The game known and loved by many is about to change: Baseball is going robotic. The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball is changing a few of the rules in the game. Most notably, the league is introducing the Robotic umpire.
There has been a lot of concern to many baseball personnel as to what will happen with this technology. Eric James Byrnes, a baseball analyst and former Major League Baseball outfielder, is the man who has been introducing the robot umpire to baseball. In June of 2015 at an independent league game between the San Rafael Pacifics and the Pittsburg Diamonds, Eric Byrnes was the plate umpire dressed in full gear, calling balls and strikes. However, all of those ball and strikes were actually made by a computerized system known as PITCHf/x and relayed to him through an earpiece.
Pitchf/x is a controversial system of technology for Major League Baseball. It is also the system that is being used in the Atlantic League Experiment — a season of new rules, including the computerized system, being tested out in the minor league. Pitchf/x works through three cameras spread across the baseball diamond that track the ball’s speed and trajectory, identifying the types of pitches and their position relative to the strike zone. The system started to be used in the 2006 playoffs when Major League Baseball thought it was a good idea to have a way of identifying the exact skills of their pitchers and how they threw the ball. Now, every diamond in the country, has a tracking system, whether Pitchf/x or Trackman.
Eric Byrnes says, “One of the biggest misconceptions of this is that I’m trying to get rid of umpires and replace them with robots. That’s not the case,” he said. “I’m trying to give the home plate umpires the same information that millions of people at home have access to and can see in real time. Unfortunately, the home plate umpire, the person who’s responsible for making the call, doesn’t have that information. And that’s wrong.”
Not everyone is excited about the new system. Jason Gay, a sports columnist at the Wall Street Journal and the MVP of Super Bowl XLIX, says, “Humanity and all the imperfections that go with it is an integral part of sports, even when it means officials making costly mistakes. Instant replay has its upsides, but has also turned into a soul-crushing time suck.”
Others are slowly coming around. “Personally, I was against it at first,” Pacifics assistant general manager Vinnie Longo told Bleacher Report. “I’m very old-school when it comes to baseball.” But, he says, “The technology is out there. And if it doesn’t take away a job, it makes the game consistent and easier to play and it doesn’t hurt the aesthetic experience.”
Others point out unexpected influences it might have. Catcher, for example, learn to frame the pitch — by positioning themselves a certain way, they can influence how the umpire calls it. “I feel like the art of catching will go away there,” Chicago Cubs Kyle Schwarber says, said. “You have to be able to read pitches, get under them, get around them, things like that. But then once, if that computer strike zone comes in, that’s going to go away. A catcher can just sit on a chair back there and just catch it wherever it’s at.”
But the change for balls and strikes isn’t the only major change being made to the game in the Atlantic League Experiment. There has also been a change to the pitching distance as the mound has been 60 feet, six inches from home plate since 1893 the Atlantic League is now changing that to 62 feet, six inches for the first time in the sport’s history. This would undeniably cut down on strikeouts, this will also affect the hitters as they will need to get used to hitting from a farther distance which would take some time getting used to. But thankfully for Major League players’ sake the MLB has not been hearing much about this.
There are other rules being tried out in the Atlantic League Experiment strictly for the reasoning of seeing what effect it can have on the game whether changing the strategy or not. These changes include no visits by a catcher, infielder or manager unless a pitching change is at hand, a three-batter minimum (meaning once a relief pitcher enters a game, he must face at least three batters) and the shift being banned meaning there will be two infielders that must be stationed on each side of the second-base bag when the pitch is released otherwise, a ball is to be called by the umpire.
Overall the robotic umpire is something we may be seeing new to the MLB in the very near future. It may change baseball for the better, but only if it is perfect. Already, some are concerned about an apparent flaw in the technology as it stops tracking the ball a few feet before the plate. Supposedly, it is still accurate within an inch of the ball’s final position, but in the era of sabermetrics, that difference could matter.
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