Robot Umpires: Major League Basketball and the Presence of Automation In Baseball

Will Mahan, Sports Editor

In recent years, automation has come to dominate the airwaves regarding the role that technology will play in the future. One of the most under-reported developments concerns a recent announcement by the Major League Baseball Association, which will begin experimenting with robot umpires, also known as robo-umps. These robotic umpires were previously experimented with in baseball in 2019 by the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League. 

The press release made by the MLB articulates the main driving factor behind these new experimental developments in melding sports with A.I. technology. According to the press statement, an automatic ball-strike system will “assist home-plate umpires with calling balls and strikes, ensure a consistent strike zone is called and determine the optimal strike zone for the system.” 

The Atlantic League was notable for being the first American pro-league to implement automated ball-calls and strikes at its All-Star Game on July 10, 2019. Following this, the Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed to work with Major League Baseball in the administration and testing of an automated ball strike system as part of a five-year labor contract. The umpires involved also pledged to work with Major Baseball League Commissioner Rob Manfred if he chooses to implement the new technology at the major-league level.

Many baseball coaches, players, and fans have taken issue with the recent developments, arguing that the automation of strike zones will create visible deterioration for the traditional relationship between the catcher and the umpire. According to Chicago Cubs Manager David Ross, these fears have well-founded legitimacy to them. “My fear, from a former catcher’s (perspective), is what the product looked like on TV. I loved manipulating the ball as a catcher and the framing aspect and trying to play a kind of cat-and-mouse game and having relationships with umpires and talking about strikes and balls. That (catcher-umpire) dynamic was fun for me.” According to White Sox Manager Tony La Russa, these new automation developments could also have a profound impact on the fan-experience aspect to baseball games as well. “I know fans are concerned because arguing with the umpires about balls and strikes is one of the few times you can get thrown out,” La Russa stated. “That’s going to be tough to do.”

Many of the critics of automated umpires and automatic ball-strike systems also argue that height variations in batting stances are currently too difficult for the computer to currently disseminate. On top of this, Joe West, a professional umpire, argues that humans are generally much more effective than machines at this type of job. “The machine machine misses more pitches than we do,” West stated.

Despite this, American Baseball Star Mike Schmidt sees things differently. In a recent OP-ED for the Associated Press, Schmidt argued that the benefits of automated strike zones wildly outweigh the disadvantages of the technology. “It would continue the effort to eliminate human deficiency,” Schmidt wrote. “We have replay everywhere else in the game. Like it or not, replay gets the call right.” While this statement is convincing to many, critics rebuke this assertion by pointing out the Atlantic League’s former challenges with the technology. Jayson Stark, a sportswriter and critic of the new technology, pointed out how updated automated strike zones would no longer be three-dimensional, hypothetically eliminating optical illusion strikes that would occur in the game.

Although these developments will dramatically change the role of umpires in baseball, officials state that umpires will still be able to talk balls and strikes with the catchers, they just won’t be able to make the calls themselves.

While these developments seem to be solely experimental right now, Major League Baseball has made it clear that the success or failure of the technology in Minor League Baseball will be pivotal in charting a sustainable path forward for professional baseball games. “These rules experiments will provide valuable insight into various ways to create a playing environment that encourages the most entertaining version of the game,” the Major Baseball League Press Statement stated. “What we learn in the minor leagues this year will be essential in helping all parties chart the right path forward for baseball.”

No matter what happens next, it can be guaranteed that the world of baseball is on the verge of facing major structural changes due to the rapidly developing technology that is becoming ever-present in a computer dominated world.