When will pitch-tracking technology displace baseball umpires?

This is a fascinating article by Ben Lindbergh, and it does not require interest in baseball, here is one bit:

“The goal, of course, is no error, or as close to that ideal as we can possibly come. And so the best solution might be a hybrid approach that combines tradition with technology. Not robot umps, but regular umps with input from robot brains.”

Here is another good bit of many:

Over time, players have internalized some of the idiosyncrasies of the strike zone as it’s currently called. The zone called against left-handed hitters is shifted a couple inches away relative to righties. The size of the zone fluctuates depending on the count — expanding dramatically on 3-0 and shrinking severely on 0-2 — and according to the base-out state, velocity of the pitch, and many other factors. Yes, these are all arguments in support of standardizing the strike zone, assuming you like to see pitches called according to code. They’re also reasons to exercise caution. “Because it’s always worked this way” isn’t a good reason not to do something different, but it is a reason to think through the possible ramifications before making a major change that could upset the delicate batter-pitcher balance. Players will adjust to whatever the zone looks like, but it’s in baseball’s best interests to make those adjustments smooth.

McKean cautions that instituting an automatic zone “would ruin the game,” which makes him the latest in a long line of thus-far-incorrect critics who’ve warned that something would be the end of baseball. “If you told the pitchers to try and throw that ball with an automatic strike zone, which means it has to hit some part of that plate or be in some part of that strike zone, heck, the games would go on for five, six hours,” he says. My guess is that he has the direction of the effect right, but the magnitude wrong. Automating the strike zone would probably make it slightly smaller, on the whole, and more predictable for the hitter. That could increase scoring and perhaps lead to longer games, but not to such an extent that the sport would be broken.

However, standardizing the zone would remove a level of interplay between batter, pitcher, catcher, and umpire that many fans find compelling.

Interesting throughout, and for the pointer I thank Hamp Nettles.


As a lifetime baseball fan, "no error" has always been my dream. Maybe once we automate the officiating, we can replace the players with robots. Watching baseball would then be just like watching code execute.

This is a common argument, but pretty silly. Everyone goes to the game to watch the players, not the umpires. The umps don't exist to add a further human element, just to make the conditions as fair as possible for the players to compete. If an ump has a big, memorable role in a game, it is almost always because of a missed call, which everyone agrees made the game worse.

I'll just note that news is not full of stories of planes landing safely or dogs not biting mailmen. As you say, what can make a game memorable is a controversial call. Therefore, the desire to dehumanize the game will inevitably make it less interesting. The last World Series will be remembered in two cities because of the oddities and human failures in the first two games, at least one of which was a controversial call by the human umpires.

Look, I understand the desire to drive all the fun out of life. The Soviet Empire spent 70 years making every little aspect of human existence unpleasant. That bloodthirsty drive for efficiency always has an army of stat geeks behind it. People do not want to watch math contests nor do they want to watch robots play sports. Sports are for the entertainment of humans and we happen to be entertained by the mistakes and miscalculations of other humans playing games.

I don't understand, wouldn't you be in favor of the Soviet Empire making everyone's life unpleasant because it makes life memorable and gives people things to complain about? You seem to also be in favor of dog maulings and plane crashes? Do I have it correct that you are not in favor of all planes landing safely, but rather would like some to crash for the entertainment?

It's simple. He's saying an automated strike zone reflects a Soviet-style, bloodthirsty attempt to drive all the fun out of life.

I don't think any of us can argue with that.

By that metric, attempts at making sure we all get an accurate paycheck, or an accurate electricity bill, is taking the fun out of life too?

We can plant landmines on the base paths, too. Make things really memorable.

Umpires do add a human element, and should. The subtly moving target of home plate umpire sensibilities is part of the fun of baseball, right along with their wildly divergent ways of signaling a strikeout. Not true of basketball refs, tennis chair umpires, etc. Baseball is different.

Once the remaining accuracy problems have been ironed out, use the tennis model -- keep the home-plate umpire but give the batter some number of challenges (per game, per at bat, etc)

What is the justification for the challenge system in tennis? If you instantly know the correct call, you should use that every time. The same goes for balls and strikes. Not to mention the fact that letting the batter challenge this would slow down the game even more.

Because it's an approach that people already understand from other sports, it that would change the game the least, and you're going to need an umpire there anyway (for other calls) -- he's going to look pretty silly just standing there. And it will add interest -- should the batter use a challenge or not? Who has the better eye, the batter or the home-plate umpire?

