Fans love to yell at them. Players and caches occasionally argue with them. But the human umpire is as much a part of the game of baseball as the rubber bases and the baseball itself.
Unfortunately, everything must end…and so too may the umpires of baseball.
As a part of a five year labour deal, the Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed to work with Major League Baseball on developing automated umpire to call the balls and strikes.
While the strike zone is determined in the rules, – from a player’s knees to the lettering on the chest -, every umpire has his own personal variation on that rule. Players seldom have issues with the strike zone, only when an umpire is not consistent with his calls.
While still a few years away from being used in the Major Leagues; the Independent Atlantic League used an automated system for its All Star game on July 10, 2019. Home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere was equipped with an earpiece attached to the iPhone in his pocket. DeBrauwere would relay the call that had been determined by the TrackMan computer system that used doppler radar to determine the calls.
The Atlantic League experimented with the TrackMan in the second half of the season; as did the Arizona Fall League at Salt River Fields.
Like all players and umpires, the TrackMan computerized umpire will have to start in single A baseball and may be installed for usage in the Florida State League next season.
If the experiment is successful, then MLB may bring the TrackMan umpire up to Triple A in the 2021 season.
It is not yet known whether the MLB Players Association will have to approve the computerized umpire in order for it to become a part of the game.
The TrackMan would be used on ball and strike calls only; the human umpires would still be involved for checked swings, pass balls, wild pitches, and out calls. The video replay review for safe-out calls will continue.
While the reviews of the TrackMan are mixed, there are those who see the computerized umpire as a good thing; for major league third baseman Mike Schmidt said, “it would change the game for the good. It would continue the effort to eliminate human deficiency. We have replay everywhere else in the game. Like it or not, replay gets the call right.”
Atlantic League players who were involved in its usage liked the corner of the plate calls but noted that it struggled when faced with breaking pitches.
World Series winning Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch is not as enthusiastic about the idea saying, “I think it’s a little naive to think that simply letting computers generate strike or ball. It’s incredibly naive to think that there’s not going to be pitfalls in that scenario, as well.”
The new contract with the umpires also includes increased compensation and retirement benefits and provisions for any umpire who wishes to retire early.