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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

IIRC in the Atlantic league the plate umpire could overrule a "mistake" by the bot? Seems odd that such perfection would need correction by a mere mortal? I imagine Robo umps are coming. I really do not think they will improve the game. Something will be lost. That said, I will gladly be on board with Robo perfection once the players all play and the managers all manage to perfection, and the vendors don't spill any beer. Why do we expect perfection from 4 guys on the field, and not from the other 30,000 in the stadium? I would think that the fiascos the NFL is going through attempting to perfect football officiating would be enough forewarning?

 

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.

 

That big time curveball IS a strike! It is a great pitcher's pitch, just what the game is supposed to do.... encourage the talent it takes to be able to make a pitch like that, that just barely makes it into the zone! To make a pitch that is a strike and the hitters can't hit! That is baseball. That is what a pitcher is supposed to do! Just because the umpires are too inadequate to make the right call, instead of the wrong call on those pitches, does NOT mean it isn't a great pitch, and a strike, and always has been, regardless of the umpire's error. This is like saying an umpire "was consistent", and that is OK, even if he was consistently wrong with his own imagined strike zone all game.

 

Amazing how one can call a pitch from a video from behind the catcher with the view of the ball totally blocked. I will not be one of the "you" that will hate the change.

 

If the system goes down, the ump just steps in and makes the call with no delay. He will already be standing there, just like the court judge is sitting in his chair at a tennis match. Not a big deal.

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theBOMisthebomb
Nov 06 2019 05:36 PM

IIRC in the Atlantic league the plate umpire could overrule a "mistake" by the bot? Seems odd that such perfection would need correction by a mere mortal? I imagine Robo umps are coming. I really do not think they will improve the game. Something will be lost. That said, I will gladly be on board with Robo perfection once the players all play and the managers all manage to perfection, and the vendors don't spill any beer. Why do we expect perfection from 4 guys on the field, and not from the other 30,000 in the stadium? I would think that the fiascos the NFL is going through attempting to perfect football officiating would be enough forewarning?

The NFL is trying to monitor discretionary calls such as pass interference. You could have 10 NFL reps all watch the same disputed PI call and get a 50/50 split the majority of the time. The strike zone should (theoretically) be a target that is immovable with each batter and not open to interpretation. It's either a strike based on the agreed upon zone or it isn't. I would be happy with balls/strikes being robot enforced and do away with the other replay in MLB and just play the game.

Just pondering. This may be out thinking the box but do you analyze free agent pitchers differently after an announced shift to robots before you sign them.

The NFL is trying to monitor discretionary calls such as pass interference. You could have 10 NFL reps all watch the same disputed PI call and get a 50/50 split the majority of the time. The strike zone should (theoretically) be a target that is immovable with each batter and not open to interpretation. It's either a strike based on the agreed upon zone or it isn't. I would be happy with balls/strikes being robot enforced and do away with the other replay in MLB and just play the game.

The NFL also replays whether balls are catches, or ground assisted. Or whether both feet touched down inside the line? And you still cannot get total agreement on some of those calls. I dont know is some of the pro Robo crowd are expecting controversy to end due to electronic balls and strikes. If so, they will be sorely disappointed.
    • Steve Lein and MN_ExPat like this
Robot HP umpiring will be a massive mistake.

I'm not even convinced it will actually improve ball and strike calling.
    • SQUIRREL and Steve Lein like this
Just finished read in an article about this in the latest Baseball America. I'd encourage anyone and everyone to read it if possible. No way to know if the writer has a bias and only selected quotes/opinions that fit his article...I'd like to think that was not the case...but the consensus amongst both hitters and pitchers was they not only didn't like the loss of the human element, not just umpires but catchers as well.

There was a general feeling that the strike zone was actually expanded beyond the normal as the ball clipping even a fraction of the zone was called a strike, even on some pitches that hit the dirt. Steve touched on this in great detail. And while some felt the side to side of the zone may have been expanded, it wasn't entirely inaccurate, in their opinion. In fact, a few hitters felt it gave them an advantage. But those interviewed felt the horizontal plane for calls was not accurate/realistic. Again, Steve's comments touched on this.

There was also disparaging comments from both hitters and pitchers in regard to the 4 second delay.

