Welcome, Robby the Umpbot?

James Hoye’s game-ending strike call on a badly borderline pitch didn’t amuse Oakland manager Bob Melvin or batter Nick Punto in this 2014 debate. (Ironically, Hoye at last review was considered an ump friendlier to hitters than pitchers when calling balls and strikes.) Too many umps with too many individual strike zones may mean the robot ump coming to the Show soon enough once the bugs are un-bugged.

Now and then, it seems as though I can’t live life too long before I hear someone arguing that the Supreme Court often gets a little too big for its constitutional britches. Surely you’ve heard the argument, “The Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is,” countered customarily by those who demur with, “That’s what you think.”

Baseball has a comparable argument. The rule book isn’t quite the Constitution, of course, but if you think about aligning a baseball game to the Supreme Law of the Land the pitcher taking a sign from his catcher and winding up to throw to the plate could be the Preamble, and—unless the batter connects—the strike zone could be Article I. (It’s actually in Rule 2.0, but let’s not get technical.)

And there are those who love the game and all it stands for dearly who’ll tell you, “The strike zone is what the umpire says it is.” If you think the Constitution is grist for judicial tyranny arguments, just get yourself into a debate about the strike zone as grist for umpires as judicial tyrants—and the coming of robotic umpiring.

The so-called “traditionalist” doesn’t want anything or anyone other than umpires deciding the strike zone and calling balls and strikes. That’s the way it’s been done for a century and a half, right? I don’t want to automate those guys out of a job. Leave that to [the] auto industry. Keep automation out of baseball.

Never mind that automation didn’t come strictly to the auto industry. Never mind, too, that baseball’s welcomed automation since the advent of the electric-light scoreboard and the pitching machines that are still in use in spring training camps.

For the ump behind the plate, his job begins with construing MLB Rule 2.0’s definition of the strike zone properly: [T]hat area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap [determined by] the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

It doesn’t say, “The strike zone is whatever the umpire says it is.” Like the Supreme Court as defined in Article III of the Constitution, the umpire has pitch and play-calling perimeters. Like the Supreme Court, the umpire also has limits. Unfortunately, both retain the capability of disobeying those limits. The Supreme Court may actually be better behaved. May.

Enough baseball people thought about it enough that the automated strike zone is all but on the threshold of arriving in the Show. It’s going to be tried this season in the newly-constructed Low-A Southeast League, which you used to know as the Florida State League. It’s not exactly bug-free just yet, as The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark warns:

This is said to be an “improved” version of the [Automated Ball-Strike System] used in the Atlantic League and Fall League. But what baseball needs to study most closely is what definition of the strike zone needs to be plugged into the computer to produce a zone that resembles what current hitters and pitchers think of as a strike. When the Atlantic League used the rulebook strike zone in 2019, the robots called strikes on pitches that not a single human in the park thought was a strike. That has to change for this system to work in the big leagues.

So there is some thought that ultimately, baseball might need to shrink the top of the electronic zone significantly, bring the bottom of the zone up slightly and expand the corners microscopically. But those adjustments might also be used to produce more balls in play. So this is a highly significant work in progress.

They’ll have to work out lots of bugs first, of course. Things such as tracking pitch movement accurately and the technology’s timing algorithms. Things also including but not limited to making sure Robby the Umpbot doesn’t call “strike!” on big curve balls that bounce in front of the plate and up onto the absolute floor of the zone—assuming the next Vladimir Guerrero doesn’t swing on it anyway and loft a bloop single or rip a screaming line drive past the infield.

They’ll also have to find the way to program it to conform to the tiny subtleties in the batter’s box movements of the one man on the field who does have the greatest legal leeway to define the strike zone. It ain’t the men in black and gray, kiddies.

The strike zone rule allows the batter leeway to define the zone. There’s no official uniform batting stance. If there was, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson would have been up you-know-what’s creek. There were times the Man of Steal at the plate looked almost like a catcher in a crouch behind it. It’s not on the umpires to say, in effect, “I don’t like your batting stance, so I’m just going to teach you a little lesson in the proper plate approach.”

(There are no official uniform pitching deliveries, either, in case you wondered. The pitchers who’d be up the same creek if there were would only begin with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, with his approximately sixteen different windups and half as many leg kicks, including his famous Rockettes-like high kick.)

The ump who blows a strike call or a play call isn’t committing mischief even an eighth as grave as the Supreme Court blowing the Dred Scott decision. But think of the rallies compromised or ended, the stretch drive games, the championship series games killed, because of the umpire calling it not just wrong but flagrantly wrong.

The umps aren’t exactly strangers to debates over strike zones and their assumption of the right to define them. The original Major League Umpires Association imploded in large part over baseball government’s 1999 bid to hold them to account over them. MLB asked teams to chart the pitches and report individual umpire strike zones, the old union said, essentially, you our bosses have some pair evaluating the performance of we your employees.

“[J]ust another case of Big Brother watching over us,” snapped old MLUA chief Richie Phillips. Then Phillips turned up on the 14 June 1999 installment of Real Sports, the HBO sports program, and equated umpires with (wait for it!) federal judges: “And I don’t believe they should always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.”

That one Sandy Alderson—now the Mets’ president of baseball operations, then the commissioner’s executive vice president of baseball operations—couldn’t resist: “Federal judges can be impeached. I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”

Alderson might also have pondered that there was cause for alarm about pitchers more concerned who was calling their pitches than who’d be trying to hit them.

“The game is played by humans… why take away one of the most human elements of the game???” demands a member of an online baseball forum in which I take part. “That’s what makes it beautiful.” Is one of the most human elements of the game no longer supposed to be trying to get it right? Are the players the only ones required to get it right while the umpires are obliged to anything but?

If you don’t want to automate the umpires out of the home plate part of their jobs, insist that they do their jobs. We’re not trying to eliminate the colourful, fun umpires; God knows it makes the game a lot more fun when your Fernando Tatis, Jrs. and Mookie Bettses are matched by your Ron Lucianos and Dutch Rennerts.

Oops. Luciano left the game in 1979. (And, tragically, committed suicide a decade and a half later.) Rennert retired after the 1992 season. (He died three years ago.) In 1991, a survey of managers, general managers, coaches, and scouts rated Rennert—whose Statue of Liberty-high raised fist and kneeling thrust right calling a strike was topped only by a holler that could (and usually did) drown out a full house at Dodger Stadium—the third-best umpire in the Show.

Today’s umpires are about as much fun as a COVID diagnosis. Watching them blowing calls and then so ostentatiously behaving as though the rules are what they say are the rules on the spot isn’t entertaining. You’ll sooner name the starting lineup of the 1903 St. Louis Browns on Opening Day without clicking the link than you’ll name fans who pay royally for a day at the ballpark to see the home plate ump first.

Those who can’t accept a technological corrective to arbitrary self-aggrandising, potentially wrong game-changing behaviours should be pitied. Those who insist the “human element” alone justifies denying the corrective and keeping umpires above the actual rules of baseball play, even if it means games and maybe even championships turning or ending for the wrong reasons, should be condemned.

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