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You’re going to see the robot umpires sooner than you think

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And this will be a good thing.

Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

I’m not going to bury the lede here, so let’s get right to it:

Evan Drellich says “also” because the interview with Commissioner Rob Manfred on FOX Business was largely about the sign-stealing scandals involving the Astros and Red Sox. Here, though, I want to focus on the “robot umpire system,” which, as you know, doesn’t involve actual robots.

Here I’m going to go back to Jayson Stark’s column at The Athletic in which he wrote about quite a number of things he thinks will happen in the decade of the 2020s. One of those things was such a system, which probably should be better termed the “automatic strike zone.”

Last year, there were experiments in the Atlantic League and Arizona Fall League. In 2020, sources say, the electronic zone will be phased in in the Florida State League. A year from now, you could see it used extensively throughout the minor leagues. And what’s next? You know exactly what’s next.

We regret to report that you won’t see an actual robot, hanging out behind the catcher, signaling balls and strikes. Instead, human umps will relay the calls from the newly implemented Hawk-Eye technology, which will replace TrackMan throughout the sport in 2020.

Given that MLB now is interested in trying this system out in spring training games, you will almost certainly see it used in 2021 in more minor leagues — maybe even all the minor leagues, if the trial in the Florida State League works out.

I will be quite interested to see what happens if this system is used during a Cubs spring game. Will we be able to notice the difference? And Stark also writes that this could change the strike zone as we know it, because last summer’s experiments showed that computers call balls and strikes somewhat differently than human beings do:

“There are lots of pitches,” said one official involved with that experiment, “that literally no one on the field thinks are strikes — but are still called strikes [by the computers].”

So does baseball really want to move into a solar system in which a plummeting breaking ball that nicks the bottom of the rulebook strike zone — but then gets caught by the catcher an inch off the ground — is now a strike? Kind of an important question, don’t you think? So before this sport decides to introduce an electronic strike zone, it needs to contemplate a critical question:

What does it want the strike zone to look like once the robots are in charge?

That’s a really good question. We are all familiar with the strike-zone box that shows up on TV broadcasts:

There had been six pitches thrown in that at-bat to Jason Heyward last September 16 (he walked on the next pitch). You’d think you know whether all those pitches were balls or strikes from the positioning in the box, but you could be wrong because the strike zone is not two-dimensional, it’s three-dimensional. It looks like one of those pitches caught the corner of the zone — but the automated system might not think that.

I wrote this full article last October about how players viewed the automated strike zone that was tried out in the Arizona Fall League. Twins prospect Royce Lewis was quoted in a MLB.com article I linked in my piece:

“With that zone, I think they are technically strikes or they’re clipping the zone, but as far as human nature … an umpire that’s human would realize that’s not a hittable pitch for someone that’s throwing 98 and has a breaker at 80, like Justin Verlander, or someone that’s just unhittable, and that wouldn’t be fair to the hitters,” Lewis said. “I think with the robo-ump, that’s the only part they can’t distinguish yet. Whatever they do, I’m sure it’ll be better.”

That’s correct, and that’s something that will have to be addressed when (note I say “when” and not “if”) an automated strike zone is instituted. Will the zone need to be adjusted? Stark thinks so:

One thing that’s clear: It won’t look like that zone the umpires have been calling all these years. So does that mean raising it? Lowering it? Shrinking it? Expanding it? Or just doing a bunch of tweaks here and there?

That’s the single biggest question that has to get resolved before the robots are unleashed on a major league game near you. And when the time comes to answer that question, won’t that be a fun little debate?

This is also correct, and that’s why all these experiments are happening. I welcome it to spring training, wherever it might happen, and to the Florida State League this year and perhaps other minor leagues in 2021. The timing is notable because the MLB/MLBPA basic agreement ends after the 2021 season. It seems as if MLB would like to have this system in place for the 2022 season. I’m all for that, but they certainly have to make sure the communication system works (there were glitches in the Atlantic League in 2019) and that the strike zone is workable for everyone before it comes into play in regular-season or postseason games.

But bring it on. It’s time we got all these calls right.

Poll

An automated strike zone (the so-called "robot umpire")...

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Do it! The zone should be called the way it is in the rule book
    (362 votes)
  • 20%
    Nope. Need the "human element"
    (100 votes)
  • 5%
    Don’t care either way
    (29 votes)
491 votes total Vote Now