I am sure everyone would simply adapt to the change. I'm sure tweaks could take place for more immediacy in the call, as well as plane adjustments for greater accuracy. I see no reason why a computer program couldn't also be adjusted so that a certain percentage of a ball must pass through the zone vs a tiny fraction.

But until those adjustments could be made, I'm not in favor of the robot ump and it appears the players are not either.
    • Steve Lein likes this
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biggentleben
Nov 07 2019 01:20 AM

Josh Norris is very anti-automated zone. My co-worker who was with him down in Arizona said it got to be almost comical to listen to Norris rant on the zone during automated games. I'd trust that article about as far as I can throw it.

 

Not saying all conclusions are biased, but from neutral co-workers that were at the AFL, that's not the overall consensus among players, umpires, and coaches.

    • h2oface likes this
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Aerodeliria
Nov 07 2019 02:39 AM

They'll make a movie called Robo Ump, where a robotic umpire goes rogue and starts killing batters who complain about the strike zone, but Bio Ump--half man, half machine saves the day by re-inventing the strike zone by making it so small no batter would ever complain. In Robo Ump II the pitchers get their revenge by installing robo pitchers who can throw a 273 mph fastball for a strike every single time. Rob Manfred finally finds the already retired Bio Ump living in a maintenance facility in Olympic Baseball Stadium in Montreal. He agrees to come out of hiding to save baseball once again. Bio Ump realizes he will have to destroy all of the robots and over the next two hours and seven minutes, he does just that and baseball is returned to the brutal sport that it once was.

    • ashbury, USAFChief, h2oface and 1 other like this
In RU3 a RoboNator comes back from the future to kill a 14 year old Manfred before he can start his insidious destruction of baseball with replays of shoelaces still touching the bag, a helium filled baseball in 2019, and instigating the original Robo Ump 1. It all started innocently. Simple fair or foul. Then everything was up for review by some faceless nameless and apparently AI dimished human bot in NY. Soon the sight of two guys listening on headsets next to the dugout with a quizzical look on there face caused mass confusion. What took so long? It couldn't be the Nixon tapes, the missing gap was only 18 seconds. The newest long lost Elvis release? The audio book of War and Peace? (I date myself) Eventually as is now obvious Rob survives and RU3 is taken out by by his own lack of awareness. Having transformed himself into a beer vendor on opening day, RU3 discovered what all TD readers and posters already know. Beer, especially spilt beer and electronics don't mix! One slip pouring a double 12 oz. cup ($24.00 at Twins games) was all it took. Once the smoke from the short circuit cleared there was nothing left but a small puddle of warm, stale PBR. And Manfreds campaign to destroy our National Pastime moved forward, unabated by common sense, or the AI it spawned!
    • Aerodeliria likes this

 

That big time curveball IS a strike! It is a great pitcher's pitch, just what the game is supposed to do.... encourage the talent it takes to be able to make a pitch like that, that just barely makes it into the zone! To make a pitch that is a strike and the hitters can't hit! That is baseball. That is what a pitcher is supposed to do! Just because the umpires are too inadequate to make the right call, instead of the wrong call on those pitches, does NOT mean it isn't a great pitch, and a strike, and always has been, regardless of the umpire's error. This is like saying an umpire "was consistent", and that is OK, even if he was consistently wrong with his own imagined strike zone all game.

 

Amazing how one can call a pitch from a video from behind the catcher with the view of the ball totally blocked. I will not be one of the "you" that will hate the change.

 

If the system goes down, the ump just steps in and makes the call with no delay. He will already be standing there, just like the court judge is sitting in his chair at a tennis match. Not a big deal.

 

You highlighted two sentences to argue that were immediately followed by explanations on why this is bad.

 

e.g.: Zone is too big and pitches hitters can't hit are getting called. 

 

Your statement "To make a pitch that is a strike and the hitters can't hit!" is not what I'm saying there. These aren't "pitchers pitches," these are pitches literally impossible to hit. To say those should be strikes is ludicrous.

You highlighted two sentences to argue that were immediately followed by explanations on why this is bad.

e.g.: Zone is too big and pitches hitters can't hit are getting called.

Your statement "To make a pitch that is a strike and the hitters can't hit!" is not what I'm saying there. These aren't "pitchers pitches," these are pitches literally impossible to hit. To say those should be strikes is ludicrous.


If the ball enters the zone. The ball can be hit.

