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Yer Outta Here! An Umpire State of Mind Amid the Rise of Robo-Umps

Rage and anxiety in the age of machines

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a parade of poor umpiring decisions, as well as some tirades and hot takes, frequently involving the Red Sox. Subsequently, the idea of MLB robo-umps (also known as the Automated Strike Zone or ABS) has surged in popularity. Where to begin? Let’s go roughly chronologically – and this is by no means a complete accounting of bad calls from the recent past (Laz Diaz, you’re off the hook for now).

Widely considered to be one of the worst calls of the season, in a game against the Nationals, umpire Bruce Dreckman ended Justin Turner’s at bat by calling him out on a third strike that was nowhere near the strike zone. So far outside, it was practically in Virginia. The pitch was later determined to have been 5.42 inches outside the zone, and the call was the “third-largest miss on a blown strikeout this season.” That’s egregious:

Another candidate for one of the worst calls of the season: Junior Valentine called a dead-center pitch a ball in a Sox-Yankees game. Harrison Bader could see it was a strike and walked back to the dugout.

Alex Cora was ejected twice in three games for arguing balls and strikes.

Cora’s tirade against Pat Hoberg, leading to Cora’s toss in the eventual 7-3 Astros win, got its share of head-scratching from astute viewers because Hoberg has consistently reliable eyes and judgment.

Later in the same game, Hoberg ejected Alex “Doghouse” Verdugo while he was sitting in the dugout. Verdugo claimed that he wasn’t doing anything more than standard “chirping.” He asserted that Hoberg was “feeling self-conscious” and implied that Hoberg was meting out punishment for Sox teammates questioning his judgment. Verdugo went on to say that umpires are “too protected” and “sensitive.”

“It’s part of their job to be good, right? And I understand the human error aspect of it and you’re not gonna get every call. But don’t be so sensitive when we let you know our side of it.” - Alex Verdugo

Hoberg’s game calling was eventually proven to be on-point, with an acceptable level of edge calls that were consistently applied. I think Cora’s and Verdugo’s reactions were a case of general umpire rage spilling over.

Ángel Hernández made (yet another) bad call when he called Marcell Ozuna out on what was clearly a low ball during the recent Atlanta/SF series. The Atlanta broadcast team let him have it.

Hernández, who ranks last in MLB for correct calls this season, notably lost his lawsuit recently against MLB. Hernández, who was born in Cuba, sued MLB six years ago for discrimination, saying that he hadn’t been assigned to a World Series game since 2005, nor been promoted to crew chief.

Reducing the ruling to its simplest form, the court said that Hernández hadn’t established “a statistically significant disparity between the promotion rates of white and minority umpires.” While Hernández could theoretically continue to appeal the decision, basically, he didn’t prove his case.

But what he has established is a poor record, including on the biggest stages: for example, three of his calls at first base were overturned during Game 3 of the 2018 ALDS between New York and Boston.

Personally, for me, this strong push for robo-umps has coincided with the recent, dramatic rise of AI. Its acceptance in various forms across various industries for various tasks that used to be performed by humans has recently cost people I know in the editing industry (including yours truly) clients and jobs. I’m generally not in favor of anyone losing their job to an app, robot or machine. I think I can understand the fear that umpires, and others, may be feeling right now as they stare down the inevitability of robo-umps.

My understanding is that robo-umps will be based on measurements, not machine learning, and the way they’re currently used in the minors is that they relay the call to the human, home plate ump via an earpiece. The human ump then verbally calls the pitch, as though it were his own call from the beginning. So far, no jobs have been sacrificed—and perhaps none will be.

But if you’re an umpire or player, trained for one thing, the inevitability of robo-umps might feel pretty dire, no matter what. And I get it.

“It’s an art form, and it’s taking away people’s strengths.” - WooSox catcher Caleb Hamilton

Hamilton was probably specifically thinking of pitch framing, which will go the way of the dodo bird when robo-umps arrive at all levels of baseball. WooSox manager Chad Tracy said that he found that the use of robo-umps in a recent series removed something of the human element, the passion.

It’s hard to imagine robo-umps being utilized all around the field, so human umpires will always be necessary on-field personnel. The human element, and its capacity for error, can’t be entirely removed. So while balls and strikes might be ironed out in short order, what about rulings on plays deep in the outfield, or at the plate?

The Korean Baseball Organization looks at the human element in a different way. While they’ve been utilizing robo-umps since 2021, the KBO also has a system in place for demoting and “retraining” umpires, and they’ll use it. The MLB system, while it technically allows for umpires to be punished up to and including termination, favors the union, experience, and accountability through feedback, evaluations, and exclusion from plum assignments. Unofficially, of course, we also have the broadcast booth, social media, and observations delivered from the stands.

There should be a systematized way, as most workplaces have, to support umpires while acknowledging that some of them need a performance plan. Whether that means they’re on their way out the door or can truly be “retrained” would probably depend on how such a clause is structured within a bargaining agreement. I don’t expect we’ll ever see anything like that, either.

But this system of withholding postseason games from bad umps doesn’t save us from them in regular ol’ mid-season games, and that’s a shame.