Tag Archives: umpires

Robots in the Major Leagues?

Former Oakland manager Bob Melvin argues with Angel Hernandez in a 2021 game

By Ryan Harless

Ryan Harless is a third-year undergraduate at BGSU from Hillsboro, Ohio. He is majoring in Sport Management with a Journalism Minor. Baseball and golf at all levels are his primary interests but he is also interested in combat sports, hockey, basketball, and football.

January 20, 2023

If you are a baseball fan and have been paying attention to things happening in the league, you might be aware of the umpire problem. Umpires have been a part of the game since its inception. They are the enforcers of rules and, although they are human, they are ideally going to be impartial. But at the end of the day, they are in charge of the game and usually, what they say is final.

Recently Major League Baseball (MLB) has started to allow teams to “challenge” out calls on the bases as well as other fielding calls. When this happens, the umpires gather and listen to a crew in New York City break the play down and tell them what the correct call is. It works very similarly to American Football’s challenge rule.

The main instance where the shortcomings of umpires is the most prevalent, however, is with balls and strike calls. Teams are unable to challenge these calls meaning that even in crucial moments, the umpire can dictate that phase of the game.

While MLB has done many things to make the game more appealing to fans, they have also tried to make the game faster. They have already begun using a pitch clock to prevent unnecessary time between pitches in the minor leagues, with the possibility of major leagues usage this coming season.

One of the most divisive of these ideas is the implementation of “Robo” umpires. This would mean that a program reads where the pitch was located when it crossed the plate and spit out its ruling on every pitch.

The use of “Robo” umpires would change a lot of things we know about the game of baseball. While I like that it will likely ensure a definitive strike zone for every game going forward, I cannot help but feel badly for catchers. For their entire careers they have been taught how to receive pitches to give the umpire the best look as well as giving their pitcher the best chance to get a strike. “Catchers would really be required only to block balls in the dirt and throw,” ESPN’s Buster Olney said of the changes.

This would not change anything outside of balls and strikes as there would still be field umpires in charge of making calls at each base, but it would still be a massive change to the game.

Using “robo” umpires has proven to be divisive in baseball. Some personalities are in favor of the idea while others say they would prefer the human element to remain in the game. In mid-2022, Chicago Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said, when asked about the robot strike zone, “The best thing in baseball, and professional sports in general, is the human element of things.”

Jared Sandberg, manager of the El Paso Chihuahuas, said of the change, “I know there’s been some times where there’s been some frustrating calls, a ball clipped the zone or clipped the corner, or is off the plate and clips the line. So there has been some frustration, but it has brought some consistency to the game.”

For me personally, I was apprehensive of the idea of taking human umpires out of the equation. I agree with Gomes on the human element of the game. But the more I have watched and really paid attention to the game, I feel like umpires are able to let their ego take over the things that are happening on the field. Even though the umpire has the final say, there has always been an understanding that players and managers can confront umpires within reason when it comes to calls.

Sometimes, toward the end of games where umpires have been especially inconsistent, players’ tempers boil over when something small doesn’t go their way and they often get ejected from the game. I like that this way there will be a definite call on every ball and strike and there will be no major inconsistencies. On a large scale, I rarely agree with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s ideas on improving the game, but I think that robo-strike zones will be something we grow to appreciate… even if it takes a little while to get used to it.