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THE ROBOT UMPIRES DEBATE

  • Posted on
  • By Carl Lemelin
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THE ROBOT UMPIRES DEBATE

The automated strike zone is coming soon to Major League Baseball.

 

The strike zone is the most essential – and thus influential – element of the baseball rulebook. If you believe that the pitcher-versus-batter matchup is central to the game, then it must follow that the integrity of every game hinges on the precision and consistency of balls and strikes calls.

I don’t know about you, but watching MLB games over the years, I have long been frustrated with most home-plate umpires’ version of the strike zone.

If you remember back to the pre-interleague play days, we used to say that MLB had two distinct strike zones. One for the National League and one for the American League. The main difference: the American League zone was a little lower. NL umps were known for “calling the high strike”, we used to say.

The zone has since been standardized throughout the Majors, but since umpires are human beings making judgement calls on what they perceive, there are obvious inconsistencies from one umpire to the next, and sometimes even from game to game with the same umpire.

Here is how MLB describes the official strike zone ever since 1996, when the bottom of the zone was lowered from the top of the knee caps to the hollow below the knee:

“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.”

OLD SCHOOL THINKING

Baseball has always had this problem. The iconic movie Moneyball masterfully encapsulated baseball’s resistance to change. Old school ‘eye-test’ type scouts terrified of slowly, but surely, being replaced by analytics experts crunching numbers and evaluating actual results over a long period of time.

Since then (mid 90’s), advanced analytics have taken over not only baseball, but every other major pro sport’s front offices as the best way to help maximize player valuation, thus making rosters much more cost-efficient. That’s what we call progress, and ironically, it was baseball, the most traditionalist of all sports, that got it all started.

We now have video replay on close plays and questionable barrier calls for homeruns or fair/fouls balls. And though there was resistance to this move when it was first proposed, it now has universal approval and no one would want to go back. Why? Because everyone wants umpires to get it right, whether the first time or via replay. With every game on TV and every play being replayed in super slow-mo, it would be folly not to use the best available technology to make the right call, right?

THE NEXT LOGICAL STEP

If we all agree that instant video replay has been good for the game, isn’t the strike zone the next logical area of the field to which available technology should be applied?

And the technology is there. It has been tested at the lower levels of pro ball for the past three seasons, and from all accounts works very well, with no major complaints from teams, players or umpires.

The robot in question is called TrackMan, a technology that’s been in use in golf for years now, as a ball tracking tool on PGA telecasts and as a training aid for players and their coaches. In the Atlantic League, where the TrackMan strike zone is being tested, the sensor is essentially a 3-D Doppler radar dish that analyzes each pitch thrown.

Also called “Robot-ump”, the little black box is able to create a three-dimensional strike zone that hovers over the full width and depth of home plate and can be calibrated to the height of each hitter to match the exact specifications of the strike zone as per MLB rules. In other words, a much more complete and precise representation than the “K-zones” we see on most telecasts, which seem to mirror the old AL strike zone that topped off around the belt.

As for the ‘machines replacing humans’ counter argument, it simply doesn’t apply here. TrackMan doesn’t affect umpiring jobs, since we still need a home plate umpire to physically call each ball or strike being relayed in his ear. We also need him for all other calls on plays made around home plate (safe/out, foul/fair balls).

WHERE ARE THE CONS?

When instant replay was adopted, I could see where those who opposed were coming from. They were mostly worried that it was just one more thing that would slow the game down. MLB has been concerned about length of games for a while and has adopted new rules to accelerate pace of play over the past few seasons (limited mound visits and 3-hitter minimum for relief pitchers).

But when it comes to the automated strike zone, I just can’t imagine a single justified argument against it!

“Taking the ‘human element’ out of the game?” Really? The strike zone should be a black or white issue. The ball either crosses any part of it or not. All the human element brings to the equation is human ERROR.

Umpscorecards.com is a site that tracks every home plate umpire’s performance during each MLB game. This season, through August 29th, it shows that the best strike zone umpire (minimum of 15 games) in terms of call accuracy is Tripp Gibson at 95%. The worst is Rob Drake at 91.2%.

Baseball being the game of inches we all know it to be, and with so many games decided by a run here, a run there, why wouldn’t we want to get that accuracy to 100% every single game, if we can? Bad calls behind the plate are unfair and can change the course of a season for good teams if they come at inopportune times.

Accuracy is one thing, but what about impartiality? Umpscorecards.com also measures favoritism of calls for one team or the other during a game. Even the most impartial umpire (Ryan Wills) has a 2.7% partiality rate, with the most biased (Greg Gibson) making 6.8% of missed calls favoring one team over the other. Perhaps it is no surprise that Wills also ranks high in accuracy and Gibson is among the least accurate.

Simply put, umpires are humans and some are much better at their job than others, even at the highest level. Why would any player, manager or fan not want to eliminate the human factor from balls and strikes calls? Moreover, why would any umpire not want to do away with everyone second-guessing his decision on every borderline pitch?

TrackMan leaves no doubt, either way!

And we haven’t even mentioned the time and energy wasted when players and managers argue calls with umpires. Childish temper tantrums that hurt the game’s image – even though they can provide comic relief at times – would finally become a thing of the past.

Back in 2019, when the Atlantic League started using the TrackMan strike zone, Somerset Patriots starter Liam O'Sullivan echoed many players’, managers’ and umpires’ feelings on the subject when he said:

"If you can get the strike zone to a place where everybody knows what the strike zone is and it's consistent throughout, then it's tough to say that it's not good for the game."

MLB does have to ensure all the technical glitches are taken care of during this testing phase, but if we can reach 100% accuracy, 100% impartiality and eliminate unending and angry arguments or any confusion as to what the strike zone is or should be, what are the legitimate arguments against ‘Robot-ump’, exactly?

 

Let us know your thoughts on the subject by commenting below.

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