MLB: Experimenting With A Robot Ump – Which Side Do You Fall On?

MLB introduces the Robot Ump to its minor leagues

MLB’s robot ump is up and running select games in the Low-A Southeast minor leagues. Is it a needed change, or just another way to meddle?

MLB’s introduction of the robot ump to call balls and strikes should surprise no one as it’s been talked about for years.

With MLB’s Rules Committee seemingly working overtime these days, introducing the seven-inning rule for doubleheaders, the man on second base to start an extra-inning, and the newest rule aimed to stop the epidemic of cheating pitchers; the robot ump stands alone because it reaches into the heart of baseball fans around the world.

The "catch" heard round the world...
The “catch” heard round the world…

If umpires are indeed human, then it follows that mistakes will be made, some of which have far-reaching consequences as to the outcome of a game.

Who can forget the call made by first-base umpire Jim Joyce that took a perfect game away from Armando Galarraga, a mistake he admits to making to this day, and for which he offered a tearful apology to Galarraga later?

Or, the fly ball to right field by Derek Jeter in a playoff game against the Orioles that was snatched from the outstretched glove of Tony Tarasco by Jeffrey Maier, a 12-year-old who brought his glove to Yankee Stadium, and ruled as a home run?

Of note, neither of those events have anything to do with calling balls and strikes accurately, but the human element in making those calls is an equal influence on the outcome of games as it pertains to the calling of balls and strikes.

For instance, on Sunday night, during the ESPN telecast of the Yankees-Red Sox game, a badly missed call on a third strike sent the game into extra innings during a mini-rally by the Yankees, who may or may not have scored to end the game. However, that is irrespective of the point that there’s no way a robot ump would have called the pitch a strike. Just for a kick, watch the call for yourself…

MLB: What Exactly Is The Strike Zone

MLB’s official definition of the strike zone is clear: “The official strike zone is the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and the top of the uniform pants — when the batter is in his stance and prepared to swing at a pitched ball — and a point just below the kneecap. In order to get a strike call, part of the ball must cross over part of home plate while in the aforementioned area.”

However, a host of problems arise with enforcing the strike zone. Umpires and batters, for example, come in all shapes and sizes. Refocusing from Aaron Judge, who stands 6’6″, to Jose Altuve, who might reach 5’5″, takes some imagination and concentration.

Some umpires crouch way down to receive a pitch, and batters do the same. Some batters crowd the plate; others don’t.

Then, factor in the evolution of pitching and pitchers who throw darts at speeds regularly above 95, with an upward tilt to over 100MPH, together with the fact these pitches are rarely thrown on a straight trajectory., and you should be able to grasp the complexities facing MLB umpires, and that doesn’t even consider the pitched balls that swerve, dip, at dart at the last millisecond as they reach the plate.

Now, add in the variances, which MLB allows, of an individual umpire’s strike zone, and we have a real mess.

You’ve heard the expressions many times about this umpire having a wide strike zone favoring the pitcher while a different umpire relies on a “tight” zone that favors hitters and drives pitchers nuts.

Over time, pitchers and hitters at the MLB level can adjust to just about anything, but that only goes to another salient point…

Generally, all hitters and pitchers ask from umpires is to be consistent with the strike zone during any given game. For instance, referring back to the pitch in Sunday’s game, if that pitch had been called a strike all night long, Rougned Odor, if he were paying attention, would have swung at the pitch instead of leaving the box and mistakenly jogging to first base, thinking the pitch naturally was called a ball.

MLB And The Inevitability Of The Robot Ump

MLB testing of the robot ump (CBS Television)
MLB testing of the robot ump (CBS Television)

First off, the featured image is a dramatization of what the real ump looks like wearing the “robot”, and as you see in the image below, he doesn’t look any different than the umpires we are used to seeing.

Like the robots who build our cars and trucks today, robots do not have a “bad day,” they don’t get tired when a game labors along or goes into extra innings, and they only do what they are programmed to do, and most importantly they do it consistently and without error.

With the recent advent of Instant Review, MLB has already taken steps to introduce technology to the game of baseball. Now an accepted practice, few will argue the game has not benefited from cameras, who have no interest in the game, showing us at times what the naked eye has missed.

With laser focus, if programmed to do so, robot umps can “adjust” their strike zone to fit each batter, no matter what shape or size and where they set up in the box.

The robot ump is emotionless, and he doesn’t care if you have a grudge or a disagreement about the last call. His work goes on.

The Robot Ump: Thoughts From The Other Side

We’ve already discussed the most obvious anti-robot ump that most purists raise, which is by going this route; MLB is opening itself up to a complete takeover by technology, in much the same way that analytics have impacted baseball.

