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Thoughts on the Future of Robot Umpires



When I originally sat down to think about what to write for today, I decided to check out the Arizona Fall League results, as I really hadn’t paid much attention to the off-season league this year. Only three years ago, Gleyber Torres was the Arizona Fall League MVP, but this year there was not much excitement for Yankees fans keeping an eye on the Surprise Saguaros. Lesser-known prospects, such as Glenn Otto and Aaron McGarity, played for Surprise, who lost to the Salt River Rafters in the AzFL Championship. No Yankees made the top 25 prospects in the league.

Before I went ahead and checked on the Yankees prospects’ progress, however, I came across some interesting articles about the implementation of automated strike zones in the AzFL to test out the future of robot umpiring. Obviously, as technology has advanced the discussion of automated umpiring and refereeing has become more heated. Understandably, the transition to using more technology in calling games has been a gradual one, often garnering criticism for slowing down the game or not being used enough.

In many ways, calling balls and strikes is the pinnacle of robot umpiring. It is the part of the game that is argued about the most and I truly believe that if they were to come up with a fool-proof way of having a computer/robot/cyborg call balls and strikes, some fans wouldn’t know what to do without the ability to gripe about a missed strike call. Well, it turns out that even if robots do start calling balls and strikes, fans may still be able to loudly voice their displeasure at the results.

Without going into a deep analysis, mostly because I simply don’t have the time before this is scheduled to post, here are a few takeaways from the Arizona Fall League experiment with TrackMan calling balls and strikes.

TrackMan Strikes Again … pic.twitter.com/xh9C8Gsze1 — Josh Norris (@jnorris427) October 13, 2019

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First, TrackMan makes the call and relays it to an iPod, which relays it to an earpiece worn by the umpire, who then signals whether it was a call or a strike. It is important to note that the umpire in this situation is merely the (unfortunate) messenger. This did not keep the fans from yelling at the umpires, who technically had no call-making ability.

There have been more than a few questionable calls by TrackMan, including some strikes that landed in the dirt. Josh Norris had some good video of some calls that seemed to have both the batter and pitcher surprised.

TrackMan is pretty good at calling the inside and outside corners but struggles with breaking balls and sliders at the top and bottom. Basically, you can trust it horizontally, but there is still a lot of work to be done vertically.

From the players, there was clear frustration on both sides of the field and acknowledgment that there were a fair amount of questionable calls. However, it wasn’t all complaints. Theoretically, it takes away any ability to argue balls and strikes, hurrying up the game. Arguing with the computer is going to get you tossed by one of the human umpires, so you might as well bite your tongue.

Of course, this does change the game a bit for catchers who have become skilled in framing pitches. With TrackMan, framing pitches to try to get a strike call is a wasted effort.

Overall, I must admit I’ve long resisted the idea of a computer calling balls and strikes, but I’m slowly coming around on it. So far it is clear that the system isn’t ready for the Majors, but it’s closer than I thought.

What are your thoughts?

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