Baseball is in full swing, bringing with it the hopes of spring, the rhythms of summer, and the autumnal elation and heartbreak of the playoffs. The strange rituals and shenanigans of spring training have given way to the (sometimes stranger still) routines and superstitions of the regular season grind.
Players are growing ridiculous facial hair, a couple teams that meant to tank may be surprising themselves with strong performances, and the Mets medical staff will diagnose a pitcher with mild elbow soreness, only to amputate at the shoulder the next day. Balls and strikes continue to be called by human umpires, who will inevitably make mistakes at crucial moments.
In fairness, making those calls is a difficult task, and most major league umpires are very good at it, despite the complaints of fans, players, and managers. However, when the technology is ready, the game should switch to robot umps, which, despite the “robot” appellation, will actually consist of camera or radar systems that will provide the call to the human home plate umpire.
Despite the various strike zone displays on television broadcasts, robot ump technology is not ready yet, as it is probably no more accurate than professional human umps. However, it seems likely that sometime in the next decade the systems will become significantly more accurate than human umpires, at which point baseball (specifically, Major League Baseball) will have a choice to make. Will it continue to have human umpires call balls and strikes behind the plate, or will it adopt new, more accurate, technology to do the job?
I will be on the side of baseball’s new robot overlords.
Changing This Tradition Doesn’t Change the Game
Many other fans will not like them. Even if we presume the accuracy and reliability of strike zone technology, there are two significant arguments against robot umps. The first is about tradition, the second about the human element in sports.
The argument from tradition is that getting rid of human umps calling balls and strikes fundamentally changes the game. Part of the greatness of baseball is how little the game has altered over the years. As a conservative, I am sympathetic to this argument. For instance, I agree with traditionalists that the addition of the designated hitter was a mistake.[i] However, the nature of that mistake reveals the limits of the argument from tradition as applied to robot umps.
The designated hitter fundamentally changed the nature of the game. Instead of baseball being a game of nine players per side, in which each player had to field and bat, American League pitchers no longer had to bat, and some hitters no longer had to field a position. In contrast, robot umps would not change the contest between the players, but would try to make it more consistent.
The Strike Zone Isn’t a Human Element
This brings us to the second main objection to robot umps, which is that they would strip away part of the human element of the game. Baseball, like other athletic contests, is a fundamentally human endeavor, in which humans strive for excellence despite their limitations. It may be argued that removing human umpires from strike-zone duties reduces this important element of the sport.
However, the excellence of baseball is found in its test of human athlete against human athlete, within the confines of the rules, equipment, and field. The human element of the game is found in the contest between the pitcher and the batter, not between the players and the umpire’s ability to call the strike zone accurately and consistently.
The strike zone is not meant to move. It is supposed to be static for each player. Just as the bases, pitching rubber, and walls don’t move, neither should the strike zone. There is a reason why “calling balls and strikes” has entered our lexicon as an example of impartial judgment (just ask Chief Justice John Roberts).
However, while it is easy to put up a stationary outfield wall to mark the physical boundary of the field, it is not possible to physically mark the strike zone for each batter, which is why baseball has relied on human umps. But if technology can provide an accurate and impartial strike zone, this will enhance the real human elements of the game.
The Best Umps Stay Out of the Way
Baseball is about the contest between players. The best umpires are those who stay out of the way, call consistent games, and let the players compete fairly against each other. If robot umps can improve the accuracy of calls, then their use will be in the best traditions of baseball and the human excellence it displays.
True, there are other pitfalls to be concerned about. The technology will not only have to work under ideal conditions, but on the field. Players will look for ways to game the system, just as catchers currently try to frame pitches to make them appear to be strikes.
But if the technology can be made more reliable and accurate than human umps, it should be deployed. A consistent strike zone will improve the human elements of the game, not detract from them. Reliable robot umps will improve baseball by ensuring that the strike zone is called accurately, thereby removing inconsistencies that interfere with the great showdown between pitcher and hitter that is the heart of baseball.
As the season starts, I’ll be root, rooting for the robots. If they don’t come it’s a shame.
[i] That said, Edgar Martinez and other superlative DHs belong in the Hall of Fame. They played the game according to the rules, and it is not their fault that those rules were flawed.