Can Umpires and Pitch-Tracking Coexist?

Rob Manfred might be distancing himself from robot umps.

Last October, Manfred addressed and seemed open to the idea that tracking systems could be used to call balls and strikes:

“As technology continues to improve and those sorts of adjustments can be made [in] real time, that technology will become more feasible for use on the field. I don’t believe we are there yet.”

But last week, while speaking with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the MLB commissioner seemed to back away from the idea of turning over ball and strike calls to machines.

“I don’t believe the current technology is sufficient to call balls and strikes on a real-time basis,’’ Manfred says. “If and when we get to that technology — and sooner or later we’re going to get there — there’s still a fundamental question about whether or not we want to remove that human element from the game.

“There is a human aspect to that, a work aspect to it, that’s always been an important part of our game… I don’t think you can just jump to the conclusion that if you have the technology to do it that’s the right thing for your product.”

Added Nightengale: “Bravo.”

As indicated by Nightengale’s response, there’s still plenty of resistance to technology in the game — or anything that challenges tradition.

Maybe we’re further away from seeing automated calls than some thought, a fact that might be frustrating to Ian Kinsler and Joe Maddon, both of whom have voiced frustrations with calls recently.

Still, it seems the technology will eventually get there. The systems in place today can call the east-west zones more accurately than umpires, though determining the north-south zones have yet to be solved. Given the relatively short window within which sophisticated pitch-tracking has become available, however, the solution is likely to arrive sooner than later.

When it does, the question is whether baseball will be willing to use it.

While a perfect strike zone might never exist even with the introduction of radar and computers, it seems a more consistent zone could be created by turning ball and strike calls over to robot umpires. The strike zone continues to evolve year by year, according to Jon Roegele’s analysis, and I wrote earlier this year how a more consistent strike zone could help teams and players with in-game strategy and big-picture planning.

For instance, if a club had built a team designed to take advantage of the lower part of the strike zone — an area which had expanded every year from 2008 to -15 — they would have been disappointed to learn that the bottom of the zone has actually contracted a bit over the last two years.

Of course, doing away with umpires could have other unintended consequences, like eroding home-field advantage, for example.

The debate seems to center around whether consistency and integrity of the zone is worth sacrificing the human element. Umpires might soon have another issue around which to express solidarity: a fight against technology.

Perhaps what’s being missed, though, is that this doesn’t have to be debate about whether technology should render human umpires redundant. Home-plate umpires would still likely exist even with automated ball and strike calls, and technology could free them to focus on other tasks.

In some ways, the debate has already been settled: as I noted on Monday, Statcast (and PITCHf/x before it) is collecting the same data for which scouts were once responsible. We no longer need scouts to calculate pop times and lead lengths. Not at the major-league level, certainly, and — depending on the proliferation of pitch-tracking systems — probably soon not at the minor-league level, either. That doesn’t mean the scout is incapable of adding value. The introduction of ever more sophisticated technology don’t mean the computer and the human umpire cannot coexist.

There’s been this idea that the human umpire could be responsible for north-south calls while tracking systems call the east-west zone. Beyond the prospect of that somewhat intricate hybrid solution, however, there’s this: with the home-plate umpire freed of ball-strike calls, he could better serve another important function — that is, on-field traffic cop.

Consider the present concerns about pace of play. The commissioner has expressed his intentions to help make game move more quickly — and rightfully so, as the amount of time between pitches continues to increase. This is at a moment in the game’s history when balls in play are at an all-time low.

Pace isn’t just about pitchers taking forever to throw, it’s about batters stepping out of the box. Since MLB and the union agreed to drop fines for batters who violate pace rules, I have doubts about how well batters are adhering to the rule and about how interested umpires are in enforcing it. But without ball-strike calls, the umpire could focus on seconds between pitch and keeping batters in the box. The home-plate umpire could focus on keeping the game moving. It’s not as interesting a job title or responsibility — and there would be other duties that remain — but the role would still serve a purpose.

Some have wondered what a game might look like without umpires involved with ball-strike calls.

Wrote ESPN’s Buster Olney recently:

Last weekend, ESPN’s Will Dorney — in St. Louis to do graphics for Sunday Night Baseball — mentioned an idea that you could envision the moment he said it out loud: Strike and strikeout music for the home pitchers, activated automatically by the strike zone electronics.

In other words: walk-off music for pitchers.

Just imagine: Craig Kimbrel is trying to work his way through a tense situation. Bases loaded and two outs, Aaron Judge at the dish, and Kimbrel tries to do what the Red Sox pitchers tried to do repeatedly against Judge on Friday night — attacking the top of the strike zone.

And with a full count, Kimbrel nicks the strike zone, and in an instant, there is a flash of red on the scoreboard, and Kimbrel’s strikeout music is activated.

The umpires have understood for decades the importance of letting the fans and players know the outcome of important pitches, which is how and why so many came to develop their own personal style for signaling a strike three.

But even if they are not calling balls and strikes, a home-plate umpire could still serve roles, and new ones, and peacefully coexist with a computer. Computers can give us a more accurate, consistent game and they could help umpires give us a quicker, more satisfying one.

Maybe this shouldn’t be an either/or debate. We should instead focus on what the computer and human do well and build around those strengths.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

newest oldest most voted
fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

There is a middle ground.
Instead of using the tech to replace the umpire, you give the tech to the ump to help them do the job better.

The tech already exists to give umps a visor that overlays a player’s strike zone in their field of view and that can freeze a marker showing where the ball crossed the strike zone volume. (It’s pricey, ~$3000 per visor, but it exists.) The strike zone presented would be independent of the ump’s position so the ump’s posture and angle and catcher framing would have no impact.

The ump still makes the call.
But he doesn’t rely just on his eyeballs.
Instead of replacing the ump, you augment him.
(And since the visor feed can be recorded and shared it’ll cut down on whining and arguing. It’ll make for faster games, too.)

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

Yeah, the augmented reality technology angle is interesting, and more feasible than truly automated strike zones IMO. Frankly, $3000 is a fairly trivial expense compared even to umpire salaries.

mikejunt
Member
Member
mikejunt

This is almost certainly the way to go, but first we’ll have to get the strikezone readings right.

I watched a game last week in Detroit where the strike zone was just about 2 inches off left to right, to say nothing of the challenges with the top and bottom of the zone changing from batter to batter and pitch to pitch.

That’s the part of the technology that isn’t there yet. While in aggregate the readings are accurate, we’re not interested in in aggregate results on a single pitch in a playoff game.

some guy
Member
some guy

I was going to say pretty much tha same thing. Your response beat me by an hour.
It would seem to reason that if we all have StatCast in near-live time, that could be incorporated into a pair of Oakleys and an overlay to what they see live. Reviewing the calls can help tweak the systems. It could also include a timer to assist with pace of play.

eldurko
Member
Member
eldurko

Couldn’t agree more. I envision, basically the home plate ump wearing Google glass. I’m all about change, but I can’t imagine having to reach to a scoreboard to know ball/strike calls. Part of the entertainment for fans (and emotion for players) is built into the immediacy and presentation of the calls. With augmented umps, you keep that, but give the ump another tool aside from his eyes (well, he’d being using his eyes on the tool, but I digress…) to make the call.

The Guru
Member
The Guru

what the hell is the difference….the umps standing their? Thats just optics. Your still using the computer. It still deletes the catchers out of the game, why is everyone trying to change the game all of the sudden? why play with 9, lets just play with 8. Ridiculous

Psychic... Powerless...
Member
Psychic... Powerless...

Well-reasoned and thoughtful argument.