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Major League Baseball considers dramatic change with “robot umpires”

CBS NEWS

Baseball is a game bound in tradition, but now the sport is considering a dramatic change.

The calling of balls and strikes is elemental to the game – and the foundation of many an argument. But now, Major League Baseball is considering new technology to take those calls out of human hands. What some are calling “robot umpires” are now being tested in the minor leagues and could offer a glimpse into baseball’s future.

When Major League Baseball wants to audition a new idea, they bring it to the Atlantic League. Look closely and you’ll see the pitching mound has been moved back a foot farther from home plate to make it easier to hit. The bases are three inches wider than normal to avoid collisions. 

But it’s an iPhone and a cord stretching to the ear of the home plate umpire that might truly change the change-resistant sport. A sensor above home plate detects the pitch location and relays the data to a device, which then sends an audio file into the ear of the home plate umpire, telling him to call a “ball” or “strike.”

In 2019, Fred DeJesus became the first umpire in a regular-season game to use ABS, the automated ball-strike system. He remembers the first pitch he tested – it was a strike – and how he was hesitant about the new technology at first.

“Initially, it was like, no way, we’re not doing this. I spent way too much money trying to learn the craft of calling balls and strikes,” he told CBS News’ Brook Silva-Braga.

Learning how to call games takes years or even decades to perfect and even then, each umpire’s strike zone is unique. Battles over what’s a ball and what’s a strike have long been some of the most contentious and entertaining in sports. That could quickly change if anyone with an earpiece can call a pitch.

ABS tracks pitches with technology similar to what broadcasters use to show viewers the pitch location. Now, that virtual box is making the actual call.

What happens when humans become bystanders? Mostly, they stop arguing with each other.

“Now they look up the machine, they give you the old, you know,” DeJesus said, shrugging, “and they go about their business.” 

The powerlessness of the people became clear this summer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when a glitch caused about 7% of pitches to be miscalled. The problem was fixed later in the season, but not before umpires learned a tough lesson about their new role. DeJesus had to make calls that were wrong. 

“You do what you’re told, it’s tough,” DeJesus said. “But we’re out here working.”

“When in Rome, do what the Romans want,” he said. 

Will the MLB cross the Rubicon into automated strikes? They aren’t saying yet. 

Morgan Sword is the Major League Baseball executive in charge of ABS. He says even if the technology works – he thinks it will – it’s proven surprisingly hard to define what should count as a strike.

“This would be a big change, we’ve got to be thoughtful about it,” he said. “What we figured out pretty quickly is nobody really likes the rule book zone and it doesn’t match with what people understand the strike zone to be.”

So in the Atlantic League, they’ve squished the strike zone to be shorter top-to-bottom, but three inches wider side-to-side than the rule book dictates.

But the biggest difference has been mental: it’s a different experience standing on the field waiting for an algorithm rather than a human. Many players and coaches believe in the importance of the personal relationship between the batter and the umpire.

“You’re glad that there’s total objective judgment being made on what you’re doing on the field,” Sword said. “But part of the humanity of this game that you love and that you’re devoting your life to is being taken away somehow.”

If this all sounds like a profound step toward letting machines control the human world, Wally Backman says embrace it. 

Backman, a former major league infielder, now manages the Atlantic League’s Long Island Ducks. Having spent most of his life carefully evaluating the performance of human umpires, he’s made a cold calculation that computers are better.

“This is way more accurate than an umpire,” Backman said. “And will it be in the big leagues? Absolutely.”

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