clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Will robo umpires be the end of the game as we know it? (SB Nation Reacts)

Both experience in lower leagues as in other sports on new technologies show mixed feelings about the use of it.

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Welcome to SB Nation Reacts, a survey of fans across the MLB. Each week we ask questions of the most plugged-in Arizona Diamondbacks fans and fans across the country. Sign up here to join Reacts.

A difficult lot

There are just 10 umpires in the Hall of Fame. I guess that shows that umpiring is a difficult and, perhaps, ungrateful task, not appreciated by many. It is like that in many other sports as well, and the quote “the best umpire is the one that goes unnoticed” can probably be applied universally.

If we take a look at the umpires that were inducted into the Hall of Fame, we can see that the latest addition was in 2013. It was an umpire that was active until 1927. Before that? Doug Harvey was the most recent one: he worked from 1962 to 1992 and had to wait until 2010 to get a plaque. Apparently, his nickname was “God”. That might say a lot on how umpires can be viewed, and maybe how they might view themselves.

It is a controversial role, to say the least, and if you don’t full fill the requirements of a good rule enforcer, an umpire could be in trouble:

“Al Barlick earned the respect of peers and players with his growling, booming basso calls, clear and decisive hand signals, knowledge of the rules, proficiency on balls and strikes, unceasing hustle, and knack of anticipating and defusing rough situations.” - National Baseball Hall of Fame

The MLB umpire crews are not the most respected ones nowadays, and having a controversial figure like Angel Hernandez doesn’t help. This week’s SB Nation Reacts survey asked voters for their opinion and the majority of fans thinks the men in black (or blue at lower levels) have only become worse these last couple of years:

The end of the game as how we know it?

Are umpires really that more worse than in the past? It is probably an opinion that can be debated. Maybe it was even worse in the past:

The first umpires were volunteers who wore top hats, at whom spectators “hurled curses, bottles and all manner of organic and inorganic debris,” according to a paper by the Society for American Baseball Research. “Organic debris” wasn’t defined, but one wonders. A handful of early umpires were killed. - Article on Newyorker.com

But say we assume that the situation has really gotten out of hand and with modern day technology we can do something about it, then it makes sense that baseball makes work of that imaginary strike zone that causes so much discussion.

What is the robot umpire? The robo-umpire addresses one of the biggest duties of the home plate umpire, which is calling balls and strikes. Consistency is the key word here. Every umpire might miss a call here and there, but if these are few and at least consistent (like missing the same spot), at least it is something a player, a coach and a fan can live with.

The “official” denomination, as far as there is an official word for it, for the robot umpire is actually the Automated Ball-Strike System. The ABS is a small device that is set up behind home plate and its technology determines whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. The referee basically becomes a puppet of this system and calls whatever is being whispered to him through an earphone (the umpire is still responsible for calling check swings, interferences, etc.).

“There were six calls that I disagreed with,” he said, referring to the words that came through his earpiece from the robot. “One pitch was right down the middle. I went to call strike three, and it said, ‘Ball,’ and I went, ‘Ball!’ And I looked at both dugouts.” No one had come out to argue. He continued, “I miss the battles.” - Umpire in the Atlantic League on his first encounters with the ABS

The system isn’t flawless. Last year the first experiment was done in the Atlantic League, an independent partner league of the MLB, and there were some calls that have created good content on YouTube. One of its biggest flaws is that the technology is exactly that what it is: it is technology. Not only will umpires become (somewhat) redundant because of this system, but also the two main ingredients on the field responsible for balls and strikes, as an article points out:

  • Light-hitting catchers who stay in the league thanks to elite pitch framing could be out of a job when their lightning-quick glove snaps fail to fool the computer.
  • Pitchers who make a living stealing strikes just off the edge of the plate may start reaching full counts more regularly when those borderline pitches are called for the balls that they are. (watch out Bumgarner)

But that is the price we, the majority of the fans, wish to pay to see robot umpires in action. We don’t want the game to be the game no longer, just like in soccer fans didn’t want the game to be the game no longer, although nowadays voices are heard that the technology has “stolen football’s soul”.

How the robot umpire will work out in MLB remains to be seen, but it seems certain that it will have a profound influence on the game and thus fans, coaches and players.

The umpiring crew was talking about a robo-umped Atlantic League game the previous evening in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“Wanna know how long it took?” Dooley said. He had a Queens accent so thick it sounded Bostonian. “Five hou-ahs! Sixteen to fourteen. Nine innings.”
“Thirty-five walks!” DeJesus said—a horrific amount.
I asked DeJesus if he’d ever called a game with thirty-five walks.
“With TrackMan or without?” he said. “Without, it’s called ‘pitch management.’ A lot of guys call it ‘cheating.’ If I start to feel that the game is dragging and we’re not getting a flow, you’re gonna have more strikes called. Not anymore. It used to be, if you have two borderline pitches in a row, one gets called a strike, one gets called a ball. Everybody is equally upset, and everybody’s equally happy. For me, it’s ‘Can we get through this today without everybody killing each other?’ ” - Storytelling in the newyorker.com article

Make your voice heard!

In these articles we will also introduce a poll of our own every now and then. This week’s poll on the SnakePit for all you Diamondbacks fans is:

Click here to vote if viewing on a mobile device.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.