In the century-plus since baseball blossomed into America's pastime, there have been few figures as steadfast in the game as umpires. Known largely by their faces rather than their names, the blue-clad gatekeepers of the game can turn on a dime: One moment they're your savior, ruling in favor of your favorite team; the next they're Judas, calling three strikes on your star batter.
If one former player has his way, however, the men in blue may find themselves with a new colleague: a computer.
Eric Byrnes, a former outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks, thinks robots can improve the game's accuracy and on Tuesday night, he tested his theory for the first time. During a Pacific Association matchup — an independent baseball league outside the purview of Major League Baseball — between the San Rafael Pacifics and the Vallejo Admirals, Byrnes oversaw the use of an automated system to call balls and strikes.
Typically, such decisions are made by a human umpire standing behind home plate. Umpires use their own judgment to determine whether a pitch lands in the strike zone. But on Tuesday, Byrnes used three cameras positioned above the field that triangulated a ball's position at home plate. That position was then broadcast to the computer screen Byrnes was sitting in front of. All night, he called balls and strikes depending on the data he received from the three cameras.
What is this technology? It's called PITCHf/x, and it's actually used in Major League Baseball stadiums across the country — but not as a way to track balls and strikes.
At the moment, it's employed to chart a pitch's trajectory, including location, speed and movement. Fans use it for entertainment — the data is often broadcasted during games — and teams and analysts use it to track player performance.
But these neat tricks fall outside the perimeter of the action as it happens. Byrnes wants to change that by using PITCHf/x as an in-game aid.
He's adamant, however, this doesn't mean the end of umpiring as we know it. "I'm not looking to eliminate any umpires, not one. If anything, we're essentially going to add an umpire," he told ArsTechnica. After all, baseball still needs home plate umpires to make check-swing calls and rulings for plays at the plate.
It's not without controversy. Baseball purists like Keith Olbermann insist too much technology will ruin the game. Umpires add a so-called human element that robots simply can't match, the thinking goes — plus, they've been in place for over a century, so why change things now?
Others believe technology should play a bigger part in America's pastime. Pablo Torre, a columnist for ESPN, has been quick to defend what he calls the "robot umpire revolution," and many hardcore baseball fans argue that automated ball and strike calls should have happened long ago.
But Olbermann's old-fashioned gripes aren't the only concern. Despite its technological sophistication, PITCHf/x isn't perfect. Because it wasn't originally designed to track balls and strikes, it relies on estimation to determine where the ball will actually end up once it crosses home plate. Its exact location can actually vary by an entire inch, which is a big deal in baseball.
"One inch is an enormously wide error band around which to call balls and strikes," Vince Gennaro, the president of the Society for American Baseball Research, told Wired. Indeed, SABR member Bill Savage told the outlet he would "prefer the failure rate of human beings to the potential failure rate of machines."
But umpires aren't perfect, either, particularly when it comes to their decisions behind the plate. Brayden King, an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, and Jerry Kim, an assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School, examined this pattern in detail in a 2014 study. After examining over 700,000 pitches lobbed during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, they discovered that roughly 14% of non-swinging pitches were called in error.
Should baseball fans be worried about a robot overlord takeover? In short, probably not. Luckily for Olbermann, Major League Baseball is still likely a ways off from adopting any kind of automated strike zone, and it's made no explicit moves to even endorse the system.
But should the takeover ever arrive, fans needn't worry too much. Calling balls and strikes is certainly a big part of the game, but it's only one job of an umpire — there are foul ball calls, plays at the plate and the bases, balks and tags to consider. As long as we need humans for these decisions, the men in blue will have a big place in the game.