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"Robot Umpires" Coming to Some Affiliated Parks Next Season

Major League Baseball’s postseason should be a time where the best moments are created by the players. From game-winning home runs to strong pitching performances, the players and these key moments should be what fans remember. Unfortunately, the calls made by umpires can overshadow baseball’s best moments and this was seen throughout the playoffs.

Changes are coming to baseball and "robot umpiring" might not be that far away.
Image courtesy of © Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Calling balls and strikes is no easy task, especially with more pitchers throwing in the high-90s or adding in the task of tracking the pitch’s movement. Fans sitting at home get a first-hand look at every pitch as it crosses the plate. Most of the time there can be multiple replays and the benefits of watching in slow-motion on a high definition screen. Fans know if a pitch is a ball or strike and they take to social media to berate the man behind the plate.

Evidence also points to just how much umpires are missing calls. Following the 2018 season, Boston University did a study and found that an average of 14 ball-strike calls per game. For the entire 2018 season, MLB umpires missed 34,294 calls and those calls resulted in some other findings. Umpires have a two-strike bias and there are strike-zone blind spots. Clearly, baseball needs to find a solution to this problem.

During the 2019 Arizona Fall League, MLB experimented with an automated ball-strike system (ABS). The technology was only present at one AFL field and it is similar to one used in the Atlantic League this season. With this system, the home-plate umpire wears an earpiece and is sent the “ball” or “strike” call. It’s obviously more complicated than that and there are some kinks to work out. Players are forced to figure out how the computer calls pitches at the different edges of the zone. There is also less pressure on catchers to frame a pitch because they can’t “steal” strikes from the computer.

Minnesota’s top prospect Royce Lewis was in the AFL and got to see the ABS in action. “It kind of changes the whole game,” said Lewis. “It’s still tough, but anyone can catch it back there with electronic. I’d rather have the guys that are working hard and framing and building an element of their game to better themselves.”

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recently told MLB Network that ABS will come to the minors in 2020 "in some ballparks."The league is continuing to find ways to improve the technology. He went on to say, "I only would go to an automated strike zone when we were sure that it was absolutely the best it can be."

ABS likely will go through multiple trials in the minors before it will be big-league ready. It will be interesting to see what leagues will use the technology during the 2020 season. Technology is there and it seems inevitable for “robot umpires” to become part of America’s pastime.

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54 Comments

I am ready for this.Why not?What is the argument for letting errors we can correct influence the game?I know it means that the quick hand artists who steal strikes less important - is that bad? 

    • dcswede, Otwins, Sconnie and 7 others like this
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Hosken Bombo Disco
Nov 05 2019 10:44 PM
I have some issues with that Boston U study. For one, I can’t make sense of their interpretation of the two-strike bias. I can’t believe they didn’t have a “baseball” person proof their work.

Regardless, we are only at this point because home plate umpires are not doing their jobs as well as they should. I’m ready for automated ball-strike calls as soon as the technology is seamless.
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tsbashir@gmail.com
Nov 05 2019 11:36 PM
I would like to see a challenge system. Batters have 1 second to challenge. Umps push a button which displays a green or red light for ball or strike. It would take a total of 2 seconds.
It might even save time that would have been spent by the batter arguing.
    • Aerodeliria likes this
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Parker Hageman
Nov 05 2019 11:53 PM

One point that was raised during the Arizona Fall League trial run was that the system took 4 seconds to call ball/strike which, as Rob Arthur pointed out, is an additional 10 minutes of game time. We just finished a World Series that had multiple four hour contests (which Sam Miller at ESPN did a good job detailing of where that time went) and an additional ten minutes, while seemingly in the name of accuracy, is still a lot to tack on to the game right now while MLB is doing it's best to shave time off. 

 

It's possible it would potentially be a wash when you couple it with the pitch clock but it seems that the tech still needs some improvements. 

