How Did Baseball’s Robot Umpires Fare?

It might sound like the plot of a crazy science fiction movies. Minor league baseball players take the field, the capacity crowd cheers, and the ball is ready to be thrown. The pitcher throws it just left of the plate, but close enough to be considered strike, in his eyes, but the umpire working the game calls it a ball. The pitcher is angry and wants to yell at the umpire, but there is only one problem — it’s a robot umpire, and the man behind the plate is doing its bidding. How do robot umpires work, and are they the future for MLB and other sports?

Are robot umpires the future of baseball? 

Nobody needs to worry about umpires and robotic overlords  It was an experiment by the independent Atlantic League, a partner with the MLB, is testing out robot umpires as a way to get more accurate officiating at the plate. With television replays, it is easy for fans to get angry at the umpires, and with tech that tracks exactly where the ball passes over the plate, the fans get the luxury of knowing rather definitively whether a call was right or wrong.

The experiment happened at the Atlantic League All-Star game, a league that is no stranger to experiments and gimmicks that may attract crowds who would otherwise be unlikely to show up. At the game, home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere had an earpiece that relayed ball and strike calls from the TrackMan computer system that used a radar to track every pitch. Technically, robot umpires aren’t making the calls at the plate, but technology is heavily involved.

Glitches in the system

Seems like Yankees manager Aaron Boone can't wait for "robot umpires" to make their way to MLB.
It seems like Yankees manager Aaron Boone can’t wait for “robot umpires” to make their way to MLB. | Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Like all technology, there are glitches in the system which render the use of the human umpire necessary. That was explained by deBrauwere before the game:

“Until we can trust this system 100 percent,” deBrauwere told ESPN, “I still have to go back there with the intention of getting a pitch correct, because if the system fails, it doesn’t pick a pitch up, or if it registers a pitch that’s a foot-and-a-half off the plate as a strike, I have to be prepared to correct that.” 

That might bring a sigh of relief for people who strive to be MLB umpires; they are not being replaced. Instead, this looks to increase the accuracy of the home plate umpire’s calls, and allows both sides to help minimize the margin for error. Players noticed that the system was different. Some calls, such as high strikes, were called more often than human umpires tend to call them, for example. 

Another common problem with the tech was response time. The call often did not come until the ball was back in the pitcher’s hand, which could delay a game. 

Could this happen in other sports?

The idea of robotic referees has been thrown around forever. As artificial intelligence technology expands, the likelihood that we will be able to teach this tech to call games does, too. However, this doesn’t mean that they could rely on the tech, or even should. When asked about the viability of AI referees, NBA superstar Kevin Durant dismissed it.

“I’d rather keep it at the human judgment, I feel as though they are doing a great job anyway,” Durant said at a 2017 TechCrunch talk. “If you get the AI refs, they’ll call every touch a foul, and I get away with a lot. I’m sure they’ll catch me a little bit more than the human refs, so I’ll stick to what we’ve got now.”

It is a valid point. Although human error can make fans angry, tech meant to call every single violation regardless of how insignificant could disrupt the flow of the game and take away from the fun. Too strict an adherence to the rules would mean every bump, bruise, misstep, or mistake could stop a game and ruin the flow. Whether it’s robot umpires or AI referees, relying solely on technology might sacrifice the fun of the games for the sake of being right 100% of the time.

What does the future hold?

In some ways, this AI tech is already used in major professional sports. Every television graphic in football, baseball, and tennis is using similar technology, and sometimes this is used by officiating crews as well. In the age of analytics, tech is also being used to gather data on different players and help not only with game strategy but with training and mechanics, too. Robotic technology could help referees in some aspects, but it does not appear that we are heading toward replacement. Instead, the tech can be an excellent supplement to fix some of the problems that arise.