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May 10, 2013

Overthinking It

Where the Value of Robot Umpires Ends

by Ben Lindbergh

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The building I grew up in had manually operated elevators. They were quaint prewar contraptions that required an attendant to slide a metal screen across the entrance and a pull a hand crank to start the ascent and stop at the desired destination. (They looked a little like this.) When you got to your floor, you felt like you’d earned it. Or you would have, if not for the person paid to take you up and down.

Those elevators had been there as long as the building, so they had tradition and inertia on their side. And most of the time, they did the job as well as a more modern elevator. But they had a tendency to get stuck between floors, they broke down fairly frequently, and they were expensive to service. Eventually, it became clear that to complete another repair would only postpone the inevitable at additional cost, and the manually operated elevators were replaced by the boring kind with buttons. I don’t remember any outcry about preserving the historic human element of the elevators, probably because by that point the would-be preservationists were sick of climbing stairs.

The first time I entered one of the newly installed automatic models, I expected to find it empty. But there was another body between me and the buttons. The elevator operators were still there, now with even less to do. Some of them would press the button for your floor and stare straight ahead at the wall inches in front of their face. Others would turn around and study you silently, as if you were disturbing their solitude or disrupting whatever they did when the elevator was empty. It was as uncomfortable and guilt-inducing as it sounds, and if I’d lived a floor or two higher I probably would have just resigned myself to life as a shut-in in order to avoid the awkward rides.

It seems inconceivable that a building employed (and still employs!) people purely to press buttons that could have been pressed with equal ease by anyone else. But the elevator operators were union workers, and the union was too powerful for the building to let them go over a little thing like their jobs becoming completely redundant. So they stayed, and despite the absurdity of the situation, there were benefits to having a human around, even in a mostly extraneous role. They could do things that the simple algorithm otherwise operating the elevator couldn’t, like tell if someone wasn’t supposed to be in the building or hold the door open while you ran back in to retrieve your umbrella. Of course, now that I live in a different building where the elevators have always been automatic and I have to rough it and press buttons like everyone else, I don’t miss the manual way. The manual way was much less efficient.

Those vestigial elevator operators, still pressing buttons after most of their responsibility was removed, might be where home plate umpires are headed. The current system of calling balls and strikes has been with baseball since the beginning, and it works well most of the time. It’s easier to accept the occasional blown call than it is to overhaul the system, so the system stays in place. But eventually, the technology will become so advanced (if it hasn’t already), and teams and fans alike will grow so dissatisfied with mistakes, that the manual way won’t fly. The umpires could still crouch behind the catcher, partially because umpires also have a powerful union that would prevent them from being fired and partially because they’d still serve a purpose—relaying the count to the pitcher and the players at the plate, helping to confirm that the cameras are correctly calibrated, even taking over in the event of a technological failure. (Ideally, whatever gear they'd wear would make them look like Lobot.) But however it works, one day—if the evolution of elevators is any indication—the burden of calling pitches will pass to a system that’s better equipped to handle it than the human eye.

It won’t happen overnight, nor should it—you can’t screw with the strike zone lightly, and suddenly switching to a rulebook zone would have serious implications for the pitcher-catcher-batter balance, even if the technology is up to the task. But I’m sympathetic to the “robot umpire” movement, at least when it’s less about calling umpires incompetent than it is about freeing them from a task that’s impossible to perform perfectly. However, when it goes beyond balls and strikes (and, to be fair, avoidable incidents like Tom Hallion’s disputed exchange with David Price and John Hirschbeck’s ejection of Bryce Harper), it can be taken too far.

This has been a bad week for umpires. Joe Maddon was ejected on Tuesday after arguing an incorrect out call by Marty Foster on a slide at home plate, then ejected again on Wednesday when Tim Welke said that what would have been a groundout had actually been a foul ball off a batter’s foot. Also on Wednesday, an incorrect home run call was allowed to stand by Angel Hernandez even after replay review, despite video evidence showing that it had cleared the yellow line that marks home run height at Progressive Field and bounced off a railing and back onto the field. And on Thursday, maybe most egregious of all—pending any further revelations that might clarify the ruling—Fieldin Culbreth allowed Astros manager Bo Porter to bring in lefty reliever Wesley Wright to face left-handed hitter J.B. Shuck, then remove Wright in favor of righty Hector Ambriz when Angels skipper Mike Scioscia sent up right-handed pinch hitter Luis Jimenez. That decision appeared to violate Rule 3.05(b), which states:

If the pitcher is replaced, the substitute pitcher shall pitch to the batter then at bat, or any substitute batter, until such batter is put out or reaches first base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire-in-chief’s judgment, incapacitates him for further play as a pitcher.

