Robot Umpires are Here in AAA
You may be asking yourself, what is a robot umpire? That is a good question that is even more relevant now that teams such as the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters, and Tacoma Rainiers are now using them.
Robot umpires or Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS) or Automatic Strike Zones are devices that provide umpires with accurate calls. But how precise are these machines and what issues could they cause?
WHAT IS ABS?
ABS uses a radar to track pitches and determines the call for the umpire who then gets the information using an earpiece and a smartphone. Umpires can override the call if there is an error yet the technology claims to be precise. Because the human umpire still calls the plays the viewing experience is no different than before the device’s invention. In theory, according to Axios, ABS simply “eliminates the guesswork.”
This technology was created based on Danish golf company TrackMan which pushes for accuracy and the hope that athletes will grow with the help of technology. TrackMan was founded in 2003 and founded its own baseball division in 2008. TrackMan has installed its technology in over 54 Division I colleges, several collegiate summer leagues, and Japanese, South Korean, and Latin American leagues.
The MLB first noticed TrackMan’s technologies after the start of the company's baseball division. Things like fastball rates and spin trajectories were accurately captured and proved that the company’s technology was promising.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF ABS IN THE MAJOR AND MINOR LEAGUES?
The device was first used in the summer of 2019 in the independent Atlantic League. The system first operated using radio-signal technology but was unable to reach the umpire due to the size of PeoplesBank Park. The league then started using WIFI technology and a transmitter to counteract the park’s size. Rick White, the ALPB’s president, suggested that this technology called a “depressed box communicator” could reach the umpire almost immediately and allow them to give the call at the rate they normally would.
The technology was introduced during the league’s All-Star Game in York, Pennsylvania. White, received much speculation from players, coaches, and umpires regarding what the system might mean for their league.
Despite the concerns from players, coaches, and umpires alike, White saw a future for the technology. He explained that he did not want to replace umpires but instead have them coexist along with the technology. Similarly, Cullen McGowan, who manages TrackMan’s baseball operations, told Front Office Sports that “Whether it’s [because] technology is driving it, I think that technology is really bringing the various groups of players, coaches, and front office more together. It's certainly changing the type of people in the organization. I think this is just natural and the technology is more [about] bringing in groups together rather than pushing them apart.”
MLB then tested the system in the Arizona Fall League in September of 2019. The device was used at Salt River Fields, home to the Salt River Rafters and Scottsdale Scorpions. Players had to adjust to the new technology and its hyper-accurate calls. Things that players used to get away with were no longer possible. ABS also reduced the control that framing and receiving have, making for a more accurate but less recognizable game. The device received mixed reviews, for a variety of reasons but many were concerned with how it called breaking balls and the impact it had on the roles of human umpires.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made the ruling that robot umpires would be coming to the minor leagues in 2020. Due to the pandemic, the device was not used until 2021 when it was present at 8 out of 9 Low-A Southwest League games.
Currently, the technology is being used in AAA, the highest level of the minor leagues and just one step from the major leagues. The MLB also stated that it will be used in a few spring training camps in Florida and will continue to be used in the Low-A Southeast League.
HOW HAS THE DEVICE BEEN RECEIVED?
There have been several positive reactions from those in baseball regarding the device. Many players enjoy the accuracy of the system. Brian Serven of the Colorado Rockies told MLB that “it’s telling the truth, a strike’s a strike.” Salt River pitching coach Jim Paduch also spoke to MLB and remarked that “The main thing is just getting the call right” and that “eventually they will.”
Despite the system’s promise of precision it has been difficult to get everyone in the baseball world on board. Emma Baccillieri of Sports Illustrated explained that “The ump is included in the rule book's own definition of baseball (Rule 1.01: "Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under the jurisdiction of one or more umpires"), and yet here, in arguably his central function, he's disappearing entirely.”
Many argue that an umpire’s occasional inaccuracies are what makes baseball enjoyable and adds a human element to the game. Some claim that with the inclusion of this supposedly precise technology, baseball is no longer about the game but instead about complete accuracy. Royce Lewis of the Minnesota Twins told MLB that “It kind of changes the whole game…I’d rather have the guys that are working hard and framing and building an element of their game to better themselves.”
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BASEBALL AS A WHOLE?
In conclusion, it appears that ABS is still in its infancy. The MLB seems confident in the system but it will have to be thoroughly tested in the AAA before any decisions can be made. MLB’s Chris Marinak told ESPN that "It's hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today” proving this fact.
While there is no precise timeline for the future of ABS in baseball, there is one thing that the baseball world can be sure of; technology is far more prevalent in sports than it ever has been before.