The Case for Robo-Umpires

In the ever-evolving landscape of Major League Baseball (MLB), the recent implementation of a pitch clock stands as a testament to the league's quest for precision and efficiency. These characteristics, some believe, will be helped by the hypothetical introduction of robotic umpires. This technological revolution, bringing automated systems to judge balls and strikes, has sparked a polarizing debate among fans, players, and officials. On one hand, it heralds a new era of accuracy, potentially eliminating human error from critical game-deciding calls. On the other, it challenges the traditionalist view of the game, where the human element of umpiring and the skill of a catcher framing a pitch, is seen as integral to the sport's unpredictable and dynamic nature. As MLB continues to adapt to the fast-paced, technology-driven world, these changes, especially the introduction of robotic umpires, not only reflect a significant shift in how the game is played and regulated but also represent a broader conversation about the balance between tradition and innovation in sports.

Robotic umpires have been used in the minor leagues for several years now, a software called Hawk-Eye declares pitches balls or strikes using a zone not dissimilar to the one seen on TV broadcasts. The implementation to the big leagues could come in one of two fashions: a fully automated system, or a review system. Fully automated calling would entail the AI declaring the pitch a ball or a strike, and playing the appropriate indicator through the umpire's earpiece, who would relay it to the rest of the players. The review system would work something like VAR in soccer, where the managers can challenge a strike call made purely by the umpire, and it would be reviewed with the AI strike zone. If a manager gets a challenge wrong, they will not be able to make another for the remainder of the game.

The issue of the robo-ump will always be polarizing. Those in favor argue that there is no reason to leave room for error in such high-stakes circumstances in the current age of technology. If umpiring remains fully in the hands of humans, we will see blown calls continue, including those in big games and situations. The opposition cites the tradition of the game: borderline calls, framing pitches, pitch sequences, and so forth. There are still plenty of competent umpires in the MLB, with Pat Hoberg calling a perfect game in the World Series last year, declaring all 129 taken pitches correctly in the Fall Classic. Implementing AI strike calling could undermine the hours of dedication that successful umpires put in, deeming them message-bearers rather than umpires. It could have a similar effect on catchers as well, undermining the work they do learning to frame pitches.

Although robotic umpires seem endearing in theory, right now there is just too much left to be addressed:

-The system has trouble pinpointing strike zones for players of different sizes
-It removes an umpire's ability to "read the room" (expanding the zone in a blowout game, for example)
-Games could return to 3.5+ hours with the accuracy of the calls increasing the walk rate
-It removes fascinating dynamics between pitchers and umpires, such as a pitcher painting the outside corner because he knows he will get the call, whereas the umpire is less forgiving on the inside
-Undermines talent and training of umpires and catchers

Many players, after playing with the AI calls in the minor leagues have defended traditional umpiring, describing the new sensation as "imperfectly perfect".  A better alternative could be to collect data from umpire's scorecards (which display how accurate an umpire was over a 9-inning game), and only choose the most accurate to umpire important late-season and postseason games. The future of baseball umpires remains to be seen, but for now, at least, traditional umpires are here to stay.