Invasion of the Robot Umpires

A human, at least, yells back. When I spoke with Frank Viola, the pitching coach for the High Point Rockers, an Atlantic League team in North Carolina, he said that A.B.S. worked as designed, but that it was also unforgiving and pedantic, almost legalistic. “Manfred is a lawyer,” Viola noted. Some pitchers have complained that, compared with a human’s, the robot’s zone seemed small. Viola was once an excellent big-leaguer himself. When he was pitching, he said, umpires rewarded skill. Throw it where you aimed, and it would be a strike, even if it was an inch or two outside. There was a dialogue between pitcher and umpire. During the first inning of the Rockers’ first game using A.B.S., Viola said, “my guy on the mound threw three pitches right there. And all the pitches were strikes!” A.B.S. said otherwise. This got Viola frustrated. Which is how he became the first person to get ejected for arguing with the robot.

Machines replaced the film projectionist and the subway attendant, and, chances are, they will eventually replace us all. The umpire can already seem a man out of time, like a milkman or a doctor who makes house calls. Maybe it’s the uniforms. The average umpire is male, white, and conservative. (No women have worked the majors outside of spring training; until last year, there were no Black crew chiefs.) Perhaps he smokes Winston Lights. His backup career may have been in law enforcement. A visitor to an umpire-training academy twenty years ago discovered that everyone there was obsessed with “NYPD Blue.” Umpires are talented, diligent, and seem to be ethically unimpeachable—there’s been only one case of umpire corruption, ever, and that was in 1882. But accuracy fluctuates by era. There are compelling claims that the nineties were anarchy. (Ted Barrett, a Christian minister, and an umpire since 1994, once recalled that, when he started out, the profession was full of boozing and carousing. “How can I put this delicately?” he said. “It was a devil’s playground.”) In response, in 2001, M.L.B. instituted video evaluations to enforce uniformity. The league says that umpires now call an astounding ninety-seven per cent of pitches correctly.

The evaluations began a season before Michael Lewis started working on his book “Moneyball.” Soon, teams, in their thirst for data, began using tracking systems to measure such things as a ball’s velocity off the bat and a pitch’s spin rate. Fans could access the data online. It was suddenly possible to know every time an umpire erred. In a typical season, one study showed, this happened about thirty-five thousand times—enough to decide a game’s winner and loser regularly. Calls for automation grew insistent.

The executive tasked with running the experiment for M.L.B. is Morgan Sword, who’s in charge of baseball operations. He’s red-headed, thirty-six, and amiable, a boyhood fan of the Mike Piazza Mets. In late spring, I joined him at the baseball headquarters, in midtown, along with Reed MacPhail, who oversees the system’s testing and validation. MacPhail played ball, briefly, at Claremont McKenna College. His batting average was .833. Four of his five hits, he noted, came against CalTech, which hadn’t won a game in twenty years.

According to Sword, A.B.S. was part of a larger project to make baseball more exciting. Executives are terrified of losing younger fans and worry that the sport is at risk of becoming the next horse racing or boxing. “We started this process by asking ourselves and our fans, ‘What version of baseball do you love the most?’ ” he said. Everyone wanted more action: more hits, more defense, more baserunning. This style of baseball essentially hasn’t existed since the eighties. The “Moneyball” era and the hundred-mile-an-hour fastball, difficult to hit and to control, have flattened the game into strikeouts, walks, and home runs—actions lacking much action.

Sword’s team brainstormed potential fixes. “Any rule that we have, we’ve talked about changing: change the bats, change the balls, change the bases, change the geometry of the field, change the number of players on the field, change the batting order, change the number of innings, the number of balls and strikes,” Sword said. “We talked about regulating the height of grass on the infield to speed up ground balls and create more hits. We’ve never talked about this in any serious way, but we talked about allowing fans to throw home-run balls back and keep them in play. That’s one that I don’t even like.”

Sword views A.B.S. “not as a change in itself but as a vehicle. Once you get the technology right, you can load any strike zone you want into that system.” A strike zone exists that could create a perfect version of baseball, but it might be a triangle, or a blob, or something shaped like Texas. Sword and MacPhail toyed with ovals and slanted rectangles. “A lot just didn’t pass the test of ‘If you’re playing Wiffle ball in the back yard, could you enforce that strike zone?’ ” MacPhail said.

