Major League Baseball is currently experimenting with robot umpires at the Triple-A level, and may be in a major league ballpark near you sooner than you think.
Some say that the introduction of a robot umpire may help eliminate the bad calls some umpires make and could make the game more enjoyable to watch.
Every player in the MLB has their own strike zone and the umpire has to make an adjustment on every at-bat. San Francisco Giants sports reporter Danny Emerman says that every umpire has different and varying interpretations of that strike zone. ”In general, it is part of the game. There is a good story that Jeff Passan of ESPN did a couple of weeks ago about how umpires are graded by the MLB and how the strike zone that is used on TV is not the same as the one they are graded on.”
“A strike called by Angel Hernandez, who is probably the worst umpire employed by MLB if that strike is off by 3 inches off the strike zone edge you see on the screen, it could still be in the zone for acceptable calls so he wouldn’t get graded on that,” added Emerman
But what exactly is a robot umpire and how does it work?
“It’s a black box that sits behind home plate and is able to track the pitch once it’s thrown and can tell if it’s a strike or a ball”, said Katherine Acquavella, writer for CBS Sports “Using a three-dimensional strike zone, TrackMan is able to calibrate each batter’s size and stance, adjusting the strike zone accordingly. So, the system works so that it doesn’t allow a 6-foot-7 player to have the same strike zone as a 5-foot-7 player.”
Once TrackMan identifies a ball’s location, it’s recorded and then the call is communicated to the umpire via a coiled tube earpiece.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says that after using the robot umpire during spring training and in some of our minor leagues this year, they may begin using it at the major league level. “We believe, over the long haul, it’s going to be more accurate. It will reduce controversy in the game and be good for the game. We think—we think it’s more accurate than a human being standing there,” said Manfred.
Initially, Atlantic League umpire Freddie DeJesus was concerned about how this would impact his job and the game of baseball. Now DeJesus recognizes its game-changing potential. ”As I’ve had the opportunity to do it now, it’s great. It’s a great opportunity and it’s good for the game. I can see it down the line getting to the next level. It’s just an opportunity for bigger things to happen within baseball.”
If the league were to implement robot umpires, it would not take them as long as in past years to get them in the game, says Emerman. “One of the things that bargained in the lockout was the ability of the league to implement rules much more quickly. In the past, they had to go through a committee that took a year or two to implement. Whereas now, they can make rules in the winter and it will go into effect in the upcoming season.”
With the introduction of a robot umpire, it would remove the human judgment aspect of baseball, says 98.5 Digital Producer and Writer Alex Barth. “Unlike other sports, there are very few judgment calls in baseball. Generally, we know if a call is right or wrong and there isn’t much room for interpretation. I’m not familiar enough with the technology, but I would assume robot umpires would have a perfect consistency and if calibrated correctly wouldn’t ‘blow’ any calls.”
The introduction of a robot umpire wouldn’t just affect the umpire but also the catcher position making the position less valuable says Danny Emerman. “Robot umps would diminish the role of the catcher position because if you think of the catcher as a defense position, part of that is framing pitches so if all that goes out the window with a robot ump. You have catchers that specialize in framing pitches and stealing strikes and that would go out the window.”
“I think that it changes the catcher’s job pretty significantly. It would change how teams would view them and how much teams would pay them and how much money they would make. It changes how teams would pursue them in the draft and also free agency,“ added Emerman
An MLB player understands that umpires are human beings too but if an umpire misses a call then it could switch the whole momentum of the game. 98.5 Digital Producer and Writer Matt Dolloff says that fans definitely get upset when they see what should’ve been a strike called a ball and vice versa. “From a player’s perspective, they understand that an umpire is human and they are going to miss calls; it’s part of the game and they have to work through it. For example, if a pitcher gets frustrated by a blown call, it’s not really on the umpire, it’s really on him for letting it get in his head.”
MLB fans are split on the decision of whether MLB should introduce the robot umpire into the majors. In a 2022 article, Josey Curtis, a writer for SB Nation says that over half of the surveyed fans would support a change to the robots. “There are still a few ‘old-school’ components that fans like, and removing the man behind home plate that calls the shots would be a huge kick in the knee to the game’s countless traditional fans.”
“However, I do think that all styles of fans could agree to want consistency and accuracy when it comes to ball/strike calls. If there is technology available to achieve this, why shouldn’t MLB at least try it out?” added Curtis.
Emerman says that fans definitely get upset when they see a call they do not agree with but the players have a different way to look at things. “From a player’s perspective, they understand that an umpire is human and they are going to miss calls; it’s part of the game and they have to work through it.”
“These players get paid millions and millions of dollars. They have all sorts of coaches; for example pitching coaches, workout performance coaches, mental coaches, and breathing coaches. If they’re going to let a blown call really affect them, then they don’t have anyone to blame but themselves,” added Emerman.