The Case For Electronic Umpires

On October 12, 2020 the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Houston Astros in Game 2 of the ALCS by a score of 4-2. The winning pitcher was Charlie Morton who hurled five innings, giving up zero earned runs with five strikeouts. The losing pitcher was Lance McCullers who tossed seven innings of one-run ball, with an impressive eleven strikeouts and zero walks. Both pitchers were borderline perfect in their respective outings, arguably the two most impressive performances of the night. Unfortunately, they were both outdone by none other than the home plate umpire John Tumpane.

Tumpane was perfect throughout Game 2, and that is no exaggeration. According to Umpire Ejection Fantasy League (UEFL), who track all pitchers and pitches electronically, Tumpane had 135 correct pitch calls out of 135 callable pitches. He correctly called 100% of the pitches in the game. Not just any game though: a high intensity, pressure cooker, playoff game! It was an extremely impressive performance given the setting and the fact that it was Tumpane’s first ever game behind the dish for a League Championship Series. Tumpane first debuted in the majors in 2010. He became a full-time umpire in 2012, and got his first playoff action in 2017. He has also been the home plate umpire for two no-hitters–Mike Fiers no-no against the Los Angeles Angels in 2015 and the Los Angeles Dodgers combined no-hitter in 2018.

Before Game 2 of the ALCS, the closest an umpire had come to calling a perfect game behind the plate in the playoffs was in 2018 when “Cowboy” Joe West correctly called 99.4% of pitches in an ALCS game between the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros. So, after achieving perfection one would think that all Tumpane received after the game was nothing but kudos and congratulations, but that was not the case. Actually, the exact opposite occurred. During the game, national baseball reporter Jared Carrabis tweeted out a video from the game of Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton striking out Astros designated hitter Michael Brantley looking with a beautiful curveball that nicked the outside of the plate. This caused Twins slugger and MLB veteran Josh Donaldson to respond “Top 3 worst ump in the game.” This was a pretty interesting comment considering Tumpane was perfect.

This leads us to what happens in every baseball game, and what will happen until the end of time: arguing balls and strikes. As long as there is a human being behind home plate calling balls and strikes, there will be arguments and debates. It does not matter if it is the pitcher, batter, catcher, or manager; it will always happen. One of the participating parties will not be happy with the umpires decision and they will argue with him. Back before electronics, arguing was much more opinion based. It was the umpire’s word (and eye), versus the arguing party’s. But now that we have beautiful technology, umpires, players, coaches, fans, etc. can see any pitch from any given game and see with their own eyes if a certain pitch was correctly called a ball or strike.

This leads us to the question at hand: why do we still use human beings to call balls and strikes? Since the beginning of baseball we have always had umpires at games to make calls, keep everything fair and, when needed, be the voice of reason. There is absolutely still a need for umpires in the game of baseball. That is not what I am about to get into. Rather, why should we still have them behind home plate, calling balls and strikes, when we have technology that can get it perfect?

Within the past several years all major sports have started using video replay and technology to help make crucial calls. Professional football, basketball, and hockey use video replay to ensure calls are made correctly and and allow the ability for bad calls to be changed. Football now reviews every touchdown and turnover because they are the most impactful parts of a game. Hockey reviews all goals for the same reason, and basketball can review any play in the last two minutes. The reason they do this is to ensure that the right call is made. That is what is most important in games, that the correct call is made. People will argue a block or charge in the NBA until the cows come home, or if Dez caught it, or if pass interference was the right or wrong call.

Baseball has the ability to get every single call right. There is no gray area, either a pitch is a ball or strike, or a player is out or safe. Rob Manfred has the ability to get every single call right and should absolutely use it sooner rather than later. It is crazy that in Major League Baseball a pitcher can make a perfect pitch with two outs in the ninth inning and the wrong call can get made because the umpire did not see it the same way as the entire world watching on television. Major League Baseball has made great strides instituting video review into their games, but why limit yourselves to just plays when the ball is batted, why not also balls and strikes?

As part of a partnership with Major League Baseball, the independent Atlantic League started using robot umpires and electronic strike zones in 2019. The Arizona Fall League also instituted the electronic strike not long after. Major League Baseball basically started this partnership with the Atlantic League to be used as a testing ground for possible rule changes that could be made to the big leagues in the future. The process of using the electronic strike zone is very easy. There is still an umpire standing behind home plate, but instead of using his own eyes, he has a sensor and earpiece on him, with someone relaying the correct call to him after a pitch is made. Extremely easy and useful. I believe the reason we have not seen the robot umpires more is because there have been problems. The Automated Balls and Strikes (ABS) system has broken down multiple times in the Atlantic League. When this does happen, umpires then have to revert to the classic way of calling a game. This is normal for any new system, though, and obviously MLB has to work out some kinks to ensure better results when/if they debut it at the Major League level.

What I have noticed over the past couple seasons that I have not noticed before is that much of what goes into calling balls and strikes is really based on where the catcher sets up. It seems as if a catcher sets up low and away, and the pitcher hits his spot, then he gets the call. If he does not hit his spot, more often than not a ball is called. Numerous times this season I found myself shaking my head at terrible calls made by home plate umpires simply because a pitcher did not hit his spot. While watching on TV the crowd can see the electronic strike zone and, for example, I have watched many times where a catcher set up inside, the pitcher misses the spot, but the ball still crosses the plate for an easy strike, and the umpire calls the pitch a ball. If the catcher had set up in a different location, then the pitcher probably gets the call, and gets ahead in the count.

No more should this happen though. With electronic umpires, catcher framing will be gone and the right call will get made 100% of the time. I will never understand the people who claim to want the human element in baseball. All of those people want a human element until an umpire makes the wrong call against his or her team. Then they will be crying for robot umpires.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Major League Baseball had an agreement to start testing robot umpires in some minor league ballparks this past summer. This obviously could not happen so hopefully we will begin to see those robot umpires next summer. I am excited that robot umpires will soon be used in Minor League Baseball, and then soon after Major League Baseball. Commissioner Rob Manfred recently entered a new five-year labor contract, and if he wants to start using robot umpires at the Major League level, then the umpires have to comply. I hope we as fans do not have to wait the full five years. I would like to see it as soon as possible, but as stated before we do not want the ABS crashing mid-game. If we are going to use the system, make sure it is going to work. Simply put, robot umpires are the best thing for the game. At a time when Major League Baseball and their fans are clamoring for quicker games and more action, robot umpires could absolutely speed up the game. And just like any sport, I believe the fans want the right call to be made. You never want to see the outcome of a game decided by human error. There is and always will be a place for umpires and humans as umpires in the game of baseball, but at the end of the day, just get the call right.

(Photo Credit: Orlin Wagner/AP)

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