In the meantime, a good pitch tracker should be usable as a practice/feedback mechanism for umps. Nice interplay between man and technology.

Also, the 3-0 vs. 0-2 thing is very interesting. Upon reflection, it's clear to all parties what goes on in these situations and generally perceived as fair. Organic, Burkean.

Thinking more, though, I could see moving away from such a rule of thumb without ruining the game.

The technology also has a chance to displace (or de-value) catchers with good pitch-framing abilities (which turns out can be very valuable: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9275754/) and pitchers that can hit spots outside of the zones that look like strikes.

Pretty sure this helped Red Sox get past the TIgers.

If you like your umpire, you can keep him.

If the players can make mistakes, why not the officials?

The game is supposed to be a competition between two teams of players. This is like saying, why can't fans randomly run onto the field and disturb play in the middle of the game sometimes? Let's just have random elements introduced into the game to ruin the competition.

That's not the case at all. Who's talking about fans running out on the field? Did your lobotomy include the area that uses logic? Tangentially, there does need to be more randomness in sport. While no two baseball parks are identical, football fields and basketball courts are all the same. Why? There should be cars and furniture in places on the gridiron, just as it was when you were a kid and the neighbor told you to run down to Dad's Impala and hook for a pass. Basketball courts could be narrower on one end than the other or slightly uphill. Golf has the sense to move the cup around on the green between tournament rounds after all.

Cliff is using the classical logical device of reductio ad absurdum. Lobotomy accusation fail.

"The strike zone as it’s currently called" : the true strike zone :: Starship Troopers the movie : Starship Troopers the novel.

Might speed up games, since there would be less complaining by the batter/catcher/manager about ball and strike calls.

Actually arguing balls and strikes is not allowed. It's pretty much an automatic ejection if you argue a ball/strike call.

If baseball moved any faster no one would be able to keep track of what's going on. What's the rush? If it moves too slowly for you maybe you should stick to the NBA. Oh, wait, they have free throws.

Such technology will probably replace the home plate umpire's strike/ball calling at some point- this would a great improvement on the game, in my opinion. Ball tracking can also take care of rule issues like whether or not a ball is fair or foul. Less easy to automate would be close safe/out calls, and catches versus non-catches, and various interference and balk calls. I do expect at some point, perhaps during a prolonged strike by the union, the umpires get replaced by baseball owners utilizing replay and 1 to 2 officials in a booth.

Got to like a union getting its unfireable members paid in the six figures for short workdays 7 months a year with a month of paid vacation during that time that still has screwups like the mass resignation in 1999.

"However, standardizing the zone would remove a level of interplay between batter, pitcher, catcher, and umpire that many fans find compelling."

That sums up my feelings. The inconsistencies create controversies which are compelling. They also add uncertainty, which tends to increase the drama.

I actually enjoy some of the things that are "unfair" about how umpires call pitches. For example, if a pitch that just barely skims the strike zone, but is mostly out, whether the ump calls it a ball or strike may depend on the pitcher and how they've been throwing that day. One who has had excellent control and location may get it called a strike since they've proven to the ump that they can throw it where they want to. This "just barely a strike" was likely thrown that way on purpose. Whereas a pitcher who hasn't had good control and has had trouble hitting the strike zone all day may not get the call. The ump is, in essence saying, "I think you just got lucky. I need you to prove to me that you can throw an undeniable strike when you need to. You need to earn my respect."

In essence, the ump gets leeway in order to separate the masterful from the lucky.

It's not fair, but it can be quite compelling! It effects the psychology of the pitcher and also the pitch selection by the pitcher/catcher battery. It's an element of uncertainty that can add to the drama.

That is absolutely absurd. You want strikes called balls if they are thrown by bad pitchers. What is compelling about that?

enter Greg Maddux

WRONG WRONG WRONGSKY! OMG you guys missed this.

Wow, only Contrarian and Nylund upstream hinted at the problem with making a 'perfect strike zone' robot ump: revenue, fan interest, close series! Wow, have you guys read Freakonomics? You call yourselves economists? lol

Background: a study once found that playoff games statistically go to "game 7" too often, or more often than mere chance would predict. Why? Because the umpires are doing what is known in engineering as companding (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Companding )--bringing down the highs and bringing up the lows. They are giving 'breaks' to the losing team (so they can catch up) and 'calling a strict, tight strike zone' to the winning team (so it will be tougher to win), and adjusting for home team advantage (so all things equal the home team will win), so that the game becomes more exciting, and the series becomes close.

