Robot Umps Can Help Restore Fans' Eroded Faith in MLB's Credibility

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2020

Home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere, left, huddles behind Freedom Division catcher James Skelton, of the York Revolution, as the official wears an earpiece during the first inning of the Atlantic League All-Star minor league baseball game, Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in York, Pa. deBrauwere wore the earpiece connected to an iPhone in his ball bag which relayed ball and strike calls upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar. The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional baseball league to let the computer call balls and strikes during the all star game. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Major League Baseball implemented instant-replay review in 2008 as a way to make the game more fair. It made sense. The cameras don't lie.

Now the Houston Astros are at the center of a sign-stealing scandal that has eroded credibility and faith in the fairness of the league. And, according to an official report from MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred, the Astros' sign stealing was aided and abetted by...wait for it...instant-replay review cameras. 

Now, here comes technology once again to (maybe) save the day. Bring on the robot umpires.

That's not me talking. That's Manfred himself. Here's what he told Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo (h/t Jacob Bobage of the Washington Post) on Wednesday:

"We're going to be using it during spring training and in some of our minor leagues this year. The way it works is the camera calls the ball or strike [and] communicates to an earpiece that the umpire has in his ear. And from the fan's perspective, it looks exactly like it looks today. We believe, over the long haul, it's going to be more accurate. It will reduce controversy in the game and be good for the game. We think—we think it's more accurate than a human being standing there."

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

That's a giant leap for a sport steeped in tradition and old-school norms. But it isn't a brand-new notion.

In 2016, I wrote about a robot-umpire experiment conducted by former big league outfielder Eric Byrnes and a Northern California independent league.

Byrnes acted as umpire, in full gear behind the dish, but he used an earpiece that fed him PITCHf/x data to determine balls and strikes. 

"One of the biggest misconceptions of this is that I'm trying to get rid of umpires and replace them with robots," he told me at the time. "That's not the case. 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."

Think about how hard it must be to judge a baseball that's spinning and diving, sometimes in excess of 100 mph, and make an accurate call in a split second. Of course umps get it wrong sometimes. Who wouldn't?

This technology could eliminate—or at least greatly reduce—human error. We can have a person in black, blue and gray who crouches behind the catcher and makes various other in-game judgment calls. But eliminating the often capricious nature of the strike zone would go a long way toward making baseball more impartial.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

There will be flaws and glitches. As Baseball America's Josh Norris reported in November, the Arizona Fall League used TrackMan to create an automated zone. Not everyone was a fan.

"It takes away the catcher's ability to frame, and umpires are delayed on calls," Seattle Mariners left-handed pitching prospect Raymond Kerr said, per Norris. "I just think it slows down the game a little bit."

As with any innovation, this will require an adjustment period. A segment of players, fans and media members will balk. But ultimately, it'll be an effective way for baseball to repair its image and improve the sport.

Preventing cheating matters. The steroid era begat enhanced PED testing. The sign-stealing scandal will, hopefully, lead to measures that swat down similar misdeeds.

The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution asking MLB to award titles to the Dodgers for the 2017 and 2018 World Series, which L.A. lost to the Astros and Boston Red Sox, respectively. The Sox have been named in the sign-stealing kerfuffle and fired manager Alex Cora, who was Houston's bench coach in 2017.

Clearly, Manfred and Co. have work to do.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

But more than looking back, MLB should look forward. Here's how Byrnes put it to me:

"Baseball players used to leave their gloves on the field between innings. 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."

Who among us doesn't want the strike zone to be more consistent? Who hasn't tossed the remote at the TV after a particularly egregious call?

The cameras don't lie. And, as it wrestles with another trust-eroding scandal, MLB should embrace that truth.

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