The Angels played the rest of the game under protest, though—surely to Major League Baseball’s relief—they won anyway, making the protest moot. But the Angels’ victory didn’t sooth savage Twitter, which was pushed too far by the quick succession of obviously wrong rulings.

I’m singling out Joe only because I happened to see his tweet in my timeline; plenty of other people expressed similar sentiments. I don’t disagree that we deserve better; what I take exception to is the idea that any of those incidents could have been avoided by adopting robot umpires. I think we’re overestimating the abilities of these theoretical robots.

Computers are better at some tasks than others. They’re awesome at, oh, adding, for instance. But if you’ve ever had to conduct a lengthy interview and look up excerpts later, you know that computers aren’t much help when it comes to transcription, at least not now—they still need humans’ help with that. Similarly, computers would be of much more help in getting certain kinds of calls correct than others. They’re very good, though far from perfect, at distinguishing between ball and strikes. But interpreting rules, determining whether they’re being adhered to, and enforcing them is an even more difficult matter

A robot ump could be programmed to sound the alarm when a pitcher is substituted, then removed from the game before throwing a pitch. But first, someone would have to tell it that the pitching change had occurred, and that the second substitution wasn’t the result of an injury. And that person would have to enter that information well before the second substitute pitcher threw his first pitch in order for the robot ump to A) recognize the incorrect ruling and B) dispatch someone else to the field to notify the meatbag umps of their mistake in time to prevent it. It’s also hard to see how a robot ump would be able to review a replay or tell whether a runner got his hand on home plate before being tagged. To keep track of the game, a robot ump would be reliant on human scorers, and human scorers make mistakes. Exchanging #robotumps for #robotscorers would only move the weak link to a longer chain.

Doing away with human umpires isn’t a viable option today, given the demands of the job and the available alternatives. As Colin Wyers put it, "Until we replace the PLAYERS with robots, some human needs to be involved here." What makes the last few umpire flubs more frustrating than a forgivable blown call behind the plate is that they're mistakes even imperfect umpires shouldn't make. So the more helpful response to anything other than a blown ball or strike call isn’t a reflexive “#robotumps,” but “How can we make human umps better?” That’s an area where technology can and has helped, and could help more. MLB should use technology to support the umpires, and persuade or coerce the umpires into accepting that support.

Umps are already graded on their strike zone accuracy, and the good ones get rewarded with more important assignments. Replay, Angel Hernandez aside, has made a positive impact, and it could be made better by updating the existing replay review system (which could have contributed to Hernandez’s mistake) and making replays admissible for more types of calls. It’s hard to recommend specific training measures, because we don’t know for sure which training measures are already in place. (More transparency might improve the process, too.) But umpires obviously need to know the rules, and they need to be trained not to provoke arguments with players. And if they can't comply with those reasonable requirements, they need to pay a price. After all, they’re only human. And they'll have to be for the foreseeable future.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Umpiring,  Robot Umpires,  Robot Umps,  Replay

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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RedsManRick

Has anybody in the "robot ump" movement actually suggested removing umps from the field of play. I think the majority of the "robot ump" movement would be absolutely thrilled with a system that simply worked behind the scenes to provide umpires more accurate information.

Give the ump behind home plate a digital device that vibrates when a strike is thrown. Or shows red/green. Or give him an earpiece. You get the idea. Putting a guy in the booth to handle replays and relay them down to the crew chief and/or home plate ump is another example. As you point out, those are only a part of the ump's job.

Ultimately, I think the "but we still need humans on the field" argument is essentially a straw-man. I could be wrong; there could be many people clamoring for the elimination of human umpires entirely. But I've never seen that case made and wouldn't want to imply it from a twitter hashtag. And if I'm right, this is beating up an argument that nobody is really making.

May 10, 2013 08:20 AM
rating: 6
 
Llarry

I still don't see why the powers that be aren't onboard with a replay ump. The cost of the 5th ump shouldn't be a big deal with the league. The Union would love the extra jobs, and they ought to make the 5th guy part of the crew and rotate through the assignments. That way each umpire gets to sit down every 5 games, and it really sells the idea of replay being there to help the crew on the field rather than as some sort of threat. The guy in the booth could even keep a rulebook handy...

