The case for robot umpires in baseball

Minor League Baseball announced last week that robot umpires will be used in Triple-A during the 2022 season. The advent of an automated strike zone that’s enforced by a “robot” has been met with mixed reviews, but it’s the best thing baseball can do to earn the trust of its fans.
Much of the pushback against an automated strike zone comes at the outcry of fans who claim to love the “human element” of baseball. To that, I say, no, you don’t.
Let’s revisit a few historical moments where umpires didn’t provide fans with what they wanted. First-base umpire Don Denkinger called Kansas City Royals DH Jorge Orta safe when he was clearly out in the final inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. Again at first base, former White Sox pitcher Armando Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game when first-base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe on what was clearly the 27th out of the game. Just this last fall, the San Francisco Giants were eliminated from the playoffs on a botched check-swing call by first-base umpire Gabe Morales. (I’m beginning to wonder if first base is the real problem here.) Fans were up in arms over the human element they claim to hold so dearly.
Why not eliminate human error from the game wherever possible? By rule, umpires are considered part of the field, which means a ball that hits the second base blue’s foot is played as though it hit a pebble. We shouldn’t know they’re there, and robot umpires will help with that.
Baseball fans are sticklers for the rules, both written and unwritten. Die-hard fans have been known to boo players for swinging on a 3-0 count, bunting to break up a no-hitter, and stopping to watch a home run sail over the fence. Fans adamantly defend the unwritten rules of the game but turn a blind eye to the umpire’s ability to properly enforce the strike zone on a consistent basis. That is, until their team gets a bad called third strike to eliminate them from the playoffs.
According to the rules, the strike zone is “the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and the top of the uniform pants…and a point just below the kneecap.” Nowhere in the rule does it say that the strike zone is up to the interpretation of the umpire, which is what we see on a daily basis.
Several years ago, ESPN implemented technology to their broadcast that includes a visual strike zone. While the strike zone graphic isn’t perfect, it provides instant feedback to see how the umpire does with calling balls and strikes with every pitch. Generally speaking, we’ve seen that big-league blues are much better at calling strikes than we originally thought. The problem has come when they don’t get it right when it matters.
Even umpires who are notoriously known as the worst home plate blues in MLB like Angel Hernandez and retired Joe West eclipse 90% accuracy with their balls and strikes. However, this level of inaccuracy can affect a game with a differential of around 1.5 runs per game either way.
Fans can see strike zone inconsistencies from pitch to pitch that can be absolutely infuriating at times. It’s easier than ever to see that an umpire calls a strike three inches off the plate, then not 15 pitches later calls a ball one inch of the plate. The technology is here, and the fans should be demanding better.
In addition to the on-screen addition from ESPN and other broadcasts, Baseball Prospectus creates graphics that shows an umpire’s called strike zone throughout the game versus the actual strike zone. Spoiler alert, they rarely match.
The implementation of an automated strike zone with robot umpires will not only provide players and fans with an accurate strike zone but umpires will finally be held accountable for their inconsistencies. There will be a doubt as to whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. We’ll save time as players and managers don’t have a leg to stand on when arguing balls and strikes anymore. Attention Rob Manfred, if you want to shorten games, THIS is how you do it.

While I’ve been a staunch supporter of the robot umpire since day one, the system isn’t without flaws. As someone who’s been in the room with the system that will be used to call balls and strikes, it takes a certain level of knowledge to understand what’s going on with it. Because of this, the umpire union needs to supply a fifth umpire to every game to be the person to operate the system. The problem we’re running into today is that MLB is recruiting employees to operate the system. Rather than having a trained umpire run the system, MLB will employ seasonal employees to operate the system for 11 Triple-A teams. Unfortunately, this feels like par for the course for such an important system as implemented by Manfred, who referred to the Commissioner’s Trophy as a “piece of metal,” lest we remind you.
Flaws in the minor leagues aside, an automated strike zone will go a long way to establishing credibility with fans of the game of baseball. Where other sports continue to operate on judgment calls that determine the outcome of games, baseball can be the forerunner in eliminating the human element from aspects of a game that no longer require it.

Brad Curnow

Brad has had a passion for baseball since he could walk up to a batting tee. He learned how to throw a 2-seam fastball before he could write his own name. He grew up in the sport as a catcher with great coaches who taught him to love and respect the game and the team. Brad joins Baseball Together with a love for baseball and a passion to share it with others.

Leave a Reply