The Plusses and Minuses of Robot Umpires


Human beings are, regrettably, imperfect.  For this reason, they built machines in an attempt to achieve a higher degree of perfection.

Umpires are part of baseball tradition.  The image of the slightly overweight, friendly, grunting guy hunched behind the plate (no, I’m not talking about Jose Molina) is infused into the very idea of baseball.  The emphatic upward arm thrust for a called third strike.  The moment of anticipation we experience the split-second before the umpire calls a bang-bang play at first base.  And there’s a line drive base hit to center field! The runner rounding third, heading home!  Here’s the throw to the plate, and….he’s OUT! Somehow, it’s just less exciting without these guys.

The idea of “robot umpires” has been jokingly discussed many a time when an umpire screws up a call, but I’m going to talk about it as a legitimate option.  The dilemma we face is simple: does the ~98% success rate of pitch-calling, out-calling, and home run-ruling done by a pitchtracker outweigh the ~90% success rate of said rulings done by an umpire?  How important are umpires to baseball?  Should we accept the fact that umpires will never be perfect, or should we strive to achieve the most accuracy possible in the game of baseball?

Let’s look through Utilitarian eyes.  How many good things and how many bad things are there about “robot umpires?”

Human Umpires:

  1. Great entertainment value, as previously stated.  (Good)
  2. Provide for day-to-day strategical challenges for pitchers and hitters.  Most umpires have slightly different strike zones. (Good)
  3. Make the wrong call 8-9% (rough estimate) of the time. (Bad)
  4. Add a bit of spice to the game of baseball.  Mistakes are part of life anyway. (Good or bad)

Robot Umpires:

  1. Increased accuracy of strike/ball calling and outs on the basepaths. (Good)
  2. Lack of variation — All calls are more or less the same. (Good or bad, depending on your position)
  3. Impersonal, mechanical air to game. (Bad)
  4. Boring, boring, boring. (Bad)
  5. A significant and controversial change — People wouldn’t want to come to games. (Bad unless you’re Tampa Bay, in which case you already had that problem)

We get 2.5 good and 1.5 bad for human umpires, and 1.5 good and 3.5 bad for machine umpires.  My observations aren’t the complete story; everyone is entitled to their opinion.

There is the option of keeping the umpires, but only as dummies.  Someone could be reading pitch f/x data and relay the correct call to the home plate umpire through a headset.  Ultimately, Major League Baseball isn’t likely to make a change this radical, but that doesn’t mean we can’t slowly inch closer to a higher level of accuracy in baseball.