Major League Baseball has been developing an Automated Ball-Strike System that trains computers to determine whether or not a pitch arrives over home plate within the designated ideal strike zone. The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball — one of the premier minor "farm leagues" of the MLB — has been testing out this technology at real life ball games.
The New Yorker has a great story on it:
Most players refer to it as the "robo-umpire." Major League Baseball had designed the system and was testing it in the Atlantic League, where Fred DeJesus works. The term "robo-umpire" conjures a little R2-D2 positioned behind the plate, beeping for strikes and booping for balls. But, for aesthetic and practical reasons, M.L.B. wanted human umpires to announce the calls, as if playacting their former roles. So DeJesus had his calls fed to him through an earpiece, connected to a modified missile-tracking system. The contraption looked like a large black pizza box with one glowing green eye; it was mounted above the press box. When the first pitch came in, a recorded voice told DeJesus it was a strike. He announced it, and no one in the ballpark said anything.
When the robots came, the arguments basically stopped. After the Ducks game, I met DeJesus outside the ballpark. "There were six calls that I disagreed with," he said, referring to the words that came through his earpiece from the robot. "One pitch was right down the middle. I went to call strike three, and it said, 'Ball,' and I went, 'Ball!' And I looked at both dugouts." No one had come out to argue. He continued, "I miss the battles."
My first job was umpiring. I was about twelve years old, one of dozens of kids my age trained under the tutelage of Arnie Mann, who was supposedly a big deal, or so we were told. Whatever his accolades, he was a baseball drill sergeant. "Where's your strike zone?" he'd growl, and we'd all shout out back in unison the words that he had taught us: "From the nose to the toes! Nobody walks but the mailman!" The other umping idiom that still resonates in my mind was Arnie's steadfast rejection of "The tie goes to the runner." The rules of baseball are clear, he'd say. The runner has beat to the ball to the bag. If the runner ties, that means they didn't beat the ball. And that means you're outta heah!
Despite being young, I don't remember being heckled by too many parents; it was still little league, after all. We were paid a flat rate per game, which incentivized us to get out of there as fast as possible. But my dad still likes to remind me of one particular I ump'd (he came out to watch sometimes) where it was next-to-impossible for me to determine whether the runner had actually beat the ball to the bag. The players' parents all waited with bated breath for me to make the call. Instead, I did what Arnie Mann had taught us to do: consult with the other umpire.
As I learned that day, there are few things that infuriate grown men more than the acknowledgement of uncertainty, followed a good faith attempt at resolution. Clearly I was not long for the umpiring life — and unlike Mr. DeJesus, I do not miss the battles. But I worry about the disappointments of those angry men who rely on heckling Little League players and umps to relive their past glories. Perhaps they'll yield to their robot overlords as they unquestioningly assert their strike zones, impressed by the machine's unwavering confidence. Will they have to find a new outlet for their anger? Will they allow their own baseball folk idioms to change in order to fit the determinations of a supposedly-more-precise robot umpire? Or will the junk-in-junk-out theory of the algorithm destroy the game forever?
And more importantly, how long until we replace pitchers with those AI-equipped batting cage pitch machines?
Invasion of the Robot Umpires [Zach Helfand / The New Yorker]
Image via YouTube