Point/Counterpoint: Does MLB need robot umpires?

Debating whether the human element is holding baseball back

Baseball has long been averse to change.
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They can’t get here soon enough

Home-plate umpires have a straightforward job on paper: call balls and strikes.

However, in practice, things have gotten complicated. MLB players and fans are suffering because the old eyes behind the plate can’t keep up with major-league pitching.

Websites such as umpscorecards.com collect official data from every MLB game to create a ‘report card’ for umpires across several measures. One of them is Called Strike Accuracy, which represents how accurately an umpire called strikes throughout the game.

During a June 21 game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox, umpire Doug Eddings posted an inexcusable 64 per cent CSA, well below the already unimpressive league-wide average of 88 per cent.

By umpscorecards’ calculations, this baffling inaccuracy skewed the outcome in favour of the White Sox by +2.03 runs in a game they won 7-6. No one showed up to the ballpark hoping to see Eddings decide the game, but that’s exactly what happened.

While umpires have bad games just like our favourite players, MLB must recognize their consistently poor performances are hurting the sport. Terrible umpiring is ruining games and ultimately making for a worse entertainment product.

Enter robot umpires. Once fine-tuned, a digitized system would have a robot judge balls and strikes, then relay that information to a human umpire via an ear-piece. The human umpire then calls the pitch accordingly as they normally would.

Baseball is a game of inches where every call matters: it’s crystal clear that the human eye needs a little help to umpire blazing fastballs and gravity-bending curveballs. Traditionalists need to accept that the game’s ‘human element’ is holding it back.

It’s why baseball finally introduced instant replay in 2008. Umpires had been blowing too many obvious calls on the basepaths, often making the wrong kind of history.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has said fans can expect some form of robot umpire to make its way into Major League Baseball by 2024, but even that feels too far away.

Ben Wrixon, Editor in Chief

 

Baseball needs to keep its humanity

Sports, at their core, are about people. We aspire to replicate the success of our favourite players and identify with their failures. These events—the ones that strike the very core of humanity—deserve to be mediated by human beings.

We watch professional sports for entertainment. The buzz surrounding a questionable call and the ensuing debate among fans adds to the entertainment value of baseball.

Some of baseball’s best entertainment has come from managers who had enough of the umpires.

The object of baseball, like any other sport, is to use one’s mental and physical skills to gain an advantage over the opponent within the set confines of the game. Like any other sport, baseball has developed naturally to give us the set confines we have today.

Those confines include the ability to work umpires as clearly as they include elements such as throwing the ball between the letters and the knees. The existence of human umpires has led to the development of skills such as pitchers throwing directly to the catcher’s target, catchers framing pitches on the edge, and infielders making a clear and visible tag on plays at the bases.

These skills are—and have always been—part of the fabric of baseball at all levels.

Adopting robot umpires will discourage these skills—a hefty price to pay for a more concretely defined strike zone or black-and-white safe/out calls. We’re not even particularly sure what calls are clear and what ones are not. For many, the jury is still out on whether what’s sometimes cited as the worst call in baseball history was correct after all.

The longer the robot umpire debate rages on, the less relevant it becomes.

Umpires have improved significantly over the decades, but fans have magnified their mistakes. Eric Gregg giving pitchers more than a foot off the outside edge of the plate in the 1997 NLCS is a relic that does not exist in the 2020s, and you’re unlikely to see a modern umpire incite the type of fiasco that Shag Crawford presided over in 1974.

With effective recruitment, training, and increased accountability, human umpires can perform on the major-league stage without compromising the essence of baseball.

Chad Russell, Assistant Sports Editor

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