Robotic Umpires are starting to be put into effect in many leagues to replace regular human umpires. These robot umpires will have special technology installed to consistently make accurate calls, and they will change the game of baseball forever. While robot umpires are a fairly new idea to baseball, a lot of unknown questions, thoughts, and solutions were figured out and answered. Many common questions asked are based on whether they will be on the field or in booths and other areas to monitor the game, and what will happen if the technology breaks down or experiences other technical problems. Robot umpires are also known as “TrackMan” and “Automated Ball-Strike system.” There are also many different ideas that are being thought of because of robot umpires. I am going to answer some of the questions that might be asked, and explain some of the ideas being brought up if they are implemented in baseball around the world.
The first appearance of robot umpires came in 1930, but technology was not very advanced then, so it did not last very long, and it was very innefficient and got in the way. “But Stengel was already thirty years behind the times when he asked for radar-powered arbiters, as the first appearance of an automated strike calling machine appears all the way back in the 1930s” (Clair 2013.) That was during the great depression when people had time to build and experiment different things, so that is when the first idea of robot umpires came to life. Because of how inefficient and obstructive it was, it was no longer used. When technology started becoming more advanced, talks about it returning in better ways began to arise. The next major appearance of robot umppires came in 2019. “Among its test rules, the Atlantic League implemented robot umpires, or the Automated Ball-Strike (ABS) system, beginning in the second half of its 2019 season…” (Golden 2022.) After the half year of its first trial, it moved to a more poplar stage. “In 2020, MLB implemented the ABS system during some spring training games, and The Washington Post reported that year that Commissioner Rob Manfred was hoping to implement the automated strike zone in the major leagues within the next three seasons” (Golden 2022.) The robot umpire lasted in the Atlantic League for only two years until it was proven successful. In 2022, they decided to still go back to normal umpires. As for major league baseball, it has not been implemented yet, but will soon be implemented into a major league baseball affiliated minor league that has not been decided on yet.
Many question asked about robot umpires ask how it works and what it does. The robot umpires are only designed to make ball and strike calls. ABS system, or Automated Ball Strike system, is what robot umpires are. “Technology from Danish golf startup TrackMan determines if each pitch is a ball or strike. ABS then feeds its call to the ump via an earpiece, and he relays the call to the players” (Tracy 2022.) Calling ball and strikes compared to other actions and interactions of the game is harder. Sometimes, calling pitches can be a guessing game because of how fast the ball comes in and how small home plate really is. In most cases, it is pretty easy to see check swings, if runners are out or safe, or other interactions around the field. Studies show that other than ball and strike calls, 99.5 percent of the time, umpires make the correct call without needing review (Gilmer 2011.) With all of the cameras surrounding the field, the other .5 percent of the time can easily be reviewed and overturned to the right call. That is not the case for ball and strike calls. “The average umpire is 94 percent accurate with respect to the rulebook strike zone” (Hoornstra 2021.) Because of rules made by the league, balls and strikes cannot be reviewed like other calls can be. If there are around 150-200 pitches made by each team every game and balls and strikes were able to be reviewed, 9-12 times a game each coach would ask for a reviewed pitch which does not make much sense and will make the game way longer. With ABS system, ball and strike calls will always be correct. Batters will not have to worry about getting balls called as strikes, and pitchers will not have to worry about strikes being called balls. With the robot umpires and reviewable plays with runners, it could make 96.75 percent of correct calls overall become 100 percent, and will make each team happier and less worried about bad calls.
