Are robot umpires the future?

HOW OFTEN is the home plate umpire in baseball wrong? Would a computer do better? (Shutterstock).

In July of 2019 a “robot umpire” made its debut at the Atlantic League All Star Game in York, Pennsylvania. It’s decisions were limited to balls and strikes which were relayed immediately to the umpire, who wore an earbud while crouched behind home plate. After the game some hitters complained about an expanded strike zone. They claimed that some high and low pitches previously expected to be called balls were strikes.

Other than that, the game proceeded smoothly and prompted League President Rick White to remark, “It’s amazing how good these robots look. They look just like the actual umpires.” It was used by the league after the All Star game and, old habits dying hard, a few guys got thrown out arguing with it.

It was used later in the year in the Arizona Fall League to mixed reviews. but the consensus of opinion seemed to be that, after ironing out some wrinkles, it certainly would be workable. Its use in the majors began to appear inevitable. Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB began making plans to use it at the Major League level in a couple of years.

With the advent of television coverage beginning in the 1950s, baseball’s entry into the entertainment industry commenced. In 1974 the Reserve Clause had collapsed under the weight of the money pouring into the game and umpires had come under very intense scrutiny. Instant replay was adopted by MLB and calls could be challenged and instantly reviewed. By the twenty first century the handwriting was on the wall. An automated strike zone was becoming easier to imagine and arguments against it began to sound sentimental. Still, there are real concerns about what may be lost in the attainment of the perfectly consistent strike zone.

Like hitting a baseball, umpiring is a humbling pursuit. A study done in 2018 by Boston University Master Lecturer Mark T. Williams and a team of graduate students at the Questrom School of Business found that home plate umpires missed ball and strike calls at a whopping rate of 20 percent.

With two strikes hitters are called out on a bad pitch a stunning 30 percent of the time.  Umpires are not arguing the call. I have always had faith in three things about umpires: they are near-totally blind, their judgment is atrocious, and their integrity is beyond reproach. I believe that even the wildly inaccurate and arrogant Joe West and Angel Hernandez desire, deep in their hearts, to get the call right.

Since its inception baseball has provided an effective stage for vocal public disagreements. The accepted rules of engagement have evolved along with social norms, and the interactions between the fans, managers, players and the umpires have developed along with them. There will still be plenty of room for “the human element,” civil or less, over who owns the territory off the plate inside. And after a year, when we don’t notice robot umpires are there anymore and see little to no discernible difference in the game, maybe Joe and Angel will sleep a little better in their hotel rooms at night.

Jerry Howard’s Baseball Notes is posted Fridays during the baseball season.


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