The Backdoor slider that never reaches the backdoor yet called a strike is impossible to hit.

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?


You know... I think it’s more of an old school purist approach. The fact that the tech is still in its developmental infancy doesn’t help any though.

 

I just read a post by (Platoon I think?) that spoke of problems with NFL replays and folks still can’t agree on those either, and I felt it was a good point. The human factor of baseball is one of the things that make baseball... baseball. I love it and I feel that most of us do as well.

If we didn’t have the ability to argue and fret over “bad” calls, what else would we talk about during the off-season :) . But on a more serious note, I genuinely feel that Robo umps are not going to the great Industrial Revolution that many proponents feel that it will be. In the end all it will do is direct their angst in a new direction.

    • Hosken Bombo Disco likes this

I think if you gave umps 4 seconds to think about a pitch, they'd get more ball/strike calls correct.They give an immediate call that allows everyone to react. This comes into play on steals, dropped 3rd strikes, etc.  

If they get that 4 seconds down to less than a second, I'm on board.(I haven't read all the articles....I'm assuming the current system provides a ball/strike call in less than a second?)

 

 

If the ball enters the zone. The ball can be hit.

The Backdoor slider that never reaches the backdoor yet called a strike is impossible to hit.

 

For me, that's a pitch that shouldn't be called a strike. A backdoor slider caught on the edge didn't cross in the zone. That pitch needs to end up well inside the zone. Same idea as the curveballs in the dirt the system is calling.

Guaranteed to be unintended consequences. Still, might be the right move...we'll see how the tests play out. But, it's way down the list in priority of things that need to be tweaked, IMO.

 

For me, that's a pitch that shouldn't be called a strike. A backdoor slider caught on the edge didn't cross in the zone. That pitch needs to end up well inside the zone. Same idea as the curveballs in the dirt the system is calling.

 

Agreed but it happens and automation takes that away. 

 

The players will learn to hit that curveball in the dirt before it hits the dirt once it starts getting called.:)

 

Agreed but it happens and automation takes that away. 

 

The players will learn to hit that curveball in the dirt before it hits the dirt once it starts getting called.:)

 

That's one of my problem's with the current system however, it shouldn't be a strike to begin with.

 

We all seem to not recognize as well, that these systems are recent technologies. Quite frankly, I don't believe they are accurate enough to be employed in the manner people want them to be. Rob Manfred has even said the technology has a larger margin of error than they get with human umps making the calls.

 

 

    • SQUIRREL, USAFChief and DocBauer like this

That's one of my problem's with the current system however, it shouldn't be a strike to begin with.

We all seem to not recognize as well, that these systems are recent technologies. Quite frankly, I don't believe they are accurate enough to be employed in the manner people want them to be. Rob Manfred has even said the technology has a larger margin of error than they get with human umps making the calls.


If that’s the case. I don’t advocate immediate implementation.

However, I do advocate priority attention to the improvement of a system for implication as soon as possible.

LOL... I’m sick of pitch framing stats.
    • Steve Lein, h2oface and DocBauer like this

If that’s the case. I don’t advocate immediate implementation.
However, I do advocate priority attention to the improvement of a system for implication as soon as possible.
LOL... I’m sick of pitch framing stats.

I am sick of lots of stats........ Why? Because they are simply new ways to emphasize, and yes account for, things that have been baseball staples for years. And I imagine a lot of fans enjoy fine tuning the numbers. Anyone who has ever played, umpired, or even watched with attentiveness has known for years the value of framing. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that some catchers just aren't good at it. Nor do I need exit velocity, launch angle, and spin rate to know that the harder you hit the ball, in the air the further it will go. And the more revolutions you can impact unto a baseball the quicker and further it will change course. Oh, btw, just to be clear none of the above causes me to change my dislike of the Robo ump possibility.
    • SQUIRREL, Steve Lein and DocBauer like this
I am sick of bizarre and frankly wrong and ticky tac penalties in football. What really kills me is the refs in the NFL almost seem worse than the ones on college. I understand reffing or umpiring in any sport is a tough gig. And I'm in favor or quick, decisive replay to get things right. But they can't be quick, nor do they even get a lot of replays right!

I understand some calls will always require some interpretation of a rule. I accept judgement is part of the process. But no even standard is the problem, and at some point, you have to let the players actually play and see what happens.

