MLB Can Learn from Independent League's 'Robot Umpire' Experiment

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2016

Former MLB player Eric Byrnes played the role of umpire at an independent league game in June, with three triangulated cameras supplying the ball and strike calls.
Former MLB player Eric Byrnes played the role of umpire at an independent league game in June, with three triangulated cameras supplying the ball and strike calls.Sharon Garner Photography

What do you get when you combine former MLB outfielder Eric Byrnes, three high-tech cameras and an IFB earpiece?

To hear some tell it, you get the future of umpiring.

In June, during an independent league game between the San Rafael Pacifics and Pittsburg Diamonds, Byrnes crouched behind the plate in full umpire gear. He made the calls for the fans' benefit, in typically gregarious fashion. The balls and strikes, however, were fed to him using PITCHf/x data.

For one night at least, the dream of an automated strike zone was realized.

This was actually the second time the Pacificsan unaffiliated team based out of Marin County, California, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge—had let PITCHf/x take the reins in a game. In 2015, they became the first pro club to do it.

Byrnes watched a monitor and made calls over the public-address system. This time, he strapped on the tools of ignorance and got dirty.

It sounds like a gimmick. But the always-outspoken Byrnes—now an analyst for MLB Networkrecently told Bleacher Report he believes it will eventually be the norm.

"It's coming," Byrnes said. "Whether or not it happens in our lifetimes, I don't know. But it will be implemented."

Does that mean flesh-and-blood umpires are an endangered species? Not at all, Byrnes insisted.

"One of the biggest misconceptions of this is that I'm trying to get rid of umpires and replace them with robots. That's not the case," he said. "I'm trying to give the home plate umpires the same information that millions of people at home have access to and can see in real time. Unfortunately, the home plate umpire, the person who's responsible for making the call, doesn't have that information. And that's wrong."

At a 2015 San Rafael Pacifics game, Byrnes used PITCHf/x data to call balls and strikes over the PA system.
At a 2015 San Rafael Pacifics game, Byrnes used PITCHf/x data to call balls and strikes over the PA system.Eric Risberg/Associated Press

That was the argument in favor of instant replay, which MLB finally implemented in 2008 and expanded in 2014. This is a bigger leap forward, though, and traditionalists will balk.

That's your cue, Keith Olbermann:

"Personally, I was against it at first," Pacifics assistant general manager and play-by-play man Vinnie Longo told Bleacher Report. "I'm very old-school when it comes to baseball."

After seeing the system in action, Longo said he became a convert.

"The technology is out there. And if it doesn't take away a job, it makes the game consistent and easier to play and it doesn't hurt the aesthetic experience," he said. "We should go for that."

There are potential kinks, as Wired's K.M. McFarland spelled out:

PITCHf/x uses three cameras to triangulate a baseball's position in space from the moment it leaves the pitcher's hand. But there's one major flaw: The cameras stop tracking the ball a few feet from the plate, instead analyzing the trajectory to come up with a predicted location within an inch of where it actually shows up. ... Yet, that blind spot in front of the plate troubles the sabermetric community.

Sportvision, the company that provided the PITCHf/x data for the Pacifics, declined to comment on when and how MLB could utilize its tech in a game, citing an existing partnership with the league.

In 2015, Sportvision President Mike Jakob defended the data's accuracy but said utilizing it in a game at the big league level is "not necessarily an agenda that we're pursuing," per Alex Shultz of the Los Angeles Times.

Byrnes said he's had a few preliminary conversations with members of MLB's front office. But he's under no illusion this will be a serious talking point when players and owners renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement, which expires in December.

"The first problem is you're not going to have players come out and ask for it, because the players don't want to piss off the umpires," Byrnes said.

Catchers, he added, are particularly hesitant "because they pride themselves on stealing strikes." Even the perfect frame job can't fool a machine.

Byrnes, seen here during his playing days with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said players won't advocate for an automated strike zone because they "don't want to piss off the umpires."
Byrnes, seen here during his playing days with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said players won't advocate for an automated strike zone because they "don't want to piss off the umpires."Chris Carlson/Associated Press

What about the players who actually experienced the Byrnes/robo-ump experiment?

"The pitchers loved it," Longo said. "The hitters aren't used to the higher strike zone because we used the rulebook definition, which isn't always called. Or there were guys who stand far back in the box who thought some of the calls were low."

Those seem like minor quibbles, though, and the zone can be adjusted. The overriding appeal is consistency.

We live in an era when our phones are smarter than we are—when cars drive themselves. Even in a game as old and nostalgic as baseball, technological advances are inevitable.

Umpires are at a disadvantage. They have to do their jobs in real time, using only their eyeballs to judge diving, spinning projectiles that travel in excess of 90 mph. The rest of us can consult the computers and see how frequently they screw up, as Beyond the Box Score's Scott Lindholm did in 2014 using PITCHf/x data from Baseball Savant.

His finding? Umpires, on the whole, get it wrong about 15 percent of the time. That might be as good as any person can do, but the robots can do better.

On Saturday, the Associated Press reported on a memo issued by MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre calling on managers to stop arguing balls and strikes.

Torre, per the AP, "said skippers are increasingly relying on technology from the clubhouse or video room to argue from the dugout. Every pitch and play is monitored by teams in case they want to challenge for a replay review."

They see the PITCHf/x data. And even though they can't make an official challenge on a ball or strike, they can bark.

"Although disagreements over ball and strike calls are natural, the prevalence of manager ejections simply cannot continue," Torre wrote in the memo. "This conduct not only delays the game, but it also has the propensity to undermine the integrity of the umpires on the field."

Silencing managers is one solution. Using the best available resources to get the call right is another.

Arizona manager Chip Hale was ejected by home plate umpire Mark Ripperger for arguing a called third strike on June 7 during a game between the Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays.
Arizona manager Chip Hale was ejected by home plate umpire Mark Ripperger for arguing a called third strike on June 7 during a game between the Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays.Norm Hall/Getty Images

Maybe we'll always need umpires to survey lineup cards, break up mound visits, make calls on the bases (with the help of replay) and serve as dirt-kicking receptacles for irate managers. Although machines could probably do most of that someday, too.

For now, here's the essential question: If PITCHf/x got into the action, would anyone pine for the days of capricious strike zones?

"Baseball players used to leave their gloves on the field between innings," Byrnes said. "They used to take trains across the country instead of airplanes. They used to not have lights and not play night games.

"It's a simple progression. I understand why people are resistant. But, again, this isn't about getting rid of the umpires. It's about giving them a tool to help them get every single ball and strike call right."

   

Jacob Shafer is a national columnist for Bleacher Report; you can find him in Twitter form here.

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