Are robot umpires best for future of baseball?
MESA, Ariz. — With the outcry of how technology was the culprit in the Houston Astros 2017 sign-stealing scandal still fresh in fans’ minds, Major League Baseball is taking a giant leap into the high-tech era.
The good people that work for commissioner Rob Manfred will be implementing automated Umpire machines in Class A this season as they move toward this type of ball and strike computation becoming closer to a reality in the big leagues. Then again, imagine a world without Earl Weaver or Bobby Cox getting thrown out in a heated argument with the home plate umpire.
With pitch-framing by catchers trying to steal strikes for pitchers and varying ball and strike zones called by individual umpires, the consistency of a machine computing a true strike zone is very appealing to MLB and many people in the game.
Players have been arguing with umpires about what pitch is considered in a strike zone since the Chicago Cubs forerunner The Chicago White Stockings and the early formation of the National League began play in 1876. Albert Spalding, the White Stocking’s first ace pitcher, had a 47-12 record in the team’s inaugural season and was without question debating the strike zone the same way Jon Lester would over 125 years later.
Cubs players have a mixed view of the need for this type of drastic change in the game. After 144 years of a home plate arbiter yelling ‘stee-rike three’, the man in blue raising his arm has become a nostalgic staple of the game. The essence of what hitters do throughout the season is adjust to the umpire in charge of the dish each game.
“That is a tough one to get your thoughts around,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said when analyzing with a machine or human behind the plate. “As hitters, it might just depend on the day you ask us. You might say we don’t need it but if you think you are getting bad calls, the reaction might be let’s bring on the electric strike zone. It will be good to hear how it works and get feedback from pitchers and hitters. I still think it is a while away from being used here. It’s a big change. A really big change. I would like the calls to be right so we will see.”
The human element has been so much of the color of the game. Interactions between umpires, players and managers for the most part have already been taken out of the game with the replay system. Will this umpiring by a machine be satisfactory?
“It better be good,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “The strike zone is not what the rule book says. If you’re going to go strictly by the rules, you are going to have a lot of pissed off players. When a fan sees the ball cross the plate, that is not the strike zone. The umpire sees if the ball crosses the plate before the catcher handles it. I believe it would have to take a lot of trial and error before we get to that point.”
The game has become boring to some and lethargic to many other fans. Taking the home plate ump and making him a strike machine mechanic would be colorless.
“Even when there is arguing for the sake of arguing, has value for managers, players and umpires,” Bryant insisted. “That kind of gets a team going sometimes. The fans would miss that. It’s always fun to see people lose their tempers and show their passion for the game. I was talking with Lou Piniella about that the other day. People sometimes want to see the manager in the face of three different umpires. Who did that better than Lou? He was one of the best of all time. Baseball should be fun.”
The creativity and politics of the game would be gone with an umpire made of steel and bolts.
“In this league, you have to earn the strike zone,” Rizzo said about the normal progression of a young player breaking into the big leagues to becoming an All-Star player. “When you are a rookie, you’re not getting the borderline pitches Barry Bonds or David Ortiz got. You must play and play hard, for the umpires to see that. They eventually respect your demeanor more and you earn their respect. That has always been the way the game has been. Now, where it is going is the question. All things are evolving in baseball. The machine might work but the numbers would drop.
There still could be some fun with a machine calling the third strike.
“If there is a robot, you can just beat it with a bat on a bad call,” Bryant said in jest. “I think it’s good that they are trying to improve all aspects of the game.”
Bruce Levine is a regular contributor for Marquee Sports Network and 670 AM The Score.