Will baseball ever replace umpires with robots?

While the hunt for baseball's creator reads like a mystery, baseball's sporting history is less cloudy: It originated from rounders and, to a lesser degree, cricket, and it was recognized as a professional sport in the middle of the 19th century. The function of the umpire is one of several regulations that set baseball apart from rounders. Every pitch in a baseball game, whether a strike or a ball, is called by the home-plate umpire. The home-plate umpire is required by the game's rules to call every play, unlike umpires in other sports who only make calls when necessary (such as out-of-bounds, fouls, and close plays). The home-plate umpire's play-calling is so obvious and occasionally contentious since there are no lines drawn around the strike zone that efforts have been made for more than a century to increase its accuracy through automation.

The "electrical umpire," a gadget that employed light beams to detect a ball traveling through the strike zone and take “the guesswork out of calling ‘balls’ and ‘strikes’" was listed among new sports technologies in a Popular Science roundup of June 1939. Although the robotic home-plate umpire introduced in 1939 was among the first to employ "electric eyes," it wasn't the first device to be installed on a baseball pitch. A low-tech automatic home-plate umpire that would take the guessing out of baseball training camps, small leagues, and carnivals was also detailed in a Popular Science article from July 1916. The 1916 invention had a canvas sheet with a strike zone-sized aperture cut into it, and a ball-return register in the manner of a bowling alley served as its backstop.

“The whole premise of officiating is the balance of art and science,” says Brenda Hilton, senior director of officiating for the Big Ten Conference and founder of Officially Human, a group working to improve how sports officials are treated, particularly at the high school and lower levels. “Do people really want to play or watch when there are robots [officiating]?”Although it's unlikely that C-3PO will ever wear stripes, Hilton's query is still relevant to both the less attention-grabbing automation that is now in place and what is to come.

It's not new to use technology to help sports officials perform better. Since 1963, when CBS TV director Tony Verna first used instant replay during the yearly Army-Navy college football matchup, the technology has been in use. Instant replay was first tested by the NFL in 1976, but it took them another ten years to properly deploy it. The NHL adopted it in 1991, then the NBA in 2002. Of the four main American sports leagues, Major League Baseball was the last to adopt instant replay in 2008. But soon, it may be the first to reverse the official-machine connection, enabling the latter to initiate contact.

In their Triple A minor league, the final stop before the majors, Major League Baseball introduced "robo-umps," an automated ball-strike system (ABS), in 2022. The home-plate umpire still posts up behind the catcher in the new collaborative officiating setup, which also includes a black box with pitch-tracking radar. The human ump's equipment include a smartphone and an earphone to receive communications from the ABS in addition to the conventional protective gear. The umpire doesn't really make the decision; instead, he or she just declares what the system "sees," giving the ABS voice and only interjecting when there is a glaring mistake, such as a pitch that jumps across the plate. With the ABS, pitches will be called more correctly and a consistent strike zone will be available for pitchers and batters to rely on from one game to the next and from one season to the next. MLB has not disclosed any more rollouts beyond its usage in minor league trials and training camps.

The emotional engagement of the players, coaches, and spectators wouldn't alter even if the long-awaited idea of computerized home-plate umpires came true. In a baseball game, the umpire is responsible for more than just enforcing the rules. “Who would the fans yell at?” Hilton asks. She’s only partly joking. 

In all sports, players, coaches, and spectators have a particular place in their hearts and thoughts for umpires and referees. On the field and on the court, attitudes toward these important players are often unfavorable, a pattern that has become more prevalent. According to a 2019 poll by Officially Human, 60 percent of officials who oversee games at the high school level and below said verbal abuse was the main reason they left their jobs, and 59 percent said they didn't feel appreciated. The National Association of Sports Officials performed a similar study in 2017 that included professional sports officials and came to the following conclusions: 48% of male officials have occasionally worried about their safety.

According to the National Federation of High Schools' website, the issue has gotten so bad at the high school level that “50,000 individuals have discontinued their service as high school officials,” citing poor sportsmanship on the part of players, coaches, parents, and spectators as one of the main causes.

Would introducing technology make it feasible to calm down raging feelings, lessen hostility, or increase respect for officials? According to Hilton, “games may become unwatchable” with an excessive amount of technology. 

Although she freely acknowledges her preference for human officials, she continues, “I think that fans would become more disengaged at the pro level if they went all electronic.”Sports writer James Hirsch appeared to concur in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, stating that quick replay “robs games of their drama.”

Every sport, after all, has elements of the performing arts—a performance of people on a stage, complete with all of their feelings, quirks, joys, disappointments, thrills, and surprises. Officials are essential to every performance. They occasionally play attention-grabbing roles by making decisions that have a major impact on outcomes, but most of the time they take on more routine roles to keep the show moving along, such as throwing the ball up, dropping the puck, calling out of bounds, and being a calm presence when tempers flare on the field.

Nevertheless, technology seemed to have carved out a spot for itself in those performances. According to a 2021 Morning Consult study, 60% of sports fans think instant replay should be utilized “as much as possible to ensure the accuracy of calls” while 30% think it should only be used sometimes "to preserve the flow of a game." The remaining supporters were either unaware or unconcerned. Nobody objected to immediate replay.

The ambition of sports fans for greater technology is already being fulfilled. For instance, drones dominated the US Football League's April 2022 launch to provide additional camera perspectives for spectators and replays. The NFL expanded its collection of instant replay cameras in 2021 by include Hawk-Synchronized Eye's Multi-Angle Replay Technology, or SMART. Although international soccer also uses Hawk-Eye goal-line technology, tennis is where it is most famously employed.

Despite all that additional technology, it has become obvious that human authorities, particularly at the professional level, are actually quite darn good at their jobs. Only 364 plays, or less than 1%, of the 40,032 total plays in the 2020 NFL season were evaluated, according to CBS Sports. A little more than in prior seasons, roughly half of the examined plays had their directions reversed. Human referees were correct 99.5 percent of the time as viewed through the eyes of the officials.

It's unlikely that Major League Baseball will include robot umpires in the majors any time soon, based on the instant-replay technology's acceptance rate and the fact that "electric umpires" have been an option since at least 1939. But it won't stop computer enthusiasts from promoting automation in the sports industry or entrepreneurs in the field from creating new solutions. “There’s a great balance somewhere,” Hilton explains. “We just have to figure out what that balance is.”
Previous Post Next Post