Should There Be Robot Umpires?

On July 10th, 2019, the independent Atlantic League introduced the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS) during its All-Star Game at PeoplesBank Park. The first pitch thrown to a RoboUmp was thrown by Mitch Atkins to Justin Pacchioli of Somerset.

“If TrackMan is calling the same pitches all the time, then (arguing) will be done. You can’t get mad at TrackMan,” Atkins said.

The system was implemented by a 3D Doppler radar attached to the stadium directly behind the home plate which took in data about the pitches and sent them to a computer in the press box that had TrackMan data on it. The computer then related ball or strike calls to the home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere via an iphone and Apple Airpod earphones. With the system in play, there was a second or two delay for the calls.

The TrackMan system had stored information about player’s height and stance, which was used to construct the strike zone from mid chest to knees.

The system more or less went smoothly except for half an inning when the system lost connection and deBrauwere had to officiate the old fashioned way.

The first hitter to get robbed by TrackMan was Lancaster’s Joey Terdoslavich, who had a low and outside pitch get called a strike which he clearly thought was a ball (and so did the ump). But there was nothing he could do: it was ruled a strike.

Alva Noë argues there are two distinct view on umpires:

One sees them as “measuring devices” — a bad call makes us want to improve the measuring device, possibly even install robot umpires.

Another seems them as participants in the game itself. As Noë says:

“And if it did — if down the road we replaced the umpire by some kind of AI — that would either spell the end of baseball, or, more likely, it would shift the locus of dispute, adjudication, and judgment. To my mind umpires aren’t measuring devices. They are participants in the game. The idea that you might replace them with machines makes about as much sense as the idea that you might, in the interest of improving the game, get rid of the players themselves.”

Unlike other refs in other sports, umpires in baseball are critical in every single play.

We have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of an umpire? The purpose of the umpire is primarily to determine (1) if a pitch is a ball or a strike or (2) if a player is safe or out. In my view, contrary to Noë, the purpose of the umpire is not to “participate” in the game. The purpose is to be as accurate and fair as possible. And surely a computer would be able of performing the job with less bias. In today’s game, different umpires have different strike zones and thus there is inconsistency across the state of play.

Objection: Tradition

One objection is that we’ve always had human umpires and so we should always have them in the future as well.

I feel this argument is a nonstarter. It used to be “tradition” to exclude people of color from the game but we changed that rule. If the game can be improved to make it (1) more fair and (2) more enjoyable, why not do it? Sports are continuously evolving in their rules. We shouldn’t let tradition unnecessarily restrict the possibility of improvement.

Objection: the human element is part of the game

This is in part Noë’s objection: the human subjectivity is part of what makes the game enjoyable.

But the thing is, often the human element is what takes away from the enjoyment. Take the notorious umpire Angel Hernandez. People have been clamoring for him to lose his job for years because of how bad his strike zone is.

Hernandez is so bad at his job that it actually (1) ruins the enjoyment of the game and (2) jeopardizes the competitive (and thus objective) element of the game.

Another benefit of the robot umpire is it would allow the catcher to be farther back from the plate which would allow for greater catcher safety, reducing the possibility of being hit by the bat or reducing the impact of foul tips.

Realism About Strikes

Noë distinguishes between two views of baseball facts: External Realism and Internal Anti-realism.

According to External Realism, there are mind-independent baseball facts about whether someone was really safe or whether the ball was really a strike.

According to Internal Anti-realism, a ball is a strike only insofar as an umpire calls it a strike. But until the call is made, there is no fact of the matter. Noë says:

“The judgment that a ball is a strike is, really, the judgment that a pitcher delivered a pitch that the batter ought to have hit.”

But I think this is wrong. The judgment that a ball is a strike is a judgment about the official rules of a strike zone, namely:

“The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball”

On Noë’s view, a hitter with especially long arms who could easily hit a ball outside the official MLB strike zone has a different strikezone because he “ought to have hit it.” But this seems wrong. The strikezone is not a judgment about the ability of the hitter. If a 90 year old man went out to the plate and was 100% totally incapable of hitting a 99mph h eater— a strike in the strike zone would still be a strike regardless if he “ought to have hit it” or not.

Noë says that Internal Anti-realism is an extremist view and his actual position, Internal Realism, is that there are no baseball facts apart from the internal standpoint of the game.

However, imagine we built a dummy the size of a normal baseball player and placed it in the batter’s box and then set up a pitching machine to send balls over the plate. It seems perfectly reasonable that, outside the standpoint of the game, we could determine accurately whether one of the pitched balls is a strike or a ball because the strike zone is defined relative to whatever human-shaped thing is in the batter’s box.

This would mean that there are facts about the strike zone regardless of whether there is an “internal standpoint.”

Conclusion

I think there ought to be robot umpires because (1) umpires are best thought of as measuring machines (2) we ought to make the machines as reliable as possible (3) there are external facts about the strike zone and (4) bad umpires like Hernandez jeopardize the competitive spirit and enjoyment of the game.

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