As society evolves, baseball must evolve with it. In recent years, MLB has discussed many potential rule changes. These reforms are meant to improve the league by increasing the pace of play as well as getting more calls right.
One of these changes involves the implementation of robot umpires. Some fans support this modern update, while others hate it. Regardless, robot umpires may represent the future of baseball.
How robot umpires work
Giving robots such a prominent place in the sport is obviously a huge step for baseball. With that in mind, MLB is experimenting with the concept at the minor-league level. On Wednesday, July 10, the independent Atlantic League used a robot umpire — responsible for calling balls and strikes — at its annual All-Star game.
Here’s how the experiment worked, according to AP News: “Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket and relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.”
This allowed the human umpire to serve as a failsafe for computer error. According to MLB’s Senior Vice President of Economics and Operations Morgan Sword, the intent is “not to replace the umpire. In fact, we’re trying to empower the umpire with technology.”
The AL is being used as a test subject to see how a robot umpire functions during a live game. MLB is monitoring the results to see how it may translate at the pro level.
MLB reaction to robot umpires
Commissioner Rob Manfred is cautiously optimistic about the development, reports AP News. He believes it addresses a common gripe from players:
We need to see how it works, first in the Atlantic League and then probably other places, meaning other parts of minor league baseball, before it comes to Major League Baseball. Kind of gets back to the question that I was asked earlier about the baseball, we hear all the time from players, why don’t we have an electronic strike zone, why don’t we have an electronic strike zone? We try to be responsive to those sorts of expressions of concern.”
If MLB’s highest executive is discussing moving it from the Atlantic League to MLB-sanctioned minor league games, it’s a good sign that they see value in the technology and how it’s performed so far.
How robot umpires could affect the future of baseball
Robot umpires could affect the future of baseball in three major ways:
- Fewer blown calls. The robot may have an occasional glitch, but more calls should be correct on the first try. This will minimize the need for instant replay.
- Fewer ejections. A player or manager arguing about an umpire’s call accounts for almost all of baseball’s ejections outside of a hit batter or bench-clearing braw. Removing (or decreasing) the human element of those calls lowers the chances of someone getting upset. Players and managers will struggle to justify arguments when a validated system backs the calls.
- Better TV broadcasts. Manfred also noted that robot umpires could change broadcasts by increasing transparency. Giving analysts — and by extension, the fans at home — access to the same technology as the umpires will grant them more insight into the calls.
Adding and changing rules are big parts of any sport. Ultimately, it appears like robot umpires are a matter of “when,” not “if.” If the initial experiment in the Atlantic League is any indication, it will be sooner rather than later.