Weekend Debate: Should the MLB Use Robo Umps?

This is the second installment of InsideThePirates weekend debate series. This week Gary Morgan and Jared Martin will be debating whether or not the MLB should use robo umps.
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Before we get started with this debate between Jared, Gary and all of the lovely members of InsidethePirates.com, Twitter and Facebook, I just wanted to let you all know how disappointed I am that we are not going to be talking about actual Robot Umpires standing behind home plate calling balls and strikes. I mean, how cool with that be! But I digress.

Starting last year, Major League Baseball contracted with the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, an independent baseball league, to implement changes to the leagues playing rules in order to observe the effects of potential future rules changes and equipment. This partnership is scheduled to last for 3 seasons. One of the changes that MLB chose to implement was that a pitcher must face at a minimum of three batters, or reach the end of an inning before they exit the game, unless a pitcher becomes injured. As everyone is probably already aware, this is going to be instituted in the upcoming season in MLB. The more “popular” and newsworthy implementation was the use of “robo-umps”, which assists umpires in the calling of balls and strikes using the TrackMan radar system. From announcement of this partnership on March 8, 2019, everyone has been weighing in with their opinions of this new system.

Discussions have intensified steadily over the past months due to the fact that the TrackMan radar system (Automated Ball-Strike System as it is formally called) was used in the Arizona Fall League at the Salt River Fields, home to both the Salt River Rafters and the Scottsdale Scorpions. After this experiment MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred, stated that the ABS would be used at some MiLB ballparks during the 2020 season. Then came the news just prior to Christmas that the MLB Umpires Association had agreed to cooperate with the MLB in the development of testing of the ABS as part of their new five-year labor contract. Finally, it was announced that “robo-umps” would be tested during Spring Training exhibition games in the Grapefruit League for 9 games purely on an evaluation basis, in that it would not be used to make any actual game calls.

Now that the timeline and background has been taken care of, it’s time to get moving into the guidelines and the best part, the debate itself. For anyone that took part last time please bear with me.

This is the second installment of InsidethePirates weekend debate where we tackle controversial issues in the baseball world. The debate will pin two of us against each other as we attempt to, with all of your help, make the case for our side of the argument. The debate will progress throughout the weekend. So, make sure to tune back in as the guys respond to each other, and all of you.

For this weekends debate Jared Martin has the opportunity to make his case for the need to use “robo-umps”, while Gary “Pitch Framer” Morgan will be fighting for defensive catchers everywhere to keep this technology out of Major League Baseball. I will be playing the part of the judge and jury. 

Opening Statements

Jared's take: Sometimes the addition of technology into sports detracts from the beauty of the game, but other times, it can account for weaknesses that have been present since the league’s inception. I think robo umps are more the latter. I will lay out three key points to support that stance.

The first is that robo umps are already a part of the game, they just don’t do anything aside from giving fans something to gripe about. When watching a broadcast, you will see a little box at the bottom corner of the screen that will show the location of every pitch. Several times a game, fans will yell at their televisions when the call on the field doesn’t match the indicator in that box. Everyone knows the call was wrong, but it doesn’t matter. It hurts the legitimacy of the outcome when fans have proof that the most basic of calls were blown.

The second is in direct response to the argument that I just know Gary is going to push pretty heavy, and that is that robo umps will eliminate the art of pitch-framing from the game. This is true, and while it’s unfortunate, it is still a net positive. The negative is obvious, there are catchers who specialize in “stealing strikes” for their pitchers. Pitches close to, but out of, the strike zone are skillfully pulled into the zone by the catcher in a single motion, fooling the umpire who awards a strike to the dismay of the batter. It sounds like something that should be in the game until you consider the last part of that sentence, the batter. Batters train for years to identify what is a strike and what is a ball. So, when they, in a fraction of a second, successfully identify a ball only to hear the umpire call strike because the catcher “stole it“, they have a right to be frustrated. Again, everyone knows the call was wrong, but we have taught ourselves to celebrate blown calls because catchers have developed a way to trick umpires into making the wrong one.

