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Are Robot Umpires the Future of Baseball?

Baseball was first played in the United States in 1846. It was a game played in Hoboken between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine, with the latter winning 23-1. It wouldn’t be until 30 years later that the National League would be founded, creating a professional league for baseball players to compete in.

The sport has undergone many changes since then. One of the biggest was the founding of the American League in 1901 which would later come together with the National League to create the Major League Baseball (MLB) that we know today.

In the decades that have passed since, there have been many changes to the rules and the way that baseball operates. It wasn’t until 1858 that called strikes were introduced, and the size of the bat went unregulated until 1863.

More recently, the strike zone was shrunk in 1969, helmets were mandated in 1971, and in 2008, limited instant replays were permitted for fair or foul home run calls. Other big changes include the introduction of televised games in 1939, the All-Star Game in 1933 and the first World Series in 1903.

While all of this change occurred, one thing has remained static: the fact that games are officiated by umpires. This may be at threat though, as MLB is considering the introduction of robot umpires to help increase the accuracy of decisions.

The Role of the Umpire

The name umpire comes from the traditional English game of cricket. It shares many similarities with baseball, in that it’s a game where players hit a small ball with a bat and then run between bases. The major differences are in the number of bases, the shape of the bat, the upright posts used in cricket, and the fact that a baseball game doesn’t last 3 days.

The umpire takes on the same role as a referee in other sports, the only difference between them being the name.

Since the turn of the 20th century, baseball games have had a team of umpires (also like in other sports), so that there are several people who can pay attention to different things on the field at the same time.

Robot Umpires

MLB is beginning to experiment with using technology to prevent controversial decisions by umpires about whether to call a ball or strike. The controversial loss of the Nationals against the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series increased pressure on the league to introduce a robot umpire.

The Atlantic League, a minor league for baseball in the United States, has been trialing a “Trackman” system to help umpires make decisions.

In 2020, MLB will be testing the well known HawkEye system. This technology is best known for its use in tennis, where it has been helping umpires make decisions for years.

This talk of replacing umpires comes as part of a wider trend in the jobs market. Many people are likely to see some or all of their role be done by a robot in the future, as robots become better at jobs that involve repetitive and manual tasks.

Other sports have also been introducing similar technology. Soccer in the UK and many other European countries have been using goal-line technology and video assistant referee (VAR) for several seasons. The NBA also uses similar technology to track where players are on the court at all times.

Not Plain Sailing

Despite the prospect of a robot umpire being able to make strike-ball decisions with much greater accuracy than a human, some fans and players are not excited about the prospect.

Chris Iannetta, a catcher for the New York Yankees, commented that he likes that umpires can be subjective in their decision making which can add character to the game. He added that these subjective decisions that “provide a charge for your team” and that robot umpires would “water down the product”.

Meanwhile, the MLB’s Commissioner, Rob Manfred said that he believes using the HawkEye system will “be good for the game”. Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly agrees, saying that it “almost has to happen.”