This is for the fans interest, as well as maximizing revenue with TV series. Also the larger city team (with more media interest) will win over the smaller city team--again, in the interest of the greatest good for the greatest number of baseball fans--a harsh Bentham utilitarianism but it works. Witness the Red Sox World Series drama. You cannot say this is bad for baseball, even if you hate the Sox.

Done in chess too, indirectly: for the longest time there was the "Botvinnik rule", named after a chess grandmaster, which said the world championship match would remain with the incumbent if there was a tie--which statistically favored the incumbent to win about 56% of the time, even if his opponent was equal in strength.

BTW, none of the above requires a conspiracy by the league umpires to work: institutionally, every ump that loves baseball knows a close game or series will bring back fans and increase interest, and thus does this companding at a subconscious level. Kind of like being deferential to the partner in charge in your office who is a bit wacky but brings in money and likes you--diplomacy is the key, not efficiency. It might be more efficient to just tell him straight up he's wacko, but long term that won't help either you or him. For the good of baseball, companding is practiced by all umpires that are successful. Which raises another issue: sometimes a referee (in football especially) that will, at the very crucial moment in a game, call a play *against* the home team that was about to win, and thereby alienating the crowd. On replay it was a "close call" that could have gone in favor of the home team. Why do refs do this? UNLESS it is series of games --unlike football which is a knockout format--and the refs are trying to even the series, the reason is not for companding but for physiological reasons: these refs are seeking notoriety, especially if it's the NFL on national TV. This has also been commented on. BTW none of this is news nor original thought by me: it's well known among the informed.

Ray Lopez best MR commenter

Says the guy who follows every Ray Lopez post with a fawning comment. Sock puppet?

You're outta here! Off the cliff, Cliff. Mike is right. Like Mike, if I could be like Mike. I am indeed the best commentator. You know what my hourly rate is? More than you make all week at McDees. And you get my insights for free. There's a paradox there, the same kind that seems to drive so-called free market economies (for example, as I've said elsewhere, by definition no Nobel Prize for science 'discovery' is patentable and thus monetizeable, yet people make these discoveries for the mere fame it will bring and the possibility, years after they make the discovery and when there's a chance they may die beforehand, as happened to at least one Nobelian in economics I believe, that they may get a Nobel Prize. Get the Solow model of growth assumes all long-term growth comes from these scientific discoveries, more or less done for "free". Go figure).

Ditto - Ray Lopez is the best. Even if he is a satirical creation.

'Studying under Dick Bavetta for 13 years was like pursuing a graduate degree in advanced game manipulation. He knew how to marshal the tempo and tone of a game better than any referee in the league, by far. He also knew how to take subtle — and not so subtle — cues from the NBA front office and extend a playoff series or, worse yet, change the complexion of that series.

The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings presents a stunning example of game and series manipulation at its ugliest. As the teams prepared for Game 6 at the Staples Center, Sacramento had a 3–2 lead in the series. The referees assigned to work Game 6 were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt. As soon as the referees for the game were chosen, the rest of us knew immediately that there would be a Game 7. A prolonged series was good for the league, good for the networks, and good for the game. Oh, and one more thing: it was great for the big-market, star-studded Los Angeles Lakers.

In the pregame meeting prior to Game 6, the league office sent down word that certain calls — calls that would have benefitted the Lakers — were being missed by the referees. This was the type of not-so-subtle information that I and other referees were left to interpret. After receiving the dispatch, Bavetta openly talked about the fact that the league wanted a Game 7.

"If we give the benefit of the calls to the team that's down in the series, nobody's going to complain. The series will be even at three apiece, and then the better team can win Game 7," Bavetta stated.

As history shows, Sacramento lost Game 6 in a wild come-from-behind thriller that saw the Lakers repeatedly sent to the foul line by the referees. For other NBA referees watching the game on television, it was a shameful performance by Bavetta's crew, one of the most poorly officiated games of all time.' http://deadspin.com/5392067/excerpts-from-the-book-the-nba-doesnt-want-you-to-read

And this, of course, is why basketball is an objectively inferior sport. No other major spectator sport is as difficult to officiate, and therefore easy to manipulate. It's basically professional wrestling.

