Man vs machine. A battle as old as time. Or at least as old as machines.
Robot umpires have been a part of the baseball conversation for several years now, as increasingly reliable PITCHf/x and Statcast data gives us immediate and accurate pictures of pitch location that seemingly renders the judgement of home plate umpires useless.
In 2019, robo-umps made their professional debut, as MLB tested automated strike-zones in the independent Atlantic League and despite mixed reviews (see: Rick Teasley interview), Manfred seemed determined to test it out in Minor League parks too before the 2020 MiLB season was cancelled.
Meanwhile, as this on-field revolution took place, a more subtle on-screen revolution took hold too, as super-imposed strike zone graphics were introduced to TV broadcasts.
Initially trialled by ESPN in 2011, the ‘K-Zone’ went full time on Sunday Night Baseball in 2015 and was initially met by significant backlash, with other broadcasters reluctant to follow suit.
ESPN’s overlay K-Zone thing is the worst thing to happen to baseball since the Padres scrapped their brown uniforms.
— Ted Berg (@OGTedBerg) September 21, 2015
But in 2018, YES and Fox began to add K-Zones to their broadcasts and by 2020, every single regional broadcast had a super-imposed strike zone graphic on most pitches – finding a broadcast without a K-Zone is now an almost impossible task.
This might not seem like a big deal – broadcasts have always shown some kind of strike zone graphics on close calls – but every pitch is now, casually, scrutinised and fans are more aware than ever of blown calls.
And let’s be honest, in an era of launch angle and spin rate, when athletes are stronger, faster and smarter than ever, the fact that a middle-aged man in a black uniform plays such a pivotal role in the game seems a bit farcical.
Only too often, umpires seem desperate to insert themselves into the action, ringing up hitters on egregious strike calls before openly arguing with anyone brave enough to question their decision-making. Not to mention, jumping at the opportunity to eject players – a weird and probably outdated method of discipline in most scenarios.
So updated forms of accountability are welcome – one only has to watch the jaw dropping footage of Eric Gregg’s performance in the 1997 NLCS to see how some umpires had taken the liberty of creating their own interpretations of the strike zone.
The Eric Gregg strike zone. 😂 pic.twitter.com/un2uvqpDve
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) January 26, 2021
As our understanding of the strike zone has improved over the past 10-15 years, so too has our appreciation for the art of ‘pitch framing’. What started out as a niche pursuit of marginal gains studied in 2013 has since become an accepted part of a catcher’s skill-set.
MLB.com‘s baseball savant tool has an entire section dedicated to framing metrics, with their 2019 data showing a 30-run difference between the game’s best framers (Austin Hedges; Tyler Flowers) and the worst (James McCann).
For lovers of baseball’s quirks and intricacies, this is an appreciable skill that catchers have been forced to refine but even the most ardent framing fanatic must see how uncomfortable a concept it is that Omar Narvaez’s glove could be worth more than Giancarlo Stanton’s bat.
This week, the hypothetical argument for robo-umps has become reality. Ken Rosenthal’s article detailing the ongoing negotiations between MLB and MLBPA noted that the league’s latest proposal for universal DH in 2021 included the introduction of automated strike calls in Spring Training. It seems that it is a matter of when, rather than if, the technology is introduced to regular season MLB games.
And I think that would be a crying shame. Human officiating is at the heart of so many sports, and whilst baseball is in the fortunate position of requiring very few ‘judgement’ decisions, to take control of the strike zone out of human hands would be to fundamentally alter the game.
For one, the trackman technology awards strikes on pitches that would not usually be called – principally breaking balls that catch the lower part of the zone. Whilst these pitches are inarguably rulebook strikes, they strikingly differ from pitches in the widely accepted strike zone – an issue that flared up in the Atlantic League two years ago.
This would, of course, lead to an adjustment period for hitters and pitchers alike, but a dizzying increase in low breaking pitches and high fastballs – two pitches that frequently catch the rulebook strike zone but are rarely called strikes by umpires – cannot be ruled out. By contrast, the generous 3-0 strike calls and the ‘lefty strike’ off the outside corner would both be removed from the game, tipping the balance back in favour of hitters.
Removing the human element from home plate umpiring also deprives us of a niche but enjoyable aspect of officiating: the elusive umpire perfect game.
In the 2020 NLCS, Pat Hoberg called one of the most impressive games in postseason history, nailing 98% of callable pitches in his first playoff assignment according to Umpire Scorecards, whilst on the very same day, John Tumpane called a rare umpiring perfecto in the ALCS according to UEFL.
— Umpire Scorecards (@UmpScorecards) October 13, 2020
Clearly, no-one shows up to the ballpark hoping to see an umpiring clinic. But good officiating performances deserve praise and in recent seasons umpires have been increasingly accurate on the whole. Tumpane and Hoberg likely received private plaudits for their locked-in efforts in big games, but publicly their only mention was a particularly scathing review by Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson who called Tumpane a ‘top 3 worst ump in the game’.
Which brings me to my main point: there will always be arguments over balls and strikes. A pitch on the corner of the zone will always be disputable. The fact that two separate umpire-tracking systems come out with different scores for every game prove this point. We all want objectivity and consistency but as technological advances in other sports have shown, in practice sport is so rarely black and white.
Just as VAR in the Premier League has made a mockery of the offside rule with the mind-numbing obsession over parallel lines on the pitch in pursuit of the ‘right decision’, it is easy to see how borderline pitches in crucial moments will inspire similar vitriol at the Major League level.
To completely remove the human element from officiating is therefore to abdicate responsibility for decision making. For Major League Baseball to be able to point at TrackMan technology for every questionable strike call is to wash their hands of legitimate criticisms of umpiring evaluation. How, after all, can we argue with the machines?
The introduction of instant replay has, to a large degree, been hugely successful and has allowed the sport to avoid horrendous gaffes like Armando Galarraga’s im-perfect game and the Braves-Pirates 19th inning howler in 2011. Just as the replay system worked through initial kinks to become the reliable arbiter it is today, so too would any electronic strike zone technology.
But to sterilise the sport to a degree where every decision is made by artificial intelligence is to remove the all-important factor of common sense and risks ‘gaming’ the rules of baseball to a point of abuse. It also wipes out the factor of pitch framing, which for all of its downsides has introduced a new and increasingly quantifiable aspect of catcher ability.
Baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry but it is also a silly game, played by fully grown children wearing pyjamas. To bring the game into the modern age is to accept technology where suitable, and TrackMan technology gives us a glimpse of a future where egregious strike calls become a relic of the past. But introducing such game-changing technology is also guaranteed to bring unintended side-effects that could damage our enjoyment of the sport.
I’m not arguing against all strike zone technology: to do so is futile. But before welcoming the inevitable age of robo-umps with open arms, let’s take a season to root for the Pat Hobergs and John Tumpanes of the umpiring world. We just might miss them when they’re gone.