Column: Computerized Umps On The HorizonAugust 31, 2017

Column: Computerized Umps On The HorizonControversies in baseball are virtually endless. The Designated Hitter, Instant Replay, Inter-league Play, Wild Cards, Pace of Play - and on and on it goes. Here’s another topic that is starting to heat up: Robot Umps.

According to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred the technology to accurately call balls and strikes will be available sooner rather than later. He’s right, but the availability of the technology isn’t the question; after 150 years of players, fans and the media (mostly) complaining about umpires, should MLB eliminate one of the human elements from the sport?

Baseball purists will undoubtedly express outrage at the further intrusion of technology into the game. And they have a point. Most MLB umpires are very good at their jobs. Of course, there are umpires in the minors better than some of their MLB brethren. But union rules prevent incompetent umpires from being replaced, no different than the situation in other walks of life.

The idea of using computers to determine whether a pitch is a ball or a strike is hardly new. The basic technology was first introduced by a company called QuesTec, which began automatic pitch data collection more than 20 years ago. Statheads are familiar with Sportvision’s technology popularly known as PITCHf/x, which is used in all MLB stadiums to determine the location of every pitch. A company spokesperson claims that its system is accurate to within half an inch. In most sports, everyone plays by the same rules, regardless of the location of the competition. Baseball is the outlier. While NFL fields and NBA and NHL playing surfaces are uniform, the same can’t be said for baseball fields beyond the infield. The distance between the bases is 90 feet, but the foul ground area and outfield distances in ballparks can vary by 50 feet or more. And that’s before we consider the idiosyncrasies of stadiums. The nooks and crannies of Fenway Park mean the game plays differently in Boston than it does in a symmetrical ballpark like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

Like ballparks with different dimensions, no two umpires have the same strike zone. Data is available to show which umpires have high strike zones, which ones expand the plate, and which umpires are woefully inconsistent in pitch calling. And unlike a checked swing, which is a “judgment call,” pitch location is finite. Yet MLB condones inconsistency from its men in blue even though we know that the strike zone, as interpreted by the plate umpire, has the greatest impact on the outcome of a game.

Pitch calling goes to the integrity of the game. The strike zone is defined in the rulebook – Rule 2.00 – so incorrectly calling the strike zone is a violation of the rules of the game. We don’t allow players to violate the rulebook, why should we condone such action from umpires?

Manfred’s claim that the technology to call balls and strikes more accurately than humans doesn’t exist rings hollow. We had the technology to land men on the moon in 1969. Scientists have mapped out human genes, the building blocks of our existence. Computers perform invasive surgery. Can the technology to call balls and strikes – track a white sphere crossing a white plate from a distance of 60 feet away – be more challenging than those examples?

It seems more likely that the will to eliminate the human element in the game is more of an issue than the ability to do so.

In 2015, a computer was used to call balls and strikes in an Independent League game between the San Rafael Pacifics and the Vallejo Admirals. The players – and umpires – praised the consistency of the system. Although the experiment hasn’t been repeated, it will be, perhaps during a Spring Training game or in the Minor Leagues before baseball adopts it in the Majors.

Regardless of how you feel about the concept of Robot Umps, the time is coming when humans will no longer be calling balls and strikes.