Baseball Team Experiments With Robot Umpires

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A recent experiment had computers doing the job of baseball umpires, and it may point to a future where arguing balls and strikes is futile.

The San Rafael Pacifics of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs (a league not affiliated with MLB) used a digital pitch tracking system called Pitchf/x to call balls and strikes during a two-game series in July. The technology quickly analyzed the location of a pitch and transmitted it to an off-field official with a microphone who announced the call to the players and the crowd.

Pitchf/x has been used in Major League Baseball, but only for analytical reasons. Here’s a rundown from Smithsonian:

Pitchf/x was first used in the 2006 Major League Baseball playoffs to analyze pitchers, and the system is now installed in every MLB stadium in the country. It uses three cameras to track the ball’s trajectory and spin and to show where it passes through the strike zone. The tool is accurate within a third of a baseball, and major league teams have been using it for years to track statistics and show pitch trajectory during television broadcasts.

While MLB has never used Pitchf/x on an official basis for calling actual balls and strikes, some think the technology should have a future in the majors. Former big leaguer Eric Byrnes, who served as the voice of the "robo ump" during the San Rafael Pacifics' experiment, says the automated strike zone is "seamless" and doesn’t slow down or in any way hinder the game. "To know you're getting every single call right, it takes away all the injustices, in my opinion," Byrnes told the Associated Press.

Wayne Acerogiles, the home plate umpire, still set up in his customary position behind the catcher during the game, but he was there only to make calls other than balls and strikes, like close plays at home. Acerogiles suggested to the AP that, in the future, umpires could wear an ear piece that delivers the Pitchf/x data, allowing the umpire to still appear to make the call.

"Tempo was tricky, and tricky for the batters, too," fellow umpire Eric Thompson told the AP. He had some other complaints, as well. "We have fun being on the field. If we get replaced by robots, we're not on the field anymore, so we're not going to have fun. It's fun to argue."

Everything seemed to run smoothly in the Pacifics' games, but don’t expect to see Major League Baseball adopt a similar system anytime soon. The umpires' union has voiced concern over how it might affect jobs and MLB officials—often resistant to change—are reluctant to fully remove the human element from the game.

If you're someone who goes to the ballpark to vent at the umpires, this technology isn't for you. At one point during the Pacifics' experiment, the computer called strike three on San Rafael’s Jeremy Williams. After Byrnes yelled the call through the PA system, the small crowd booed Byrnes, prompting him to stand up and plead, "I’m just the messenger. I mean, yell at this! Blame the computer! Blame the computer!"