The technology train is barreling down the tracks and it ain’t stopping soon as the Age of Automation aka Robo-Umpires are coming.
It was announced a few weeks back Major League Baseball will be experimenting with an automated strike zone at nine facilities during Spring Training in 2020. This comes after game usage in 2019 in the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League. It’s pretty clear, Commissioner Rob Manfred wants “Robo-Umps” at home plate. It seems a very safe bet they’ll be used more, the technology will improve and we’ll see an MLB system implemented within the next three seasons. Is it good? Bad? No difference? Let’s look at a few things.
The first thing needing to be discussed is the author (me) is an amateur umpire. I work in high school baseball and 14U travel baseball. It’s a very fun side-hustle which I’d recommend to many folks. The money is decent, you meet plenty of nice people, you’re outdoors, and you’re still involved in the game we all love. It’s 90% fun and 10% listening to someone in the stands wonder what the infield fly rule is, or an obstruction call they’re certain you got wrong even if they’ve never cracked open a rule book.
However, being an amateur umpire just makes you “someone interested in umpiring” – not an “expert on umpiring”. There’s a big difference. My opinion is just another guy’s thoughts. Let’s look at things anyhow.
I hold major league umpires in the highest regard. Some of the calls they get correct are mind-blowing to someone like me. The speed and size of the players they officiate and the bang-bang nature of so many calls they get right are amazing. As someone who might…might…see one kid per year hit 90-mph with a heater, the most impressive thing is how big league (and NCAA) umps deal with the 95+ velocity and wicked breaking stuff on a nightly basis. They get 95% of calls right by most reports. They also do it from March through October with a relentless meat-grinder schedule. As an Average Joe on the couch you might think you could do what they do. Sorry to break the news: you can’t.
So why change to an automated system? Mankind, in general, has a natural urge to improve. Technology often gets rushed into action to improve on what humans already do well. Watching some video from the Atlantic League and the AZ Fall League (which there isn’t a ton of) you can see the technology will get most pitches right. But you can also find some examples where the Robo-ump’s calibration is going to call some pitches strikes that are not generally accepted as a strike in today’s game. The pitch sometimes nicks the zone and dive into the dirt causing some definite consternation from the hitter.
How long will it take MLB hitters and pitchers to adjust to this? Hard to say. It won’t be easy.
Even if the zone changes some if the robo-ump can even just match the human umps’ accuracy it does eliminate any claims of bias from one team or another. The common refrain of “call ‘em both ways” and “we don’t get that pitch” and “are you kidding me?!” will be become useless since the automated system won’t have ears.
It won’t totally alleviate the home plate umpire from the burden of bench jockeying though. The Atlantic League allowed umpires to overrule the robo-ump if they felt the system really missed a pitch badly. Arguments happened when the ump declined to change a pitch. If MLB does something similar you could see plenty of benches whining for the umpire to make a call on borderline pitches.
Then consider how the NFL refused, for the most part, to overrule pass interference calls this season. It could be easy to imagine an MLB umpire not really looking to split hairs over a nasty slider nipping the black or being an inch or two outside. They’ll let the system call all but the most egregious misses.
The plate umpire will still be a popular target from the bench in those instances.
The plate umpire will still have plenty of work to do back there. Foul tips, check swings, fair or foul calls, plays at the plate, timing plays, covering other bases in rotation, putting the ball back in play after a dead ball, calling balks, calling various types of interference and obstruction, etc. The job won’t go away. But it’s definitely going to change.
Is it a good thing? I’m not going to cry about the game losing the human element. It’ll still be there and in due course, we’ll adapt as fans just as the umpires, players, and managers will adapt.
There is no doubt the implementation will have its rough edges. How could it not? Conspiracy theorists will have a field day for instance. Especially if MLB has to recalibrate it’s strike zone as it tries to find a way to solve the current scourge in the game of too many strikeouts and not enough balls in play.
Or the system could malfunction (in Iowa Caucus fashion!), even perhaps in a playoff game. The howling would be deafening.
The technology isn’t going away, though. The shot-callers are dipping the MLB toe in the water this Spring. The Robo-ump will be doing a cannonball into the pool in the first half of this decade.