The third is the inconsistency of the strike zone. How many times do you hear “Umpire X has a low strike zone” or “he rarely gives the inside of the plate to the pitcher”? It’s a flaw the game has endured since it started, and technology has finally advanced to a stage where we can fix it. We wouldn’t have to endure 6 innings of the teams trying to figure out the umpire’s tight strike zone only to see it stretch by the seventh inning. Robo umps would afford the game a concrete, consistent strike zone for every pitch at every moment of the game. When a certain call needs to be made a couple hundred times a game, why not make sure we get it right every time?

Gary's take: No! First, let me acknowledge something, I know this is coming like a freight train. A couple weeks back I argued for the DH and news broke earlier this week that NL owners and GMs were open to its adoption as early as 2021. This argument probably won’t stop the inevitable any more than my epic defeat in the DH debate did but this one really has tentacles and I don’t want to see it.

I’ll start here, we have on most game broadcasts for the better part of a decade now the virtual strikezone. It has at times pointed out how accurate the umps are, and at times showcased how off they can be. There is beauty in the imperfect nature of the home plate umpire having their own tendencies.

 Here is a short list of what goes away when and if this is implemented:

1. Pitchers finding the zone – when the zone becomes an exact replica game after game there will be no getting to know you period at the beginning of games for both batters and pitchers. This was essential gamesmanship that absolutely made pitchers like Greg Maddux and will destroy pitchers like Trevor Williams.

2. Pitch Framing – It won’t matter at all how a catcher receives a ball. The pitch was either a strike or not and one more skill that used to set people apart at the position will depart. This is going to lead to the catcher position being less specialized and most likely make it a more offensive position. Hey, maybe Kyle Schwarber can finally be a catcher again.

They would still need to put a home-plate umpire back there for check swings and out/safe calls at the dish, but for 90% of the game he would be an impotent figure. 

And, it better be right. How many games have you watched where the system went down and the broadcast goes on for a half inning with no strike zone on screen? That can’t happen.

Overall, I really will miss the charm of the batters and pitchers settling into the strike zone. Be careful what you wish for, because if the top, bottom, left and right of the zone are consistently called strikes, offense is about to take a big hit. No more veteran pitchers or batters getting calls. This will change the game more than anyone wants to see right now.

Rebuttals

Jared's Counterpoints: I’ll take both Gary’s main points on at once, because they both have to deal with how this impacts the pitcher or the catcher, but the batter is involved as well. Everything from the pitcher trying to locate the strike zone to the catcher stealing strikes, the whole argument is predicated on the umpire getting the most basic call in the game wrong oftentimes to the detriment of the batter. This is a league that has shown, with money, it prioritizes hitters to defense. So, we shouldn't forget them in this.

MrKillie provided an excellent point that, if umpires are watching catchers (and being influenced by pitch framing), they're doing their job wrong and should be replaced.

killie

If I remember correctly, Mrkillie opposed Gary's preference for the DH last time around. He's got it out for you, Gary.

Gary pointed out that robo umps will make the umpire meaningless 90% of the time. I have a hard time seeing how that is a bad thing. I’ve always felt that, the more officials make themselves irrelevant, the better they are doing. I don’t watch baseball to see umpires. I actually find it annoying when umpires choose to have obnoxious strike out calls. So, anything we can do to make them less impactful to the game, the better.

I was pleasantly surprised to get some quite a bit of help from readers in this. JohnnyD211, who even calls himself "old school", helped support my point on the maddening inconsistency from umpire to umpire:

Johnny

Imagine sitting down to play a game, but you had to guess the rules for about half it, and they were often inconsistently applied. That's kind of how balls and strikes are called today.

My favorite reply came from burghermeister, another site reader. This goes directly against something Gary said in his opening.

burger

The anti-robo ump crowd may view veteran pitchers and hitters getting calls as gamesmanship, but burghermeister and I see it as favoritism that has no place in competitive sports. As he pointed out, this rings especially true if you're a Pirates' fan. How many times do we get those calls?

My last counterpoint is a quick one and it deals with the imperfection of robo umps. They don't get every call perfectly right, and that's okay. Progress doesn't have to mean perfection. Give it to us now so that it can be refined and improved.