    • Heezy1323, DocBauer and Respy like this

The sooner the bettter. It is already at least 5 years late. The whole idea of trying to cheat, and I mean cheat, the game with bogus pitch framing is not at all in the spirit of the rule of the strike zone. The framing talent is just one making all efforts to trick the umpires call, and make a pitch something it isn't. It cheats the greatest takes, and the finest pitches. It's the closest pitches that deserve to be rewarded the most, as that is the whole purpose of being able to actually but the ball in the very corner of the zone, even (for example) if it is the very back edge of the 3 demensional area defined as a strike. Plus, it cannot be denied the the umpire is just guessing all these years. Plus, the umpires won't even use the tool created from them as a learning tool, and review their work and try to get better! Plus, since when has the present system ever been "seamless"? Never ever. That hasn't stopped it from being used. Times up.

    • brvama, mikelink45, PDX Twin and 5 others like this
Fair, accurate, consistent calls? The horror!

The vaunted "human element" is nothing but mistakes, bias, and petty shows it dominance.

The wrong call is never preferable to the right call. Period. I can't wait.
    • mikelink45, PDX Twin, gman and 5 others like this
Here is that article Parker linked to via tweetb above

https://www.baseball...SIRkfNg.twitter

Thanks, very interesting!

I think those unexpected stikes that just clip the front or the back of the zone are something people will get used to. If they can adjust to a new strike zone every game, they can get used to a consistent one. And if r consensus is it really seems too big, they can change the rule. If you don't like the rules, don't break them, change them.

And as several commenters pointed out, a four second wait for the call is not a four second delay. Catchers don't wait to throw the ball back till they hear the call. And umpires don't shout the call simultaneously with the ball's arrival now. In any case to speed of the computer will only increase.

Really, though, the best solution would be to flash the call immediately on the scoreboard. The ump could still shout it out too. But it makes no sense for the computer's call to go only to him. It should flash red or green on the scoreboard the second it registers. Problem solved. The only reason to make the whole stadium wait for him to relay it is to cater to the umpires' egos. Which is exactly what we are trying to get rid of. If the ump thinks there was a glitch and wants to review it he can call for a replay. But there's no reason to delay every call so the ump can think about whether he wants to overrule it, or worse yet, overrule it without even letting people know!
    • brvama, dcswede, h2oface and 7 others like this

I'm fine with this, as long as the umpires get a big ol' jowl that flaps in the wind like Joe West's does. 

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theBOMisthebomb
Nov 06 2019 06:17 AM
That is going to be so much fun when the technology crashes or has a 'glitch' during a key moment in a playoff or World Series game. It would be the greatest of entertainment. In the meantime, baseball still needs to get robo umps installed as soon as the system is capable.
    • pbrezeasap and h2oface like this

That is going to be so much fun when the technology crashes or has a 'glitch' during a key moment in a playoff or World Series game. It would be the greatest of entertainment. In the meantime, baseball still needs to get robo umps installed as soon as the system is capable.


It will be even more fun when it’s hacked.
    • pbrezeasap, Sconnie and Platoon like this

 

I would like to see a challenge system. Batters have 1 second to challenge. Umps push a button which displays a green or red light for ball or strike. It would take a total of 2 seconds.
It might even save time that would have been spent by the batter arguing.

No - they are already working on speeding up the game - this weekend I was driven crazy by the NFL downtime for review and the same with the World Series.

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Hosken Bombo Disco
Nov 06 2019 08:33 AM

Here is that article Parker linked to via tweetb above
https://www.baseball...SIRkfNg.twitter
Thanks, very interesting!
I think those unexpected stikes that just clip the front or the back of the zone are something people will get used to. If they can adjust to a new strike zone every game, they can get used to a consistent one. And if r consensus is it really seems too big, they can change the rule. If you don't like the rules, don't break them, change them.
And as several commenters pointed out, a four second wait for the call is not a four second delay. Catchers don't wait to throw the ball back till they hear the call. And umpires don't shout the call simultaneously with the ball's arrival now. In any case to speed of the computer will only increase.
Really, though, the best solution would be to flash the call immediately on the scoreboard. The ump could still shout it out too. But it makes no sense for the computer's call to go only to him. It should flash red or green on the scoreboard the second it registers. Problem solved. The only reason to make the whole stadium wait for him to relay it is to cater to the umpires' egos. Which is exactly what we are trying to get rid of. If the ump thinks there was a glitch and wants to review it he can call for a replay. But there's no reason to delay every call so the ump can think about whether he wants to overrule it, or worse yet, overrule it without even letting people know!