The technology used in robot umpires is pretty neat because of where it came from. It came from a golf simulating machine that tracks golf balls when hit. It is sort of the same concept with the ABS system. In the oldest versions of robot umpires, the ball was tracked when it crossed the plate. What made the old robot umpire up was a set of three beams that went on the side of the batters boxes and above them connecting at the top. Each beam had a projector and mirror, and on the two side beams there was electric sensor tracking the pitch across the plate. This was not ideal because the sensors were not adjustable so the smallest player in the league had the same zone as the tallest player. In newer models, when the ball gets thrown, the robot umpire will track the ball out of the pitchers hand, and where the pitch is based on the automated zone will determine whether it is a ball or a strike. The robot umpire also automatically changes the zone based on the height of the batter because that also determines if the pitch is a strike or ball. “TrackMan, or “robot ump,” sits up above home plate… and looks like a black box from afar. In reality, the box is a 3-D Doppler radar dish that analyzes each pitch thrown. Using a three-dimensional strike zone, TrackMan is able to calibrate each batter’s size and stance, adjusting the strike zone accordingly. So, the system works so that it doesn’t allow a 6-foot-7 player to have the same strike zone as a 5-foot-7 player” (Acquavella 2019.) It isnt just the “black box” that sits above the press box. “Newer technology, including ultra-high-speed cameras, is also used to calculate the point at which a baseball crossed the plate” (Callahan 2021.) These cameras are strategically placed throughout stadiums to make even more precise calls. When the robot umpire calls the pitch, it relays the call to the umpire. It used to be relayed through apple airpods, but because the game is so long, the airpods began to die during the game. Since then, changes have been made to prevent battery issues. “They’ve since switched to an earpiece, which is connected to an iPhone that’s clipped into the umpire’s belt buckle… there are no battery issues to worry about. The iPhone is the connecting device to TrackMan’s data… Next, the umpire will hear… “ball” or “strike”” (Acquavella 2019.) Since the new earpiece is physically connected to the phone, it is connected to the phone’s battery which should last the entire duration of the game. Another great feature robot umpires have is water resistance. This is great for rain games because it will still be functionable, however, there were some problems when it is heavy rain. The rain interferes with the tracking system which makes it harder to track the ball and keep he correct strike zone. Even with these minor complications, it should not affect the game much because umpires have the power to overrule an obvious missed call and if it rains so hard it cannot track the ball, it will most likely be delayed or postponed.
Even though it was used for a few years and proven successful, many people are still very nervous about robot umpires being implemented into the major league. They do not trust the technology being that it is still a fairly new aspect to the game. Because of this, it is going to start in MLB affiliated minor leagues to start the 2022 season. “Robotic umpires that use an automated system for determining ball and strike calls will now be used in Triple-A baseball for the 2022 season, MLB officials announced” (Richard 2022.) Triple-A is the highest level minor league before the major league. In the local area, the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Railriders is the Triple-A team of the New York Yankees. The Railriders will be using the TrackMan system in their games. Hopefully after a few years in the minor league, people will begint to gain trust in the system because it will have more experience. They will be a huge part of baseball in all leagues across the world. Robot umpires are going to change the game of baseball forever.
Callahan, Molly. “Robot Umpires Are Coming to Baseball. Will They Strike out?” News @ Northeastern, 28 Oct. 2021, news.northeastern.edu/2021/10/27/robot-umpire-could-replace-human-umpires/.
Hoornstra, J.P. “Hoornstra: Baseball’s Best and Worst Umpires, by the Numbers.” Daily News, Daily News, 23 June 2021, www.dailynews.com/2021/06/23/hoornstra-baseballs-best-and-worst-umpires-by-the-numbers/.
Imber, Gil. “Stats Prove MLB Umpires Call 99.5 Percent of Plays Correctly.” Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report, 2 Oct. 2017, bleacherreport.com/articles/911552-defining-the-human-element-mlb-umpires-call-995-of-plays-correctly.
Katherine Acquavella Aug 27. “Robot Umpires: How It Works and Its Effect on Players and Managers in the Atlantic League, plus What’s to Come.” CBSSports.com, 30 Aug. 2019, www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/robot-umpires-how-it-works-and-its-effect-on-players-and-managers-in-the-atlantic-league-plus-whats-to-come/.
Oldtimefamilybaseball. “A Brief History of Robotic Umpires.” Old Time Family Baseball, 20 June 2012, oldtimefamilybaseball.com/post/25503754723/a-brief-history-of-robotic-umpires.
Richard, Lawrence. “’Robot Umpires’ Coming to Triple A Ball This Year after Tryout in Lower Leagues.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 21 Jan. 2022, www.foxnews.com/sports/robot-umpires-ball-tryout-lower-leagues.
Tracy, Jeff. “Robot Umpires Inch Closer to Calling MLB Games.” Axios, 20 Jan. 2022, www.axios.com/robot-umpires-baseball-mlb-ball-strike-system-c2fef299-2396-4afc-bbc8-3fbeae73029f.html.