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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
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With Umpires Opting Out of the MLB Restart, is Now the Time for the Robots?

Victor Robles reacts to being called out on strikes in Game 5 of the 2019 World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.
Victor Robles reacts to being called out on strikes in Game 5 of the 2019 World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.
Photo: (Getty Images)

The robots will eventually come to Major League Baseball. But maybe we should start to consider them immediately.

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Today, MLB insider Jon Heyman reported that 11 major league umpires have opted out of play.

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These umps join a number of coaches and players who will sit out of the season. Veteran umpire Joe West, however, will not be a part of this crew.

Umpires call games with relative accuracy, considering the numbers of pitches per contest. Still, officials blow calls routinely, often multiple times a game.

In 2019, a Boston University study examined over 4 million pitches in 11 MLB seasons. In that time, researchers found that umpires missed hundreds of thousands of balls and strikes. The report encouraged the MLB to implement technology for officials to correct their calls.

The most recent, and relevant, blown call came in game 5 of the 2019 World Series. One slider ended Victor Robles’ at bat, which cost the Washington Nationals Game 5 of the 2019 World Series. After the game, one D.C. player discussed a future with robot umps. “I was against them until now,” he said.

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We ask umpires to call games correctly, but the human eye is not perfect and umpires are bound to make mistakes.

Luckily, advancements in technology can dramatically reduce the possibility of errors. Enter, robots.

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When I say robots, I don’t literally mean R2D2 calling balls and strikes. “Robot ump” is a phrase for a customized electronic strike zone created by TrackMan. The device alerts human umpires about correct calls via headphones. The TrackMan sits behind home plate, and creates a customized strike zone for every batter.

Robot umps are not necessarily taking human umpires’ jobs (yet). The machine is just making officials’ jobs easier.

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With the robot ump, a perfectly-called game exists. The MLB just has to test the device.

Why not try the new technology during this truncated season, when several umps would prefer to sit it out?

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The Arizona Fall league and Independent leagues have already tested robots. And according to Rob Manfred, “some” automated strike zones would’ve been implemented in minor league ballparks this year had seasons not been cancelled.

And if more umpires decide to opt out of the season, expect working umpires to be limited. If officials are assigned more games than normal, they could burn out and lose the ability to officiatete effectively. Robots could help call balls and strikes while replacement umpires get their bearings in the major leagues.

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Also, no matter what happens, this short season will forever have an asterisk next to it. Now is the time to try new rules, like the universal DH, starting extra innings with a runner on second base, and test new equipment, like an automated strike zone.

I realize the MLB has a week to implement the robots. And I’ll admit, it’s a far-fetched proposal. It might be just as crazy as playing professional baseball in a country that leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths.

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The robots will eventually come to baseball. Why don’t we expedite the process?

Baseball is our national pastime but the game does not have to cling to the past here. A move to test the automatic strike zone could be an exciting development in an archaic sport.

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And to all the folks wary of things like “technology” entering baseball, just know that MLB will not need a robot when they make the call on the future of officiating.

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