"It's well known among the informed."

Please cite your sources.

BTW please cite the study or go home

The Botvinnik Rule means something different - if the Champion loses the title he gets the right to a rematch for the title.

Ok but in the event of a tie, the reigning champion kept the title, as happened with Botvinnik-Bronstein in 1951. Also the right for a rematch without having to go through a grueling Candidates elimination is invaluable.

However, it seems that this is the opposite of "companding", because it gives the leader even more of an edge.

Inquiring minds want to know:

When will pitch-tracking technology displace baseball umpires?

When will cooking technology displace chefs?

When will AI technology displace restaurant reviewers?

When will supercomputers displace economists?

When will robots displace beautiful women?

When will robots displace athletes and "professional" sports?


"When will robots displace beautiful women?"

Not until they can get pregnant with my child

You are basically all wrong.

This has been largely implemented on cricket but on anopt-in or challenge basis - either the players or umpire can invoke the machine review.

The greatest controversies of the last season were about the calls made by the technology and decisions to challenge/not challenge particular decisions.

What is everyone all wrong about?

Pitch tracking is already implemented in every major league ball park (just not used for calls in the game) and it is indisputably more accurate than umpires. If all pitch calling were done by machine, there would be little occasion for controversy.

Of course if you put implement pitch tracking within the context of an incredibly dumb system that seems designed to create disputes, it will cause controversy. Because of the system, not the technology.

In the Beginning, fencing matches were scored by judges that raised their hand when they saw one of the fencers touch hir opponent with the tip of hir weapon. From time to time judges missed touches, or saw touches that didn't happen. Therefore, the authorities automated touch detection by attaching small pressure-sensitive push-buttons to the tips of the weapons. Wires are used to conduct the impulses to an electronic machine, which signaled touches with a light and a buzzer. The machines could also tell who touched whom first, if it was close, or it could light up both players' lights if the two touches were within a certain interval.

The authorities had a few parameters to play with -- the strength of the spring in the push-button which controlled how hard you have to touch, the amount by which the button has to collapse before lighting a touch for similar intent, how long the push-button has to be depressed, and how close to simultaneous the touches have to be to register as mutual touches. They played with these parameters until it was generally agreed that most of the time the machines gave the same results as human judges.

Then the electronic scoring was widely distributed, until even suburban tournaments and fencing clubs where people go to practice had them.

Almost immediately, the sport became more athletic. Why did it change? Because fencers could plan on getting credit for touches that might happen too fast for a judge to see. I would expect baseball to become more of a precision game among pitchers and batters. Whether that's good or bad is in the eye of the beholder.


Yeah, "more athletic" but less "artistic". Recall the heart breaking fencing story in the last Olympics, where a young Korean woman fencer lost by a fraction of a second (the merest fraction too) that was imperceptible to the human eye, to a heavily favored European fencer, without Googling it I think she was a white Austrian. The Korean was distraught and refused to leave the stage, with the crowd behind her. But the "machines won" and she only got silver not gold. If a human was scoring no doubt the Korean would have won. Now before you accuse me of being inconsistent if you read my post upstream, where I argue that big city teams will win more often than small city teams, when judged by human umpires, keep in mind that in the Olympics the underdog winning is actually more revenue enhancing if it is an international competition. This is because everybody enjoys a heavily favored underdog to win, as it increases viewership (exception: team sports like football, ice skating or gymnastics). So no doubt the young Korean woman would have won if humans were scoring the match. Hence more "artistry" or "poetry" (David beats Goliath, or at least the non-Malcolm Gladwell version of David) when a human scores a fencing match.

I will further comment on something nobody picked up yet -c'mon people I can't do all the heavy lifting on these comments, you have to keep up and engage--machines make mistakes. Working with electronics, and not just the soldering iron type, I can attest to this. Actual example: a 100m sprinter years ago, from some Caribbean country and small of frame (this is what made him unusual) who was disqualified for a false start, and refused to leave the track, then later it turns out that in fact his ear was so sensitive that it picked up on sound from the starter's pistol and the electronic sensor to indicate when a runner started was faulty by a few milliseconds, and in fact, an engineer of the device said, the runner was correct about the start time when you adjust for the speed of sound. There are other examples too but I don't have time to get into it, I'm working on an expensive project at the moment and I'm time starved.

no wait the sprinter was from an African country I think. East Africa if memory serves. Not memory server but serves, lol.

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