The baseball dilemma: tradition or accuracy?

In the span of a few years, technology has revolutionized sports on a number of fronts. It has changed how the game is viewed by fans both in person and at home. It has changed the way coaches and players are able to prepare for games. Perhaps most importantly, instant replay has changed the way games are officiated. Even baseball, a sport obsessed with history and tradition, has incorporated instant replay to assist, and sometimes overturn umpires. But how far will baseball go to utilize technology, and could technology one day make umpires obsolete?

When it comes to home run calls, safe or out on the base paths, and fair or foul balls, baseball has the means to use replay to get the call right almost all the time, although a few instances still slip through the cracks. But when it comes to calling balls and strikes behind the plate, the most fundamental part of the game, baseball is still doing things the old-fashioned way. We still live in a world in which every umpire has his own strike zone that pitchers and hitters alike must adjust to each and every game. Oddly enough, there’s a rule book that states what the strike zone is, but that has not led to consistency from game to game or even within a game.

A lot of what’s occurring right now, maybe some umpires are umpiring to get a good score just based on how they are being evaluated; whereas, there’s a group umpiring the good old-fashioned way, so there’s still some inconsistencies with that. I don’t know the answer. I’m trying to figure out the answers myself.

Joe Maddon

There’s a growing movement in baseball that’s intrigued by the possibility of robotic umpires being able to call balls and strikes based on a single strike zone that’s universal throughout the majors. Networks that broadcast baseball like Fox and ESPN are able to put a strike zone on the screen that immediately indicates whether the pitch was a ball or a strike as dictated by the strike zone described in the rule book and not the umpire’s discretion.

Several independent league teams have already experimented with PITCHf/x being used to call balls and strikes during games. The technology is not perfect, but it would add consistency to what exactly is a strike. It would also completely eliminate arguments between umpires and managers over balls and strikes, arguments that often end in managers being ejected from the game. There are some within the game who believe that a robot calling balls and strikes is just a matter of time, although how much time is impossible to predict.

It’s coming. Whether or not it happens in our lifetimes, I don’t know. But it will be implemented.

Eric Byrnes

But before baseball purists start freaking out, the idea of a robot patrolling all four bases instead of a person is pure science fiction. The game is too complicated to leave it solely in the hands (or claws) of robots. Much like the current version of instant replay, a PITCHf/x strike zone would merely assist the umpires, not take their jobs. Frankly, the umpire union is far too powerful to be completely phased out of the game. However, taking human error out of calling balls and strikes makes too much sense not to happen at some point.

The only questions are when and how. At some point, someone will have to initiate the process of relying on robots to call balls and strikes. Umpires obviously aren’t going to push themselves out of the spotlight (they have egos too), while the players may be too afraid to bring up the topic so they don’t upset the umpires. But at some point, the issue will be brought to the forefront. It won’t be today, it won’t be tomorrow, and it may not even be this lifetime. When it does happen, the transition is likely to be slow and meticulous. But at some point, robots will inevitably take over baseball, at least when it comes to calling balls and strikes. You better accept it now, before the invasion begins.