Robby the Umpbot steps closer to the Show

Ángel Hernández

Ángel Hernández, Exhibit A on behalf of Robby the Umpbot’s eventual major league advent.

Almost two years ago, when the automated strike zone was on the threshold of its tryout in the low-A level Southeast League, you could hear the so-called traditionalists waver between tears of sorrow and tears of rage. Wait until they hear Robby the Umpbot is going to get a tryout behind the plate at the AAA level this year—in all thirty parks across the Pacific Coast League and the International league.

If they haven’t already, they’re liable to palpitate, have kittens, scream themselves into strokes, or plot to storm the baseball commissioner’s office. There are plenty of reasons to wish Rob Manfred’s ouster. This isn’t one of them.

First, let’s look at how it’s going to operate in the AAA leagues. Half will be full Robbies to call every pitch with earpieces relaying the calls to the plate umpire. Half will operate similar to tennis’s challenge system: each team receives three pitch call challenges a game—the batter, the pitcher, or the catcher can call for them—and, if Robby upholds the challenge, the challenging team won’t lose the rest of its game challenges.

And to think Robby will now be one step up from the Show itself.

When Robby prepared for his Southeast League premiere, the trad thunderings went along the line of one I quoted from an online baseball forum: “The game is played by humans . . . why take away one of the most human elements of the game???” That’s what makes it beautiful.”

Well, now. The beautiful human element (a phrase once uttered by Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, when he was the commissioner’s top cop, and that was only uttered about replay) leaves too little room for getting it right, particularly when postseason advance or maybe even a World Series championship is on the line squarely enough.

There were bugs to work out of the technology during that Southeast League tryout. There may yet be bugs to work out during its Triple-A tryout this year. But work them out baseball must, because that beautiful human element is still only too human, too prone to error, and too little held properly accountable. Including baseball’s government, which seems to believe the human element’s accountability and competence are consummations devoutly to be avoided.

It’s not impossible to think that the Manfred regime glommed onto Robby the Umpbot not because he might tend to get the calls right but because the regime has a lazy side powerful enough to reject holding umpires as accountable as any other baseball employee as . . . what? Too intrusive? Too troublesome? Too likely to launch a war with a Major League Baseball Umpires Association that was born of such a war in the first place?

The regime had no trouble launching a war against the players with last winter’s lockout. Does the regime think the umpires are as gods? Does it remember nobody comes to the ballpark to see the umpires? Does it pine for the so-called good old days when skirmishes between even Hall of Fame managers behaving like toddlers over umpires behaving like judicial tyrants were must-see television?

(That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places, and that was on days I didn’t throw him out.—Steve Palermo, a mild-mannered and respected umpire, to say nothing of courageous, about Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame manager who was as mild-mannered as a saltwater crocodile. There was even a time when a Baltimore-area Oldsmobile dealership used a Weaver tirade as a television commercial. Charming.)

That beautiful human element still insists, too much of the time, that the strike zone is whatever the umpire says it is, Rule 2.0 be damned. At least, they do until they see the latest mischief Ángel Hernández, Laz Diaz, and Doug Eddings commit. There’s perverse pleasure in abusing the Hernándezes, Diazes, Eddingses, and their like for their errors. “Kill the ump!” has yet to become an unpopular chant.

The worst umpiring jobs are done behind the plate. Last season, the median major league umpire averaged 95 percent correct pitch calls. While you may think that a sterling record, keep in mind that a 95 average might get you a medical school scholarship but a five percent error rate in the operating theater might get you a malpractise suit.

Within that blown five percent might be and has been, often enough and too often for comfort, the blown call that turned a key pennant race game, a postseason series, or the World Series, all the wrong way around. Very few umpires, still, own up when they blow it. Chad Fairchild, now-retired Jim Joyce, Jerry Meals, and long-retired Tim Welke are only four such exceptions.

EV Analytics, a statistical company whose work includes rating and ranking sports officiating, says Hernández and Diaz are considered “neutral” umpires, not disposed excessively toward either pitchers or batters: they’re equal opportunity butchers. EVA also considers Eddings among pitchers’ best friends for butchery behind the plate.

Sam Fels, a Deadspin baseball writer who is on board with Robby the Umpbot’s advent, has one concern, that about whether “cantankerous umps” such as Hernández or Eddings respond when challenged during any game: “No chance they’ll hold a grudge, right? Or start their own argument with a batter or catcher after having their authority and precision questioned?” It might be mad fun to see whether the Replay Command Center  sends them to the showers.