May 10, 2013 15:28 PM
rating: 3
 
evo34

Except once you have part of a crew doing the replay, his objectivity is in question. Anything remotely close, he will probably side with the umps' original call...and expect the same treatment when he on the field in 4 out of 5 games. Best solution is to have a non-umpire in the booth.

May 11, 2013 16:57 PM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

I disagree. In the past, suggestions of outside replay have been met with hostility by the umpires. Including the reply ump in the crew switches the dynamic from that of "the guy on the field got it wrong" to "the crew got it right". If replay gets collusive and wrong calls are being rubber-stamped, the media will make note of it and the league will have to deal with it.

May 13, 2013 11:53 AM
rating: 0
 
Manprin

The A's were playing at Progressive Field in Cleveland; not the O.com Coliseum in Oakland.

May 10, 2013 09:33 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Fixed.

May 10, 2013 09:39 AM
 
jmanig78

Sounds like we need a robo writer. /ducks

May 10, 2013 10:37 AM
rating: 6
 
flyingdutchman

Angel Hernandez's call was not a mistake. It's an insult to every fallible-but-hard-working ump out there to call it a mistake and lump it in with the "do we need robot umps" argument.

Hernandez should have been let go years ago, and he definitely should be fired now. That was shameful.

I don't know what his reasons were - maybe he had somewhere to be, or maybe he was grossly negligent, but I can't even imagine a scenario where gross negligence is not the most charitable explanation for that call.

Doing away with human umps might be a worthwhile argument, but let's fix easily fixable problems in the meantime. Whether or not you believe that electronic machinery should replace umps, surely we can all agree that umps who screw games because their level of skill or personality (or in Hernandez's case, both) is not up to snuff should be swapped out in favor of more professional individuals. There are plenty of people in the world who would love that job, so I see no reason why we should ever have to watch Angel Hernandez again. Or Joe West, or a few other clowns that are currently being employed to the detriment of the sport.

People make mistakes, and we'll have to live with that for now, which is fine if you ask me. What Hernandez did was not, strictly speaking, a mistake.

May 10, 2013 10:01 AM
rating: 2
 
Screamingliner

This assumes that the umps had a decent picture to look at, which might not be the case. (From what I've read the past few days, the replay system uses old, small low-def monitors installed as part of a sponsorship.) Not defending Hernandez, but it is a greater-than-zero possibility that no one could see what happened on the monitor the umps were using.

May 11, 2013 00:25 AM
rating: 0
 
flyingdutchman

I am basing my opinion on what I've read, which is essentially the opposite of what you've read. I am told they have both the home and away feeds of the game and HD-TV's. We should find out for sure, but I'd think it's unlikely that the umps would be given that crappy of a feed. This call was clear as day to everyone watching.

It appears that Angel Hernandez made a wrong call on purpose, and if that is the case he should be immediately fired.

May 11, 2013 12:45 PM
rating: 0
 
flyingdutchman

More info on this:

http://www.baseballnation.com/hot-corner/2013/5/10/4318706/angel-hernandez-blown-home-run-call-hd-video

It was HD. Angel Hernandez intentionally altered the outcome a baseball game. How does he still have a job?

May 11, 2013 12:46 PM
rating: 2
 
randolph3030

What about Small Wonder? She was a robot and she could have understood the rule book...probably improved it. Plus, she had to deal with that annoying fat-kid all the time, so interviews with John Kruk would be a breeze.

May 10, 2013 10:28 AM
rating: 1
 
randolph3030

I immediately regret dragging the conversation to so low a standard. My apologies.

May 10, 2013 10:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

I'm quite convinced that the revolution will come not from #robotumps, but from #cyborgumps. The K-Zone/Pitch F/X style technology is fundamentally limited by the need for calibration and unpredictable perturbations like the warping of the stadia and the possibility of physical damage to the camera system. However, giving the umps Google Glass-type devices that project the strike zone over what their eyes see (and heck, fair/foul, checked swings, on-field instant replays, all kind of cool stuff) would solve most of the problems, and in a pinch could be reverted to the "old way" if technical problems arise. I think we might see this surprisingly soon, within 10 years perhaps.

In other words, nice Lobot reference.

May 11, 2013 17:31 PM
rating: 1
 
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