Robot umpires have been part of baseball for several years now, but the big leagues don’t plan to use them in 2024. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that Major League Baseball would not be using the robot-umps that have become commonplace in Triple-A games.
The Automatic Balls and Strikes system, or ABS, has been in use since 2019. In 2023, it was used in all the Triple-A games, and in half of games in other minor leagues. Human umpires are still in place, but they re supposed to do nothing more than relay the automatic call determining whether the ball is a strike or a ball, in or out.
Some leagues have chosen instead to use the ABS as a challenge system to back up human umpires. No games currently feature Spot or Optimus standing behind the plate.
What’s good about robo-umps
Robot umpires are supposed to be unbiased and extremely accurate. They are not affected, as human beings are, by whether they’re having a good day or whether they’ve had lunch.
Statistically, they also seem to speed up the games, without any loss in accuracy. Baseball has been having some low points recently, and experts think that faster game might bring in more fans.
Sure enough, the games in Triple-A were shorter and there were more fans in the seats.
So why not the major leagues?
One obstacle is the fans, some of whom have strong feelings about ABS. Some claim that it will “ruin the game” and many have threatened to boycott Major League Baseball if the robotic systems are brought in.
Robo-umps have also made errors, just as humans have. People seem to resent it more when it’s a robot making the error, though. The technology is supposed to define the strike zone with complete accuracy and precision, making the decisions downright mechanical. Some people are frustrated when that doesn’t seem to happen, but others see the human judgements as an integral part of the game. Making those decisions mathematical takes the fun out, for people who see it that way.
Last summer, Commissioner Manfred said, “There are difficult issues surrounding the strike zone that affect outcomes on the field, and we need to make sure we understand those before we jump off that bridge.”
In a more recent statement, he said, “We ought to let the dust settle and there are clearly unresolved operational issues with respect to ABS. Despite all the testing, we still have some things that are unresolved.”
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