Point/Counterpoint: Is it Time For Robot Umpires in Baseball?

Ethan Ott: This year’s postseason proved that the era of the human umpire is over. Correct calls are paramount to fair games, and robot umpires are a necessary step.

The game is tied 0–0. Brandon Crawford steps up to the plate and slices a two-strike pitch into left field for a single. Kris Bryant, the San Francisco Giants’ hottest bat of the postseason, takes his turn. Under the bright October lights and with 42,000 fans donning orange and black, Dodgers pitcher Julio Urías chokes. He fires five straight pitches out of the strike zone, but Bryant remains in the box. The Giants should have runners on first and second with no outs, a position in which teams score 64 percent of the time.

Instead, home plate umpire Doug Eddings calls two of Urías’ pitches outside the zone strikes. Facing a full count, Bryant goes down swinging for the first out of the inning. The Giants strand Crawford and ultimately lose by one run after a check swing judgment call that set the internet ablaze. For the second straight season, the Giants were sent home early thanks to incompetent officiating. 

The 2021 Giants-Dodgers NLDS was the first time the two teams have ever met in a postseason series. They also happen to be the National League’s biggest rivals. They were handily the two best teams of the 2021 season, winning 107 and 106 games apiece. To many, the NLDS was a de facto World Series. It took five games, but ultimately one of the greatest series in baseball history was decided not by clean baseball, but by dirty umpiring. 

The question of robot umpires in MLB has been up for debate since long before broadcasts began showcasing every umpiring error with a digital strike zone. For years, traditional baseball fans have argued that the human element of the umpire is part of what makes the game great. 

With advancements in technology and generationally declining interest in baseball, however, even so-so things must come to an end. There is no reason why in 2021 human error should be the deciding factor of a 160-plus game season. 

MLB’s problems with poor umpiring have a clear answer. In fact, the answer is discoverable with a quick drive down U.S. Highway 101 from Oracle Park to where technology is actively being developed to aid companies like TrackMan and Hawk-Eye Innovations, who are leading the charge in automating umpiring. Just miles outside of Silicon Valley, one umpire’s ineptitude made a mockery of one of the greatest postseason series in modern history.

The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, an MLB affiliate, has led the robo-ump charge thus far. The TrackMan robot umpire sits on its perch above the press box, where it analyzes every pitch and relays its call to the human umpire behind the dish. 

MLB has some difficult choices to make about its future. It can either adapt and survive or stay grounded in tradition and go the way of boxing and horse racing. Older fans lash out at every minor rule change, accusing the baseball powers that be of taking the slow, traditional feel out of the game they love while younger, more progressive fans view the game through a more sophisticated lens. 

In order to compete with the rapidly growing NFL and NBA, baseball must sacrifice some of its old-timey appeal in favor of fast-paced, more technologically advanced forms of play. Robot umps would not solve baseball’s problems, but they would be a start. MLB has experimented with pace of play rules like starting runners on second base during extra innings and placing an at-bat minimum on situational pitchers, but neither of these has been effective. Robot umpires would, however, be a guaranteed way to speed up the game by revitalizing small ball. 

The most significant change to the pace of play feels almost counterintuitive, at least in the short term. In the few games where robot umpires have been used so far, the pace of play has been excruciatingly slow. The conservative strike zone yields immense amounts of walks, drawing games out for ages. For pitchers used to human error behind the plate, automated strike zones would be an adjustment. Strikes would be harder to come by and walks would become king. But eventually, pitchers would learn to adapt, speeding up the process. 

Without the luxury of generous umpires giving pitchers calls off the plate, robot umpires would force pitchers to give hitters a chance. Small ball would come back into style, and the new dead-ball era would officially come to an end. 

Robot umpires are hardly a popular idea. Old-timers hate them, and even younger fans are skeptical. But, it’s clear that something has to change. Robot umpires would speed up the game while simultaneously making it more exciting and bringing back a style of play that values contact, speed, and grit. 
Robot umpires would make the game fair. There is no reason that a batter should ever watch five straight balls and end up with a full count. Baseball is a game without room for subjectivity, and there is no reason why something should be done wrong when it could be done right. If a robot had been at first base in 2010, Armando Galarraga would have had a perfect game. A robot behind the plate examining bats in 1983 would have meant a go-ahead home run for George Brett in the heat of a contentious pennant race, and most importantly, a robot behind the plate for Bryant and Wilmer Flores’ at-bats in game five of the 2021 NLDS could have sent Buster Posey into retirement with a fourth ring.

Asa Ackerly: The integrity of baseball has already been compromised by cheap pace-of-play initiatives. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is in bed with TV executives hoping to boost ratings, but it is time to rescue America’s pastime.

I have written two previous columns arguing against proposed changes to make sports more exciting—the automatic runner on second in extra innings and expanding the College Football Playoff—and there is a regular theme to my arguments. The main issue with these changes is not that they are ineffective at accomplishing their goals or have some kind of technical failure. Instead, these changes attempt to solve problems that are not meant to be solved. 

The automatic runner on second has succeeded at ending games faster but will do little to entice new fans to the game and chafes at the beauty of a sport played without a timer. Expanding the playoff is just another step in a futile battle to center college football around awarding a national champion when the allure of the sport is defined by the opposite.

Adding the automated strike zone falls prey to the same trap. The change would absolutely lead to more correct ball and strike calls and make the game-changing missed calls that plagued MLB last season a thing of the past. 

But, baseball is an inexact game. While every other sport is played on a carefully measured surface, baseball stadiums run wild with different dimensions and features. These famous idiosyncrasies—the defensive play of the Green Monster, the great plains of foul territory in Oakland Coliseum, the pesky encroachment of the Tropicana catwalk—are what make baseball great. 

College baseball stadiums boast some of these perfect oddities as well. Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field features a 35-foot behemoth of a wall down the left-field line, and the right field of McLane Baseball Stadium, home to the Michigan State Spartans, uses a small hill as part of its warning track.

There is no other sport in which we would accept this level of irregularity. There are no basketball courts that just happen to be five feet narrower or football stadiums in which 45-yard field goals are a fool’s errand due to a poorly placed jumbotron. 

As every sport has become an increasingly synthetic mix of crypt-like stadiums, countless replays, and gimmicky promotions, baseball is still the national pastime because it, despite MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s best efforts, offers an experience of the game that is much bigger than the game itself. 

That experience is made up of those beautiful, irrational stadiums, of the feeling that you are participating in a time-honored tradition, and of the sometimes-crappy umpires that are the well-worn heel of that tradition.  

With automated systems, umpires often have to wait a couple of seconds to hear the electronic verdict, and we lose the distinctive bellow of a strike-three call reverberating around the field just as a catcher’s mitt squeezes tight. We lose the jawing among umpires, managers, and players as they debate a curveball just off the inside corner called ball four. There’s no point arguing with a computer.

The introduction of video offside checks in soccer has crippled the excitement of goal celebrations as anxious strikers delay their planned backflip to await the signal from their electronic overlords. 

In a game as bereft of natural drama and personal expression as baseball, we need as many of those instant strike-three reactions and batter-umpire arguments as we can get. It’s silly, but that’s the beauty of baseball. 

Featured Image courtesy of Flickr

December 5, 2021