MLB: Are robotic umpires really the future of baseball?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 15: MLB umpire Angel Hernandez gestures during a game between the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals on June 15, 2019 at the Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Royals 5-4. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 15: MLB umpire Angel Hernandez gestures during a game between the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals on June 15, 2019 at the Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Royals 5-4. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images) /

The traditional game of baseball might soon see some dramatic changes, including at the Major League Baseball level. Will MLB finally pull the trigger on robotic umpires?

In 2022, the plan for a 10-team independent professional baseball league, the Atlantic League, had ideas to implement an automated ball-strike system that will help assist umpires with calling pitches. The MLB had partnered with the Atlantic League to test and trial this new automated ball-strike system. However, the Atlantic League pulled the plug on this new technology and reverted to traditional baseball.

It is unclear why the Atlantic League shied away from this new technology, but even though the Atlantic League is returning to traditional baseball does not mean MLB is abandoning this new system completely.

According to CBS Sports, “Although the Atlantic League is dropping the automated ball-strike system, it appears MLB could be installing the system at the Triple-A level.” MLB used the automated ball-strike system (ABS) in some minor leagues in 2021. The ABS will allow Major League Baseball to take calls out of human hands. Currently, the minor leagues are considering this new technology, and will provide a glimpse into baseball’s future.  No official declaration has been made, but MLB began posting jobs for positions to operate the automated ball and strike system in select Spring Training venues in Florida, in Triple-A West and Low-A Southeast. This technology will be taking the argument of balls and strikes out of baseball completely.

As a fan, it is difficult to watch baseball when the umpire is extremely inconsistent. According to sports analysts, robotic umps will speed up and clean up the gameplay.

What is an automated ball-strike system?

According to CBS News, “ABS (automated ball-strike system) tracks pitches with technology similar to what broadcasters use to show viewers the pitch location. Now, that virtual box is making the actual call.” The TrackMan also known as robot umps, sits above home plate and acts as a radar. The TrackMan is a virtual box (3-D doppler radar) that analyzes each pitch thrown. This technology uses a strike zone that can calibrate each batter’s size and stance. The strike zone will be adjusted based on each batter’s size. For example, a 6-foot-7 player will not have the same strike zone as a 5-foot-7 player. Umpires will be used strictly to communicate the calls when received through an earpiece. Human error will be completely taken out of the game.

Here is the sequence of events when a pitch is thrown.

  1. Pitch gets thrown
  2. TrackMan tracks and identifies the pitch’s location
  3. Phone tells umpire whether it’s a ball or strike
  4. Umpire physically makes the call behind the plate

The earpiece for Freddie DeJesus, the first home-plate umpire for the first regular season Atlantic League game to utilize TrackMan to determine balls and strikes, is now a part of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It seems only a matter of time until these robotic umps are implemented into the MLB.

The automated strike zone isn’t perfect

During the 2021 season, the Arizona Fall League experimented with the automated strike zone, and it was an epic failure. The new technology is not as accurate as people make it seem. Hitters throughout the Arizona Fall League season were getting rung up on pitches catchers were scooping out of the dirt. Also, players were getting rung up by balls that crossed somewhere near the middle of a hitter’s chest. Pitches were getting called strikes if it passes through any part of the strike zone.

Pitchers and hitters both hated this new technology and it slowed down the game even more. For example, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies played each other, and the game was called after seven and a half innings because both teams ran out of pitchers. The two teams issued a combined 22 walks. The seven and a half innings took three hours. This game raised a red flag for the MLB when trying to implement this new technology.

Jacob Hayward was called out on a terrible call by the robotic umpire!

Will robotic umps ruin baseball?

It is difficult to tell if robotic umps will ruin baseball completely, but if it helps umpires like Angel Hernandez become more consistent, then the sky is the limit. These robotic umps are there to assist human umpires when calling balls and strikes. Currently, there are too many inconsistent umpires in the game. These inconsistent calls can cause a team to win or lose. Regular umpires are a huge component of traditional baseball, and it will be difficult to adjust to these types of changes right away.

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As a fan, arguing balls and strikes make watching baseball 10 times more fun. If MLB implements robotic umps, I wonder if the fan attendance and views go down? Fans like watching some action and might shy away if arguing with umpires goes down. It will be interesting to see what the future of baseball will look like in a few years.