I guess I disagree, that I do want the home plate umpire to make the final call. If the call can be flashed immediately on the scoreboard, it should be possible to send the call to the ump alone.
    • PDX Twin likes this

I'm not interested in robot umpires. I'm not interested in super slow motion replays catching the single frame instant of a runner's foot sliding off a bag and so actually he actually was out actually actually.

 

Maybe I'll change my mind someday - I don't mind how tennis uses their technology and challenges - maybe because it seems much more organic. The call happens, the player challenges, they show it on the screen, the crowd claps or cheers until the ruling is made. All within seconds.

 

But for baseball and football, it's painful to the flow of the game. And basketball? Don't get me started.

    • Hosken Bombo Disco, DocBauer, Platoon and 1 other like this
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FritzDahmus
Nov 06 2019 08:37 AM

Too much technology changes the game into a different sport for the venues that will never be able to afford the technology. How are high schools going to incorporate this into their baseball....they can't....or more importantly, shouldn't spend the money on it.

 

But...I suppose they said something like that about Personal Computers back in the 1970s.

With the upgrades in technology I suppose these changes are just inevitable. I can't even get worked up about it either way at this point. But what will Ron Gardenhire do when there are no umpires to argue with? Frankly, that WILL be a sad, and much less entertaining, day.

    • jbissell likes this

I hate the idea of robot umpires, but I absolutely believe that the human umpires need to be held to a higher standard.

 

As for the ABS system, as your Arizona Fall League recapper, the article where Lewis talks about it paints it in a somewhat positive light, but that was not at all the consensus from players and coaches in the league. There are several videos you can find where it's clear the system is not consistent with what we know balls and strikes as today. 

 

Here's one example that I don't think is getting called a strike with a human, and shouldn't be:

 

There's another specific one I can't find at the moment, where the camera is from behind the plate. The catcher backhands the ball in the dirt on the outside half, you see the batter step back out of the box knowing it was a ball, and the pitcher reacting in a frustrated with himself that he missed his spot fashion, and THEN the umpire steps up out of his crouch to ring him up. The hitter looks exasperated, hangs his head and walks back to dugout, while the pitcher basically sulks off the mound feeling sorry for him, obviously not feeling good about what just happened.

 

Edit: Found it (is in the linked Baseball America article):

 

This is where Gameday's Trackman had that pitch:

 

The problem as I see it now, is how they utilize the strikezone. Basically if the ball clips any part of it's electronically diagrammed zone, it's a strike. From seeing what does get called, it's clear this is currently too big. Big time 12-6 curveballs (can think of a few I saw from Shane Baz) that hit the dirt were getting called, because they clip the bottom of the front side of this zone. That's not a pitch hitters can hit, and has never been a strike. 

 

Now I don't know if the diagrammed zone is a cube around the plate or a plane at some point of it, but where this is and/or it's size needs to be seriously fine tuned and vetted in much stricter fashion than what they're doing now before it's viable. 

 

You will hate robot umpires more than the human ones in its current fashion.

    • SQUIRREL, scottz, pbrezeasap and 9 others like this

I hate the idea of robot umpires, but I am fully aware its inevitable. It sterilizes the game in my opinion. I also hate "juiced" baseballs, but again, Im in the minority, and one of those fuddy duddy purists. 

 

I think it'll be funny when fans boo a marginal ball or strike call from a computer. 

    • pbrezeasap and Platoon like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Nov 06 2019 09:39 AM

With the upgrades in technology I suppose these changes are just inevitable. I can't even get worked up about it either way at this point. But what will Ron Gardenhire do when there are no umpires to argue with? Frankly, that WILL be a sad, and much less entertaining, day.