In baseball, while there seems to be a lack of standards from one ump to another, or even during a game for bad umps, at least there isn't a replay and debate every few plays. Pitchers and hitters all benefit from bad calls, or no calls.

Don't misunderstand, I WANT the home plate umpire to call it right, or at least consistent. But IMO opinion, rules and criteria are not enforced. I get different hitters have different parameters physically, so the strike zone itself will change, at least on the vertical plane. In other words, Altuve will have a smaller strike zone than Judge on a vertical plane. Regardless, the criteria is written down in the rule book for the top and bottom of that zone. Further, you have a standard 17" wide plate that marks the horizontal plane. A hard breaking pitch can move a ton, but can the umpires really not see it crossing the plate in or out???

Unlike the NFL, MLB umpires are professional and not part time. I've always felt there was a lack of education and standards and legitimate grading system in place. If you can't perform your job consistently, then you shouldn't be doing that job!

If and when the robot ump can be tweaked to be faster in it's call, and logorhyms can be enhanced for an accepted and true "norm", I could be in favor of the change. From reading comments from batters and pitchers both, it appears they generally agree the computer interpreted zone is not fully accurate. Makes me wonder, again, is it possible a certain percentage of the ball must pass through the zone "window" to be called a strike. I'd like to think technology could allow for that in the future.

Until then, MLB needs to hold human umpires to a harder grading criteria for accuracy as it is spelled out.
    • Steve Lein and Hosken Bombo Disco like this
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Hosken Bombo Disco
Nov 07 2019 07:39 PM
I wonder if there is some confusion about what the strike zone is. The rulebook is pretty clear: it’s “that area over home plate...” and then, what a strike is, which is when “any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone.”

The slow breaking pitches the clip the front bottom of the strike zone, are strikes. The “strikes” that wind up in the dirt seem implausible, but I would like to see that graphically presented. But I think it’s possible the sharpest breaking pitches, received by catchers stationed very deep, might actually be strikes, even when they skip in the dirt.

If people wanted to change the rule book definition of a strike, and raise the low point to higher than “the hollow beneath the kneecap,” then please say so. I would probably be on board with that, actually. The more important thing to me is that umpires call strikes strikes. We are seeing too many counts go to four strikes, and by extension, too many innings extended to four outs, and that is most certainly not in the rulebook or in the spirit of the game.

And yeah what was said above, grade the umpires, offer the good umps incentives to work home plate more, and shut out the bad umpires from ever getting home plate. That would go towards solving the problem too.

/rant
    • SQUIRREL and Steve Lein like this

 

I am sick of lots of stats........ Why? Because they are simply new ways to emphasize, and yes account for, things that have been baseball staples for years. And I imagine a lot of fans enjoy fine tuning the numbers. Anyone who has ever played, umpired, or even watched with attentiveness has known for years the value of framing. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that some catchers just aren't good at it. Nor do I need exit velocity, launch angle, and spin rate to know that the harder you hit the ball, in the air the further it will go. And the more revolutions you can impact unto a baseball the quicker and further it will change course. Oh, btw, just to be clear none of the above causes me to change my dislike of the Robo ump possibility.

 

Catchers are compensated for their ability to fool umpires.

 

That sentence alone can't be beaten in any argument for the human element.:)

 

 

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biggentleben
Nov 08 2019 09:37 AM

I asked Kiley in his chat yesterday at FanGraphs how long he saw the robot umps being implemented in minor league ball before making their MLB debut, and his response was a few years.

Catchers are compensated for their ability to fool umpires.
 
That sentence alone can't be beaten in any argument for the human element.:)

Well if they are I feel Mitch Garver will be one of the lower paid catchers in baseball year after year. I wish that we would put as much expectation on the players as we do on the officials. Don't get me wrong, I have barked at many an umpire in my life, way many. But that does not change the fact that we expect perfection from them, and at the same time seem quite enthralled with an entire infield that can do only one half of their proscribed duties, the offensive half, with any apparent proficiency. We are enthralled with a catcher who can hit, but couldn't block a four year old from getting into the candy drawer. A cleanup hitter who swings at pitches in a different zip code. But have an umpire miss some close pitches, even say 10 out of 250, and we want to mechanize it? For the players we cheer lustily for their successes and excuse their faults. For the officials we ignore their abilities, and demean their mistakes.
    • SQUIRREL likes this

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