Working Hard or Working Fast?
"The wrong way, but faster." Max Power
I could point to a dozen articles discussing the varying shapes and sizes of the strike zone, but when my friend Don asked whether umpires really change their zone depending on the score, I drew a blank. Factors such as the identity of the pitcher and the ball-strike count influence an umpire's process, but only so that he can do the job to the best of his ability. Yet for some reason, it's been casually accepted by some that umpires might be so unprofessional that they call a larger strike zone in a blowout to quicken the pace of the game.
Fortunately, this assertion is not backed up by any evidence, as umpires appear to call consistent zones depending on the score. Below, I plot the 25%, 50%, and 75% contour lines for called strikes based on four different score differentials. The zones are jumbled and mostly indistinguishable, so, on the whole, umpires do not call to the score.
Perhaps there are some umpires who regularly schedule early dinner reservations, but the only ump I'm willing to openly critique is the only umpire who invites such criticism: Joe West.
I graphed West's strike zone at the point where he is equally as likely to call a strike as he is a ball. I also dug up the two Red Sox vs. Yankees games that West umpired, and plotted those ball/strike calls. West, you may remember, publicly denounced the length of these games. However, I found no evidence of bias. If anything, West has squeezed batters in Sox/Yanks games and batters in blowout games (blue line).
Umps aren't alone in being accused of unprofessionalism. Weeks ago, Patrick Sullivan* questioned the commonly-held wisdom that players try to get out of the ballpark ASAP during getaway games. It's hard to believe that batter would swing at bad pitches just because they're playing in the final game of a series, but that's what I checked for.
*You can follow Sully on Twitter, if only to observe him incessantly hound the insufferable Boston media. For example, "Shaughnessy on May 9: 'Beltre is emerging as an Edgar Renteria or Rasheed Wallace, take your pick.'"
||Rest of Series
You'd be hard-pressed to find statistical evidence that umpires and players sacrifice quality for expediency.