We will all miss the spectacle of overweight, grown men dressed in a uniform that is basically pajamas arguing with other grown men about a game that revolves around hitting a ball with a stick. The price of progress.
    • mikelink45, Doctor Wu and Aerodeliria like this

No, just no.Perhaps someday, many, many years down road... maybe. Now? With the technology where it is? Absolutely not.

 

I was talking with my son the other night about this exact same thing (he's a HS pitcher who is phenomenal at hitting his spots) and even he completely despised the idea of it.

 

I get it that it may be coming to baseball, but it doesn't mean that it isn't a bad idea.  

    • Steve Lein, pbrezeasap, jbissell and 2 others like this

 

I would like to see a challenge system. Batters have 1 second to challenge. Umps push a button which displays a green or red light for ball or strike. It would take a total of 2 seconds.
It might even save time that would have been spent by the batter arguing.

Why bother with all of this just to avoid automated balls and strikes?

    • mikelink45 likes this

 

And as several commenters pointed out, a four second wait for the call is not a four second delay. Catchers don't wait to throw the ball back till they hear the call. And umpires don't shout the call simultaneously with the ball's arrival now. In any case to speed of the computer will only increase.

A four-second wait for the call is pretty bad, though. MLB average time for a steal attempt of 2nd base is only 2 seconds. I think this will have to come down to play at the MLB level.

    • Platoon and snap4birds like this

 

Really, though, the best solution would be to flash the call immediately on the scoreboard. The ump could still shout it out too. But it makes no sense for the computer's call to go only to him. It should flash red or green on the scoreboard the second it registers. Problem solved. The only reason to make the whole stadium wait for him to relay it is to cater to the umpires' egos. Which is exactly what we are trying to get rid of. If the ump thinks there was a glitch and wants to review it he can call for a replay. But there's no reason to delay every call so the ump can think about whether he wants to overrule it, or worse yet, overrule it without even letting people know!

It's not necessarily about egos -- the most practical way to get the call is by looking at home plate. Everybody is already looking there for the pitch/swing. And beyond relaying the automated ball/strike call, there are immediate related calls too which may still be the subjective domain of the umpire -- check swing, foul tip, strike 3 in the dirt, etc.

 

You are correct that there will need to be some procedures to deal with system failures/errors. I'm not quite sure what that would look like yet, mainly because I don't know what the failures/errors will look like in the finished system, or how frequently they might occur. But a sensible procedure for dealing with them doesn't necessarily require using the scoreboard as auditor.

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Hosken Bombo Disco
Nov 06 2019 12:17 PM

No, just no.Perhaps someday, many, many years down road... maybe. Now? With the technology where it is? Absolutely not.
 
I was talking with my son the other night about this exact same thing (he's a HS pitcher who is phenomenal at hitting his spots) and even he completely despised the idea of it.
 
I get it that it may be coming to baseball, but it doesn't mean that it isn't a bad idea.

I can respect that.

Is it the sinking breaking pitch that clips the bottom front of the plate that you don’t like? Would you be ok if the rulebook strike zone was changed, so that that pitch remained a ball, not a strike?
    • MN_ExPat likes this

Lets give them some credit , professional hitters and pitchers will adapt. There has been too much emphasis made to learn how to steal pitches the past few years. Players have adapted to this and any fan watching TV can clearly see how wrong a truly stolen pitch is. The art of stealing pitches has just moved us closer to eliminating the human from calling pitches.Of course this we would also eliminate the call to first base or third base umpires for their opinion of the swing.

There will still be an umpire at home plate, but he will be calling plays like every other base umpire.

 

 

 

    • h2oface, Hosken Bombo Disco and Nine of twelve like this

10 years after they install robo-umps we will have forgotten why we ever worried about it.It will be natural and organic and "no big deal".:)

    • ashbury, nicksaviking, h2oface and 3 others like this

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