Robot umps have finally made their way into pro baseball, and by all accounts they seem primed to make Angel Hernandez just a little less horrible at his job. A system known as TrackMan made its professional debut on Wednesday during the independent Atlantic League’s all-star game.
TrackMan uses Doppler radar to determine whether a pitch had made it into the strike zone–which was determined based on either the batter’s height, or preexisting data if the batter had been in the majors at one point. The decision was then sent to home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere’s phone, and relayed into an earpiece for its decision to be announced. It was then on deBrauwere to confirm or correct the program’s decision.
Overall, it’s safe to say that TrackMan fared about as well as one might expect a regular human umpire to fare, particularly when it came down to pitches that were close to the zone. There was only one notable instance of the program noticeably missing a call, but upon closer inspection, it wasn’t that even egregious of a miss. We know this because a YouTube channel called CloseCallSports put together a highlight reel of the robot ump’s debut.
It also helps that deBrauwere was able to explain the reasoning behind the call to reporters after the game, according to the Washington Post.
“It’s uncharted territory,” said deBrauwere, who told reporters he would have called the pitch a ball. “I just want these guys to know that’s what the system called.
“I understand why it’s a strike. The top of the ball shaved the bottom of the strike zone. But it would be almost impossible to be consistent with [that pitch without Trackman] because it’s at the bottom of the zone, but also because catcher’s influence is real.”
The players, to their credit, didn’t seem to mind the change. Pitcher Daryl Thompson hardly noticed it was being used until a close call wasn’t made until the catcher had already thrown the ball back to him. Infielder L.J. Mazzilli said it was “cool to see the direction of baseball.” The only real gripe came from Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who said that the umpire’s ability to override the program’s call “defeats the purpose.”
Of course, it’s not like that failsafe is all bad. The fact that this program is still capable of making errors has helped assuage my fears of a complete societal takeover from robot overlords for at least another five years. Besides, it’s not like the machine could make any calls worse than these: