is a strange phenomenon and I don’t often question why I love baseball, but I would like to ask you which of the four scenarios I presented is accurate because either I am right about a certain number of umpires needing footwear that fits and I have a no cost solution, or one hundred percent of the umpires you see are wearing the size that suits them best.

You can sit and read what I’ve written, but until action is taken, the game will continue the way that it is, and we’ll never see the baseball that could have been. That’s my dream, my goal, and wouldn’t it be cool if we had a way to create a win/win/win situation that would make everyone happier? Both teams playing are going to be better off if the strike zone is consistent. The umpires will be more comfortable, they’ll be able to perform their jobs better, and since they’re going to be more relaxed, perhaps they won’t take the calls that they do miss so hard and personally in the future.

Saberfeet: Could baseball be even better than it is now?

A very special thank you to Cliff Wolf, Chris Kamler, Sean Lahman, and Scott Lindholm. Without their contributions and Twitter conversations, this post would not have been possible.

P.S. I’m now wondering if we can take the umpires who have the worst strike zones and the highest number of blown calls and work backwards to see if there is any correlation between performance and footwear fit, but that’s a post for another date.