The baseball umpire of the future is a computer-human hybrid

Sophisticated computer vision systems may not replace all-too-human umpires any time soon, but they are helping to refine their skills

Toronto Blue Jays’ Troy Tulowitzki yells at an umpire

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Every baseball fan has inevitably seen a few calls go against their favourite team. It’s not surprising, then, that a push is on to increasingly automate the art of calling balls and strikes.

The Pacific Association, an independent baseball league in Northern California, last year made waves with an experiment that fully automated umpires.

Using PITCHf/x, a three-camera system designed by Chicago-based Sportvision, the league was able to fully replicate human umpires—with accurate results.

PITCHf/x is also in use in all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums, but not in the same way. The system tracks balls and strikes and displays them on screen for home viewers. It’s also used to audit the human umpires’ performance.

Not surprisingly, the debate over whether the system should be used to replace humans is in full gear. There are good points on both sides.

Old-school types argue that human error and emotion is part of the game, and indeed part of the fun, so it needs to stay there.

“People need something to bitch about, it’s part of sports,” Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told Fox Sports. “The game has been so good for so long, sometimes you just have to leave it alone.”

In a sport as storied as baseball, there are also questions as to how computerized umpires would affect statistics and decades-old records. Human imperfections have contributed to all kinds of metrics, from inflated strikeout totals for pitchers to higher home run totals for sluggers.

There’s also the question of where does all the technology stop? If computers are calling balls and strikes, it’s also foreseeable that they could eventually replace managers too. Much of the job involves crunching numbers and player match-ups, which are tasks that machines are considerably better at.

On the other side, there’s the argument for fairness. Every player, manager and fan has experienced lapses in officiating and the heartbreak that can result. A computer that gets it right every time would do wonders for calling games straight down the middle, leaving teams to sort out the winner for themselves, as it should be.

The answer, at least for the near future, is likely to be the same as it in nearly all of the current debates over robots versus humans – a hybrid situation where the machines make the humans better.

It’s already happening, according to Audits of umpires using numbers from PITCHf/x is resulting in humans improving their own game, as well as poorer performers being weeded out.

“The number of ‘true’ strikes—those verified by PITCHf/x—has increased from 82% to over 90% in the seven years since MLB installed the tracking system,” Fox Sports says.

Robot umpires may never be accepted by players or fans—but better human umpires? Yes, please, and fast.