Baseball should welcome robot umpires sooner rather than later

Home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere, left, huddles behind Freedom Division catcher James Skelton, of the York Revolution, as the official wears an earpiece to relay ball and strike calls from Trackman technology. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press via CBC)

“You cannot be serious” shouted John McEnroe as he berated umpire Edward James at Wimbledon in the first round of 1981 competition against Tom Gullikson. The American was irate that the official had not seen the chalk fly into the air, siding with the line judge monitoring the middle line of the court. It provided one of the greatest moments of drama seen at Wimbledon and defined McEnroe’s career so much that he used the quote as the title of his autobiography. The Sports Techie community blog spoke to McEnroe in 2012 about his Johnny Mac Tennis Project. Major League Baseball umpires used to go toe-to-toe with managers when arguing blown calls, it was a time-honored tradition that COVID-19 has eliminated from America’s pastime.

In the modern era with the invention of the Hawkeye tracking system, McEnroe could simply challenge the call and we would know for sure whether he was in the right to be aggrieved with James. Or whether he was in the wrong – although the American still would not believe he was incorrect!  It’s the blessing of technology in tennis that these marginal calls can be reviewed, which has transferred across to other sports, including cricket, rugby and football.

It has eased the pressure on officials to get the correct call, although there are still some errors that slip through the cracks. However, there have been fewer outbursts on the court and arenas that deploy the technology, which raises the question of why it has not been utilized in baseball. Given the finest of margins can decide games – it should certainly be considered.

Robo Umps

Umpires and managers have often exchanged volleys of abuse over contentious strike decisions. It’s a staple of the game and is often an interesting piece of theater for the fans inside the stadium and those watching on television to see how the altercation plays out. The most entertaining incidents are often when the manager oversteps the mark and is tossed from the dugout.

Umpires are only human and will make mistakes – it’s only natural. However, on the other side of the coin – they cannot be making errors that cost teams’ playoff spots or a chance to compete for the World Series. The New York Yankees were on the receiving of a tough couple of strike calls in the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros in the last term.

It continued during the World Series when the Washington Nationals also saw calls go against them – notably Victor Robles, who reacted angrily to umpire Lance Barksdale’s decision. The ball in question never penetrated the strike zone as shown on television. The Nationals were unaffected by the calls and went on to claim the crown, but are currently backed at +2000 in the betting odds to reclaim the World Series in the truncated season.  However, there’s the possibility that it could well have been costly, and it does not mean the same will be true in future instances. 

The idea of robot umpires has been mooted in the past and is a growing movement. There is still a need to decide the right balance of enforcement, and certainly, there’s still a place in the game for umpires behind the plate. Managers can already challenge many aspects of the game using instant replay. However, the technology is there to utilize for strike zone calls. Robot umpires will make a simple determination whether the ball was in the strike zone or not.

There is no drama attached, especially using the challenge system. It’s at the discretion of the manager to use the system correctly – as tennis and cricket players have found in their experiences in their respective sports. It’s on them to make sure they challenge the right calls – if they misuse it they only have themselves to blame. The readings of Hawkeye are accepted, and the game swiftly moves on.

There are no showdowns with the officials. Umpires should welcome the technology as well to justify themselves when they’re right and provide the correct response when they’re wrong. There’s no downside and based on the time taken in cricket and tennis – there’s no reason why it cannot be employed in baseball. The time to act is now.

Sports Techie, Hawk-Eye’s SMART Replay allows MLB teams to make decisions and challenge calls using 15 camera angles. Look for a Hawk-eye powered coaching system using SMART REPLAY video synced with MLBAM data.

MLB was scheduled to test Hawk-Eye sports tech during spring training 2020 but the coronavirus shutdown changed that time-line.

Now that professional baseball is back in the US, at least for now, robo umps are back on the shelf but the 2021 season should be the right time to upgrade the human strike zone to an automated strike zone for good.

Which means you can count on Commissioner Manfred to push off implementation until 2022, 2023 or even 20225 with more claims the technology is not there yet which is laughable.

Bring on the no laughing matter, robo ump.

See you later sportstechie in Seattle, Atlanta and around the world!

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Tags: Sports Techie, sports technology, sports tech