Part Human, Part Machine: The Case for "Robo Umps" in the MLB
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Why the implementation of this necessary evil will improve the game while inevitably taking away some of its beauty.
Updating America's Pastime
Baseball is a game of traditions. With crazy superstitions, pregame rituals, and a list of unwritten rules that no one can really keep track of anymore, America’s pastime has maintained its core essence since the founding of the MLB in 1869. Baseball’s tradition is what makes it beautiful.
But that same tradition is also what holds the sport back. Despite being the first game to truly adopt analytics to change the way the game is played, baseball has arguably been the slowest to adapt to the technological advancements of recent years. The implementation and expansion of video replay in 2008 and 2014 was and still is the focus of serious backlash from baseball traditionalists who cite the imperfection of the game as part of its beauty. There is a constant clash between those who want to keep the essence of the game pure and those who want to see the best version of the sport, regardless of what that means for the tradition of the game.
This timeless debate has only increased in recent years with the discussion of automated strike zones. Eric Byrnes, former MLB outfielder and current MLB Network analyst, has served as the face of the movement in favor of implementing an automated system to call balls and strikes in the Major Leagues. Instead of relying upon the fallible nature of the human eye, Byrnes wants to leave the strike calling up to computers.
According to Byrnes, the proposed system is not designed to eliminate umpires, but rather to aid them in their quest for perfection. You can read more about how the system operates here, but essentially, home plate umpires would retain their usual responsibilities with the exception of determining whether a pitch was a ball or strike. Instead, a computer would decide if the pitch had passed through a pre-determined strike zone, and that information would be relayed to the home plate umpire through an earpiece so the umpire could make the call on the field. If you’ve ever watched an MLB broadcast that utilizes the K-Zone (almost all broadcasts do now), you have seen at least some form of this technology at work.
The system has been tested at the Independent League level and received high praise for its efficiency by the players, who cited consistency as one of the most important additions of the system. The technology has been successful at the Indy Ball level, but is the "Robo-Ump" ready for the Big Leagues?
Reports on this subject vary, though most tend to favor the idea that the system still needs more work. The MLB is currently undergoing a change in its ball-tracking technology, moving from Trackman to Hawk-Eye optical technology, the same system that is used to determine whether a shot was in or out in tennis matches. While this new technology is allegedly accurate to within a centimeter or less, most people around the league do not seem to be convinced that it is ready to be debuted.
Outside of the technological concerns, the league is also worried about the implications of increased technological reliance in baseball. Convincing owners to splash out more money for technology that they may not understand is a tall task, and asking players to accept a rule change in the middle of their careers may be too much to ask. Even determining the size and location of the strike zone is a point of contention, as rules experts are at odds as to whether the strike zone should be a 3D plate or a 2D rectangle. The list of potential issues with an automated strike zone is plentiful, and it has people around the league concerned.
However, even with all of these potential problems, the league has yet to completely shut down the idea. In fact, when asked about the possibility of “Robo-Umps” in baseball, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred appeared to be open to the idea in the future, providing hope to the technology enthusiasts like Byrnes. If the league really has this long list of concerns, why would it continue to experiment with this technology?
The Case for Automated Strike Zones
We’ve all seen the case for "Robo-Umps" too many times on TV, but in case you needed a refresher, here’s a few compilations of some of the… uh… most interesting missed calls (yes, 90% of the strike calls seem to be against Yunel Escobar).
Worst Strike Calls
Worst Ball Calls
But the issue runs deeper than a few puzzlingly bad calls. According to Boston University Master Lecturer Mark T. Williams and a team of graduate students at the Questrom School of Business, MLB umpires missed 34,294 calls in 2018. That’s 14 missed calls a game, or 1.6 per inning. That’s a lot of missed calls.
To be completely fair, given the degree of difficulty of the job, 14 missed calls a game is actually quite impressive. I don’t care how amazing your eyesight and reflexes are, determining whether a tiny white ball moving at speeds of 95mph+ makes it into an imaginary zone is an incredibly difficult task. And in recent years, professional umpires have actually been getting better at their jobs, reducing their number of missed calls each year over the past 11 seasons. Still, if we have the ability to reduce these types of errors even further, why not use it?
As Eric Byrnes has rightly noted, if fans have the luxury of viewing the game from numerous high definition camera angles while sitting on their couches at home, it doesn’t make sense that the only people without this abundance of information are the ones making the decisions, the umpires. In a sport where one pitch can make the difference in a game, we need to be doing everything we can to improve the accuracy of strike calling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first or last pitch of the game, every call has an effect on the outcome of the game. As any hitter will tell you, a 1-0 count is very different from an 0-1 count. Every pitch matters.
What the Game will Lose
To effectively explain my views on this subject, I first need to give some context to my opinions. Before writing this article, I was actually opposed to automated strike zones in baseball. In fact, I found myself in a heated debate about this topic with a teammate in the dugout before one of our games. As a catcher who made a place for myself in the lineup by being a good receiver behind the plate, I was fearful for what an automated strike zone would mean for players like me. And to be honest, I still am.
For those who aren’t too familiar with the catching position, you may not understand how players like Tucker Barnhart (currently hitting .191) or Austin Barnes (currently hitting .223) are regular starters. While these guys may not have the offensive firepower that other players possess, they still have an immense impact on the game that often goes unnoticed. These receiving experts behind the plate are often the reason that umpires make mistakes in their judgement. The way that the best catchers catch the ball is an art that can deceive even the most perceptive fans, umpires, and players alike. For me, watching Tucker Barnhart and Austin Barnes work their magic is just as exciting as a 450ft Gary Sanchez homerun to dead center.
If you get rid of the ability to deceive umpires, you are inevitably also getting rid of the importance of players like Barnhart and Barnes. Yes, you’ll still need catchers who can mange games and build relationships with pitchers, but you can probably teach those skills to someone who isn’t as good at catching. The required skillset of catchers will likely change to favor players like Gary Sanchez, someone with a strong arm and massive power at the plate, despite the fact that he is an absolute train wreck as a defensive player. This change will be exciting for most fans, as teams will add another offensive threat to their lineups. For me, I’ll just get used to cringing at the sight of 30 Gary Sanchezes clanking strikes off of their gloves because, ultimately, an automated strike zone is the best thing for the sport.
The matter of consistency in officiating is not relegated only to baseball. In fact, all of the major US sports are currently facing this same issue. The NFL is expanding its review policy, the NBA has opened its official replay center, and the MLS is experimenting with VAR technology. As teams and fans alike are becoming increasingly aware of every detail in sports, officials are facing more and more pressure to make the right calls. Even as officials demonstrate consistent statistical improvement in their handling of the game, sports fans are demanding more from their leagues.
As technology advances and the viewing experience for people at home continues to improve, Major League Baseball is going to feel increased pressure from its fans to make the change to a more consistent form of officiating: the automated strike zone. In a way, the MLB created this problem for itself when it began utilizing the K-Zone on its broadcasts. Once fans had the ability to see this technology in action (even though it initially received some pushback), there really was no turning back. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As annoying as it must be for the MLB to hear complaints about its strike zone, the pressure from fans and people like Eric Byrnes may eventually lead the league to making the change it needs to make.
While I don’t believe it will happen in the near future, I am very certain that at some point, the MLB will adopt these “Robo-Umps,” and people will think it’s ridiculous that we ever had these conversations. Still, change is hard, especially when it means changing something that has been the same way for over 100 years. But that doesn’t mean change is wrong.