An old Acer laptop sits on top of a mini fridge in a 17th-floor dorm room at Boston University. It has one job. Every morning, at 10:30 a.m., the laptop whirs to life and runs some simple Python code, scraping data from an internet library, generating graphics and spitting them out to more than 140,000 followers on Twitter. Then the laptop goes to sleep. This is a day in the life of a bot.
Its creator is often in class at that time of morning. Ethan Singer is a sophomore studying statistics, computer science and public policy at BU. He never imagined this many people would follow an account about umpires.
The @UmpScorecards bot is the result of a project Singer started three summers ago when he was still a high schooler in Bethesda, Md. A friend showed Singer a study from BU lecturer Mark T. Williams that found MLB umpires had missed 34,294 ball/strike calls in 2018. Singer wanted to know more about the impact of incorrect calls — quantifying their value over sheer volume — so he created a tool to analyze how individual missed calls change run expectancy and, after two years of tinkering, took it to Twitter.
“Now,” Singer says, “the tweets just send themselves from my dorm room.”
The bot is fully automated. It draws from detailed data released daily by MLB and pulls five of the 89 values for each pitch: the baseball’s horizontal and vertical position as it crosses home plate; the top and bottom of the strike zone; and whether the pitch was called a ball or a strike. That turns into a scorecard for each umpire, each day of the regular season and playoffs, listing their accuracy, consistency, crucial missed calls and which team those helped or hurt.
Singer does not lose sight of the fact he’d built a bot targeting a profession already threatened by them. Umpires always are under fire and often absorb undue criticism, Singer says. He wants his project to be as objective as possible. So he goes to class and lets the Acer laptop do its job. There is no personality infused into the tweets, just cold, hard numbers. Once the bot’s scorecards hit the Twitter bloodstream, wherever they go from there is not Singer’s call.
On the last day of the 2021 regular season, Ángel Hernández was the home-plate umpire for the Yankees’ 1-0 walk-off win over the Rays. Any missed call could have tipped the score and sent New York to a Game 163 against Toronto. Twitter had erupted during the game when Hernández, who’s been calling MLB games for 30 years, flipped over the dugout railing to make an out call.