MLB will have to address technical hurdles if it implements robo-umpires.
Major League Baseball is looking to add robot umpires to games next season, as a way to maintain social distancing policies and improve call accuracy.
Adding new technology to traditional sports has always sparked a fiery debate, as we saw with the introduction of football’s video assistant referee (VAR) in 2018.
In MLB, the issue is even more pronounced, as the league has suffered from a three-year scandal involving a video camera tracking signs.
For those unaware, the Houston Astros were accused of stealing signs throughout 2017 and 2018. The team had a video camera active in center field to watch catchers’ signs, and would then relay the intended pitch to the batter. The Astros were fined $5 million (the maximum amount), lost draft picks, and most of the people responsible were banned from managing MLB franchises.
With that in mind, MLB is being very cautious about rolling out the robot umpires, which would be able to call balls and strikes. The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball and Arizona Fall League have both trialed the Trackman system, as a precursor for the MLB’s adoption of it.
The system is not perfect, critics of the Atlantic and Arizona trials have said it’s not 100 percent accurate or reliable. Those same criticisms were leveled at VAR before it’s introduction, and two years later VAR is still a controversial subject in most European leagues, although this is primarily due to poor referee interpretations of VAR calls.
Bringing Tech Into Sports
All traditional sports suffer from interpretations of rules, which suffer from human bias. In the NFL, what constitutes pass interference has been a talking point for several seasons now, with the league recently reversing their decision to allow replay reviews.
In baseball, the umpire may not always be right, but at least there is a physical person that is in control of decision making. When a computer judges your team, it fundamentally shifts the dynamics of every close decision, and removes the human element of it.
What would have been a bad call by a person now becomes a question of tampering or collusion. The MLB, like all sports organizations that have pushed for more technology, will have to face that hurdle as it implements the robo-umpires.