Over time, as baseball evolves, A.B.S. can allow the zone to change with it, functioning like an engine’s governor. “The human umpires are remarkably accurate, and they’re the best in the world at what they do,” Sword said. But learning and calling a new strike zone could take years. “On A.B.S., it’s literally a matter of, like, changing a setting.” M.L.B., in its labor deal with the umpires’ union, which declined to comment, agreed to include the union in any plans to use A.B.S. in the major leagues. Such a move would likely meet with resistance from the rank and file. “It is the umpire’s decision to make whether it’s a ball or strike,” Joe West, who earlier this year broke the record for most major-league games umpired (fifty-three hundred and seventy-six), and who formerly served as the union’s president, told me. He argued that a disaster scenario would be a pitch in, say, the World Series failing to register on the machine, leading to chaos. (M.L.B. says such a scenario is highly unlikely, and that, in any case, the human umpire could step in to make the call.)

M.L.B. has already concluded that the technology works. Now the organization is measuring outcomes. This year, it rolled out the experiment to a class-A league in Florida. (That league uses a device made by a company called Hawk-Eye, instead of the one from TrackMan; M.L.B. is likely to use Hawk-Eye if the system reaches the major leagues.)

Sword invited me to watch a Ducks game wearing an umpire’s TrackMan headset. It was a pleasant summer night. A few kids blew duck whistles. The TrackMan’s green eye glowed. The “strike!” call in my ear was peppy, congratulatory. The “ball” sounded faintly disappointed. I followed each pitch on an app, which displayed the ball’s location as it crossed the plate. I tried to guess each call. Even from my seat directly behind home plate, I barely had a sense of whether a ball was a foot outside or right down the middle. It was pointed out to me that, were I to switch places with the umpire, almost no one would notice.

Before another Ducks game, I visited the umpires’ locker room. DeJesus wore a T-shirt that said “RING EM UP.” John Dooley, the Atlantic League’s supervisor of umpires, was sitting nearby. The umpiring crew was talking about a robo-umped Atlantic League game the previous evening in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“Wanna know how long it took?” Dooley said. He had a Queens accent so thick it sounded Bostonian. “Five hou-ahs! Sixteen to fourteen. Nine innings.”

“Thirty-five walks!” DeJesus said—a horrific amount.

I asked DeJesus if he’d ever called a game with thirty-five walks.

“Let’s play footsie.”

Cartoon by Sam Gross

“With TrackMan or without?” he said. “Without, it’s called ‘pitch management.’ A lot of guys call it ‘cheating.’ If I start to feel that the game is dragging and we’re not getting a flow, you’re gonna have more strikes called. Not anymore. It used to be, if you have two borderline pitches in a row, one gets called a strike, one gets called a ball. Everybody is equally upset, and everybody’s equally happy. For me, it’s ‘Can we get through this today without everybody killing each other?’ ”

In the past twenty years, sports have moved away from these kinds of judgment calls, seeking more precision. This may be owing to technological improvement, or to corporatized gambling. (“People are betting a lot of money,” Joe Maddon, the Angels’ manager, who in 2016 led the Cubs to their first World Series in a hundred and eight years, explained before a recent game. “They truly want the accurate outcome.”) Soccer has Video Assistant Referees. Tennis has Hawk-Eye. For almost a decade, baseball has used instant replay on the base paths. This is widely liked, even if the precision can cause its own problems; one umpire told me he had to overturn a call when the video showed a loose string on a fielder’s glove grazing a runner’s back—technically, this counted as a tag. But these applications deal with something physical: bases, lines, goals. The boundaries of action are precise, delineated like the keys of a piano. The strike zone is a fretless bass. Historically, a certain discretion has been appreciated.

For many years, an umpire’s strike zone was like an extension of his personality. Some umpires were literalists, uncompromising. Some preferred expediency; their boundaries were enormous. No matter who was working, when it rained suddenly everything was a strike. West, the record-holding umpire, is a burly man with a Carolina drawl who moonlights as a country singer and used to pal around with Merle Haggard. He told me one umpire described the old standard for learning the strike zone as “You call them strikes until someone goes, ‘Hey!’ ” Another of his friends liked to say, “The strike zone is like a television set, and every now and then you need Earl Weaver or Billy Martin”—the Yankees’ volatile manager in the seventies and eighties—“to come out and adjust the knob.” Martin once sent an umpire a Christmas card that read “I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.” On the inside, he wrote, “Because you sure had a horseshit summer.” Video evaluation has reined in some quirks, but the strike zone still changes measurably depending on the score, the team batting, and the pitcher’s race. When a pitcher is struggling, the zone becomes as much as fifty per cent bigger. This is known as the “compassionate-umpire effect.”

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