Robot Umpires: They aren’t coming all the way in yet, but . . .

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27: Umpire Lance Barksdale #23 looks on in Game Five of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27: Umpire Lance Barksdale #23 looks on in Game Five of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

Robot Umpires: They aren’t coming all the way in yet, but…

More from Call to the Pen

As it happens, I’ve read Noë’s book, in which you’ll find an individual chapter on umpiring, “Nobody’s Perfect” (That’s what former umpire Jim Joyce is said to have said when apologizing for blowing Armando Gallaraga’s perfect game on what should have been the final play ten years ago.) He observes two views of umpires. One, which he calls “Realism,” is the umpire as an instrument. The other, which he calls “Anti-Realism,” views “the umpire as a special class of player in the game.”

The Realists, Noë writes, can’t make sense of resting on “what the umpire says, goes”; the Anti-Realists, he continues, can’t account for baseball’s “forensic side” that includes “the judgment that the pitcher delivered a pitch that the batter ought to have hit.” He prefers what he calls “Internal Realism,” which accepts “that there can be legitimate disputes about whether a runner was really out, or whether a ball was in the strike zone . . . A concern for whether a call was correctly made is something we do precisely from the inside.”

He didn’t come right out and mention robot umpires. But what of replay, what of electronic, technological balls-and-strikes measurement?

"This is a hard question to answer, in part because we can reasonably wonder whether this question about the reform of baseball practises is itself an internal or an external question. Insofar as the Internal Realist is a Realist, then we must acknowledge that the outcome of disputes matters. But insofar as we are Anti-Realist, then we must acknowledge that to change the basic character of the baseball practise is, really, to change what it is for something to be a ball or a strike, a fair or foul ball; it is to shift and transform baseball reality."

Enough umpires have shifted and transformed baseball reality over about three decades. Reality check, if you’ll pardon the expression: Few of those shifts and transformations have been more profound, and troubling, than the umpires’ continuing individual strike zones, contravening the rules’ prescription that the strike zone properly construed is defined by the batter in the box.

Next. Someone go get Ryan McMahon. dark

A third view of umpires, also developed over several decades, which surely abetted the long march toward technological assistance, is that a few (too many) umpires behave as laws unto themselves. That’s never been good even for the humans including umpires who collectively constitute this thing we call the game, either.