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ASU Study Shows Why Umpire Calls Might Be Better Than Fans Think

Published: Thursday, October 25, 2018 - 6:35pm
Updated: Friday, October 26, 2018 - 8:47am
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R. C. Krynen & M. K. McBeath/ASU
Researchers simulate a close call at first base. Videos like this were used in the last part of the ASU experiment.

With the World Series in full swing, the subject of fair calls is top-of-mind for every fan of the Great American Pastime. But a new study suggests the umpire might not be as blind as some fans would like to believe.

"When you're farther away, you actually physically experience the world differently, so you're convinced, 'that person was safe, I clearly saw the foot hit before I heard the sound.' And the umpire's made the opposite call," said co-author Michael McBeath, an engineering psychologist at Arizona State University.

The research appears online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

In baseball, umpires judge force-outs by watching the base while listening for the ball to hit the mitt.

Whether they realize it or not, fans in the stands do this too. But because light travels far faster than sound, they will see the runner reach the bag before they hear the catch.

The effect is similar to the delay between lighting and thunder, or between the flare and boom of fireworks.

McBeath and lead author R. Chandler Krynen tested the effects of these disagreeing senses by having subjects make "safe" or "out" calls from various distances based on different sight and sound cues.

Sometimes the sound cues happened at the same time as the visual ones; other times, a slight lag separated the two. As predicted, the calls got worse with distance.

A similar effect occurred when the visual information was blurred or degraded in some way.

"The more we decreased the visual salience of the ball — or you know, increased the reliance on that audio cue — the more likely they were to have this bias," said Krynen.

In part, this is due to the fact that the brain gives more weight to some senses than others depending on the circumstances. According to McBeath, vision tends to be more accurate for spatial things, while sound tends to provide a more accurate estimate of timing.

Either way, it's one more thing the season ticket holders have over the folks in the cheap seats.