Why Robot Umpires are Inevitable in Baseball’s Future

on July 29, 2019
Reading Time: 5 minutes

I have been a baseball fan since I was eight years old. Being born in the San Francisco Bay Area, the SF Giants were my team growing up, and I became a fan during the era of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda.

I also got a chance to play baseball in Jr High and High school and was a catcher with a pretty good hitting average. I was too thin and short then to even consider playing baseball beyond high school and instead became an ardent baseball fan as well as a student of the game instead.

As a fan, I have watched games and viewed plays hundreds of times that I thought the umpire got wrong. For most of my life, we did not have instant replays where an umpire could review a play if one of the managers challenged their decision. But this process takes time and slows down the game.

As a technologist, I have watched baseball games more closely with an eye on how technology could be used to call balls and strikes, which is one of the most subjective actions done by an umpire during a game. It appears that each umpire has their own version of a strike zone, and as they say, “call it as they see it.” But with TV broadcasts superimposing a true strike zone graphic based on a batter’s stance, a TV viewer can actually see if the pitch is a strike or a ball.

While umpires traditionally have an accuracy rate of between 90-95% with their calls, the calls they do miss could clearly impact everything from a batter’s statistics to the final outcome of the game. Instant replay does help with field calls, but cannot be used today to change a ball or strike decision.

Knowing technology as I do, and the power and accuracy of things like sensors, radar, laser guidance systems, and imaging, it has been clear to me for some time that the technology is already here that could enable robot umpires to assist real umpires in calling truly accurate balls and strikes.

Earlier this month, the Independent Atlantic League became the first American professional baseball league to let a computer call balls and strikes at their All-Star game.

ESPN was there and wrote about how the plate umpire used technology to help him call balls and strikes:

“Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket and relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.

He crouched in his normal position behind the catcher and signaled balls and strikes.

“Until we can trust this system 100 percent, I still have to go back there with the intention of getting a pitch correct, because if the system fails, it doesn’t pick a pitch up, or if it registers a pitch that’s a foot-and-a-half off the plate as a strike, I have to be prepared to correct that,” deBrauwere said before the game.

It didn’t appear that deBrauwere had any delay receiving the calls at first, but players noticed a big difference.
“One time I already had caught the ball back from the catcher, and he signaled strike,” said pitcher Daryl Thompson, who didn’t realize the technology was being used until he disagreed with the call.

Infielder L.J. Mazzilli said a few times that hitters who struck out lingered an extra second or so in the batter’s box waiting on a called third strike.

“The future is crazy, but it’s cool to see the direction of baseball,” Mazzilli said.”

Up to now, Major League Baseball and especially the umpires have been opposed to using technology to call balls and strikes. From the Umpires view, they see this as eventually taking away the need for them altogether. But the way technology was used in The Atlantic League All-Star game fully engaged the umpire and really just gave him a new tool besides his eyes and subjective reasoning to make sure his calls were more accurate.

I believe there are two solid reasons why we will eventually have robot umpires call balls and strikes to make the game more accurate in terms of calling pitches correctly.

The first is one that technology can help keep baseball interesting and relevant to a younger generation who, at the moment, are not embracing baseball as wholeheartedly as their parents have in the past. And attendance at games has been down for the last three years.

“Of the league’s 30 teams, 18 are experiencing an attendance drop. And this is after a 2018 season in which attendance was down more than 3 million fans, an average of 1,237 per game.”

Millennials and Gen Zer’s are technology savvy and have many ways to entertain themselves these days. Their interests are spread thin, and baseball is just one of the things they may have an interest in. And given the tech-savviness of this younger generation, they most likely see how technology could enhance a game and make its outcome more accurate, which could increase their interest in baseball games and draw them to viewing them on TV or the Internet or going to a ballpark itself.

But the most important reason that I believe robot umpires are inevitable is legalized sports gambling. I personally am not a gambler but have watched this “industry” with great interest over the last three decades. I have become even more interested in sports gambling now that it has started to infiltrate eSports.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that a federal ban on sports wagering is unconstitutional.

Here is the conclusion of the majority opinion:

The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make. Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own. Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decided whether it is consistent with the Constitution. PASPA is not. PASPA “regulate[s] state governments’ regulation” of their citizens. …. The Constitution gives Congress no such power. The judgment of the Third Circuit is reversed.

With this ruling, the courts have been given the choice of allowing sports gambling up to the states themselves. Here is a link to the States that already allow sports gambling and the current bills in the works from the States that do not allow sports betting yet, but proposed laws are working its way through their legislators.

Right after the Supreme Court ruling was announced, MLB released this statement.

Major League Baseball:

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court will have profound effects on Major League Baseball. As each state considers whether to allow sports betting, we will continue to seek the proper protections for our sport, in partnership with other professional sports. Our most important priority is protecting the integrity of our games. We will continue to support legislation that promotes air-tight coordination and partnerships between the State, the casino operators, and the governing bodies in sports toward that goal.”

Once sports gambling becomes legal throughout most of the US, the pressure will be on MLB executives to integrate technology to call balls and strikes in both leagues. One thing that gamblers hate is subjective opinions that impact the potential outcome of a game. They want every call to be as accurate as possible so that their bets can be made based on quality data.

Of course, old-timers and baseball traditionalists will fight bringing robot umpires into the game. I have talked to quite a few of these folks, and their attitude is that without technology, the game is played as it has for over 100 years and robot umpires to them would be blasphemy.

However, Major League Baseball is not only a game but also a $10 billion industry and has to be willing to change with the times. They know that without some serious changes and adjustments, they could lose the next generation of younger fans. If that happens, their growth in the future will decline.

Sports gambling will also put pressure on MLB leadership as it expands throughout the US and professional and weekend sports gamblers want more ways to make the game more accurate to assist in their own analysis on their betting decisions.

I don’t know how long it will be before we get robot umpires calling balls and strikes, but the technology is here to do it today. Robot umpires are inevitable, and it will only be a matter of time before it happens.

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