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We are one step closer to having ‘robot umpires’

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The new deal MLB signed with the umpires union calls for the development of an automated ball-and-strike system.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Remember this called third strike on Tony Kemp last August 13?

It’s pitch 5. Which is clearly not a strike, as shown here:

There was a runner on first and nobody out in the top of the ninth when that horrendous call happened, and it was this horrendous:

Now, would the Cubs have won that game if Kemp’s at-bat had continued? Of course, we’ll never know.

The good news I have this morning regarding bad calls like that is that soon, they could be a thing of the past. The five-year deal the Major League Baseball Umpires Association signed with MLB Saturday includes an agreement to create and test a computerized ball-and-strike system:

Umpires agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in the development and testing of an automated ball-strike system as part of a five-year labor contract announced Saturday, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association also agreed to cooperate and assist if Commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the major league level. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because those details of the deal, which is subject to ratification by both sides, had not been announced.

The AP article linked above goes on to describe the system MLB is testing in conjunction with the independent Atlantic League and continues:

MLB has discussed installing the system at the Class A Florida State League for 2020. If that test goes well, the computer umps could be used at Triple-A in 2021 as bugs are dealt with prior to a big league callup.

This is all a great sign for the future. With the advent of high-definition TV cameras over the last decade, the TrackMan system and things such as the Gameday image I posted above, missed ball-and-strike calls have become much more obvious to everyone. Moving to an automated ball-and-strike system wouldn’t eliminate any umpiring jobs, as the article notes:

Humans still will be needed to determine checked swings and to make sure TrackMan doesn’t call a strike on a pitch that bounces and goes through the strike zone.

Based on the timeline noted above, the earliest we’d likely see an automated ball-and-strike system in the major leagues would be 2022. MLB should do as much testing of this system as is needed before putting it in big-league games, perhaps also using it in the Arizona Fall League or in spring training. We don’t want such a system to be implemented only to find out that it has major bugs or failures.

Lastly, if such a system is indeed implemented, it will mean a huge change in the sorts of catchers teams require — because the skill of pitch framing will no longer be needed.

It’s good news, though, that the so-called “robot umpires” might be coming to a big-league ballpark near you very soon.