There’s a solid argument to be made there, and the choice made is probably not dissimilar to the one made regarding the use of the Designated Hitter in the National League. It’s probably best to move on…

Now, some have wondered if MLB’s introduction of the robot ump means doing away with the home plate umpire and the ensuing loss of jobs.

That answer is definitely not, as the home plate umpire is still needed to rule on checked swings, foul tips caught or not, batters hit by pitches, and of course, on plays at the plate safe or out.

Others have pointed to the security involved regarding the programming of the robot ump. Will it be, for example, a closely held proprietary secret, as in the case of MLB’s guarding of how baseballs are manufactured at their factory in Haiti?

And further, will hackers, especially those with money on the line in MLB’s recent adoption and support of gambling, be able to get into the system to make timely “adjustments” that favor the outcome of their wagers?

As with anything new, the beta-testing phase is underway in the minor leagues this summer. Based on the results and input from players, coaches, umpires, and the suits at MLB, further testing will be required at higher levels of the minor leagues before the change reaches MLB.

I’ll leave you with this. Here’s a great introduction video (about seven minutes in length) for us robot ump dummies that explains a lot:

Here’s What Readers Are Saying…

Deborah Crane NOPE!!!!!!! It is a game of wins, losses, and yes umpire calls! KEEP THE HUMANS!

Sean McGuire No. Stop changing Baseball

Carl Bauer Long overdue

Michael Oneil I’m against it. Part of the game is human error. It’s also partly judgment calls. We have review, that should be enough. Any computer can be tampered with, lines can get crossed, signals jammed. Look at Facebook as an example. The TOS Computer gets it wrong 90% of the time. A game played by humans, shouldn’t be judged by robots.

Al Pratt Robot ump in back of plate. I’ve seen too many bad calls (that Odor call was a disgrace). Author’s Note: Not behind the plate – the robot is attached to the plate umpire’s mask.

Philip Lupi Robot Umps are needed. It might be a little different for both pitchers & catchers but it will benefit all. More consistency. No getting the call because a pitcher is normally under control and a hitter getting the call because he has a good eye. Take away judgment calls.

Craig Strull Time for the change. With HD and 4K and tremendous camera angles and “K” zones, it’s the next logical step. Too many calls are blown, and this will bring consistency to the strike zone.

Cathy Bradley No robots! One of the best parts of a game is screaming at an ump for a lousy call.

Tyler Mantay I consider myself “old school” in terms of keeping the game the way it’s always been. That being said, I’m starting to waiver on the robot ump issue. It’s always been a thing of, hey this ump always calls the outside corner, but that’s not the case with the umpires anymore. There is no learn they strike zone, it’s been really bad this year.

Philip Lupi I also think with the technology available close plays at first should be computer-controlled. If we can tell how far, how fast and what angle a ball takes in seconds we can see if a person is safe or out at first without a 3-minute replay.

Ed Rising Look I’m all for job creation but it seems that MLB commissioners office and others in power are just spending all their time trying to figure out how to screw up the game! We don’t need or want robotic umpires! What we need is GOOD umpires and an adjustment on replay. Too many calls that are only visible when it is in slow motion are being made by the umpires that are not in the ballpark. Stop screwing with the baseball and with the game!

Josh Kaufman They are talking about raising the mound. I think that is a slightly bigger issue. But in terms of the strike zone, it’s embarrassing when on TV it shows a strike and the ump calls a ball. One of the worst things about baseball is no set strike zone due to umps all having their own individual strike zone. Some like pitches up and down, some umps have a looser strike zone, some are really tight.

Baseball is taught that the strike zone is the knees to the letters and the black of the plate.
But when umps are free to call whatever they want, it makes baseball look bad and antiquated.
I mean you can track within a millimeter the exact spot a tennis ball landed at 140 mph, yet we have umps that don’t call the same strike twice a game.
Alejandro Torres-FloresI prefer how it is now.. just my opinion but the human aspect makes it more interesting bad calls happen
Scott Rhodes I think it needs to be seen how it works, will it be as accurate as advertised. I am on the fence about it ( no pun intended ). As a former minor league pitcher, I feel having an AI umpire has pros and cons. You always want to be able to “paint the black” on the edges and you may not get those calls. I think this will increase batting averages as pitchers will be forced to throw closer to the zone more consistently.

Author’s Note:

The response to this post has been impressive, with all of the above comments plus many more coming with 45 minutes of its posting. As a result, and with regret, I’m closing off published comments. I will continue to read and reply to all comments. (Steve Contursi, Editor, Reflections On Baseball)

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Author: stevecontursi

I am an amateur writer with a passion for baseball and all things Yankees and Mets.