Gary's Counterpoints: Well, Jared didn’t disappoint, I think we both knew what the arguments would consist of, much like replay’s siren song of “lets get it right every time” where does it end? What’s next, do we put cameras trained on the exact angle a check swing can’t go past and subject it to review? And if the ump is going to be wearing a mic to transmit the ball or strike call do we really want to introduce more electronics onto the field after what this game has just been through?

BillDunn teed up the "where does it end" argument with his post on the site.

bill dunn

How long after we start using robo umps do we have the argument of taking the catcher away and saving a player's knees, because all he does is catch the ball? We'd have to figure out something for throwing out base thieves, but, hey, maybe a robot can do it.

There is still a very large flaw in this system. PitchFx still stops tracking the ball a few inches before the plate and infers the trajectory. This isn’t a big deal on most fastballs, but have you ever seen Charlie Morton throw a curveball? This isn’t something you will be able to implement in half measures like replay. Its all or nothing and if you think people blow up on umpires making bad calls, well wait ‘til a robot does it. One error will = 100 human mistakes. 

Like I said, I know its coming, but everything that comes along to “make things fair” or “be consistent” takes just a bit more charm out of the most unique game in the world. I like that Clayton Kershaw gets a call sometimes, it’s a badge for what he’s done in his career. I like that Miguel Cabrerra gets a call for the same reason. Sometimes you just need to leave the game alone, because after this we’ll inherently start questioning how many games some of the best to ever do it would have won if they didn’t get that inch off the plate call. Hell, it might end Anthony Rizzo’s career if the actual inside corner gets called.

Final Thoughts 

We are both very appreciative of the participation today. It’s always fun to talk baseball with such good people.

Jared’s Final Thought: Most of what needs said has been said, but I’ll leave it with this, if this were reversed, and somehow baseball was able to more accurately call balls and strikes from the very beginning, would there be a debate to add a more fallible method in?  It would sound silly to go from a system that was nearly perfect to one that wasn’t. Don’t let tradition get in the way of progress.

Gary’s Final Thought: Wow, so I'll wait for Craig to make his call, but it seems pretty clear that most of you have spoken. I received a ton of support on Facebook but nothing that went beyond No or Please no. I have to assume this is due to the fact that tradition and passion for the quirks of baseball are truly the best arguments against it.

Conclusion

First of all, thank you to Gary, Jared and everyone that participated in this debate! It was epic battle between the “baseball purist” point of view and those on the side of new age technology. Jared came to play from the very beginning as he started calling Gary out of on what he knew would be his strongest arguments. Gary didn’t disappoint by striking back by making us all think about the ever-developing relationship between a pitcher and his catcher and the umpire throughout the game as they play off of and against each other. Then as the comments started coming in, I found myself swaying back and forth much more than I could have imagined because, if we are being honest, I have been against the idea of “robo-umps” from its inception. That’s why it’s so hard for me to admit that I ended up on the side of allowing MLB to move forward with the use of the Trackman radar system. However, before Jared starts bragging; it was actually a post from Joe Derouin from the Pirates All Talk group on Facebook that finally convinced me. As I read about him being an umpire in youth baseball for 25 years and him speaking against the little box that networks put up on our TV screens and how unreliable they are, I found myself waiting for him to drop the hammer against “robo-umps”, which he eventually did. But before he did, he posted: 

“Even on very close calls and I mean very close the umpire and catcher may have a different perspective For me and for the pitchers I called at any age it was important that the pitch that’s a strike in the first inning be a strike in the last inning.”

I immediately started to think about consistency. I wondered how often umpires, to no fault of their own, were unable to remain consistent for an entire baseball game. As they crouched down and stood up, pitch after pitch, inning after inning; was it possible to see every pitch clearly, call them the same way each time and be correct on every call? I really wish this could be true, but statistics show otherwise. During this past season there was only one time that an umpire made the correct call on every single pitch, but only for one team. In a game between the Cubs and Pirates, umpire Joe West called every pitch by the Cubs a ball or a strike with complete accuracy. Unfortunately for Pirates’ pitchers he didn’t do the same for them. Is that fair? And I am not asking this as a biased Pirates Fan. I am asking this as a fan of baseball, that wants the playing field to be even for every team. This is how I concluded that the only way this can happen, and this aspect of the game can be fair to everyone is for “robo-umps” to be used to call a consistent strike zone.