Thinking About Sports: Some Constructive Criticism of Robot Umpires

by Alex Fredman | 4/17/20 2:00am

thinkingsports
by Clara Pakman / The Dartmouth Staff

From a young age, I mastered the art of what I call “constructively criticizing those aspects of the world around me that are objectively unsatisfactory.”

Some of you might call it complaining, but it’s really much more refined than that. Growing up in a Jewish family, you learn that this art form has various degrees of sophistication — from the relatively trivial rants about banalities a la Larry David to the detailed critiques of societies’ deepest flaws a la Karl Marx.

I’m not a communist, so I largely stick to the former, particularly when it comes to sports.

Which brings me to the matter of starting up the baseball season.

There’s been some talk in the last couple weeks that Major League Baseball is considering a plan to have the teams start the season in Arizona and Florida in the spring training parks, perhaps as early as next month. Instead of the National League and the American League, there would be the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. No fans in the stands, of course.

I think this is probably good news. It would give people something to enjoy — albeit only on television — amid the crisis we are facing today.

You might be thinking that starting the baseball season so soon is unfeasible and an unfair diversion of resources considering the circumstances. That’s reasonable, but there’s a strong case to be made that a diversion is just what we need right now. Baseball didn’t even stop during World War II, and it came back within a week of 9/11. If this plan works out, I’d be all the more happy because of it.

But something caught my eye that I must admit has somewhat soured my appetite.

Earlier this month, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on the initial talks between the MLB and the player’s union about starting the season. Passan wrote that the league was considering implementing an electronic strike zone so umpires wouldn’t have to be so close to the catchers.

In other words, robots calling balls and strikes.

You know, I’ve heard a lot of bad ideas in my life. Privatizing Social Security. Going to school in Ithaca, N.Y. Selling beer at Dartmouth sports games.

Wait. Strike that last one. That was my idea.

Anyway, I’m telling you I am not remotely kidding when I say that having robot umpires call balls and strikes would literally ruin baseball forever.

For-ever. For-ev-er. For. Ev. Er.

You’re killin’ me Smalls.

Listen people, we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. They’ll be bringing in robot players next. For all we know, the fans will be replaced by robots, too.

I have a question: Has the MLB lost complete sight of the fact that having a human being call balls and strikes is one of the best parts of baseball?

Let’s start with the strike zone itself. What constitutes a strike and a ball has always been subjective. Guess what? That’s a good thing. It makes the game interesting, conflictual — even a little slimy.

Sometimes a pitcher can bargain his way into a bigger strike zone by hitting the corners more, or a catcher can frame a pitch just right. The zone can vary throughout the game and be the source of some heated arguments. It’s inherently unfair, and that’s what makes it uniquely great in the world of sports.

To me, there’s nothing quite like watching an overpaid batter being called out on strikes on a pitch outside. But it’s got to be by a human umpire. I just don’t think I could handle the sight of R2-D2 ringing up Mike Trout.

Not only is the strike zone subjective, but it can reflect the personality of the umpire behind the plate. If an umpire doesn’t like a batter’s attitude, that could affect the way he calls a borderline pitch, even if subconsciously. Sometimes an umpire will call a ball just to remind the pitcher who’s in charge. Five different umpires would call a game in five distinct ways, and that means the identity of the home plate umpire is a crucial part of the game.

One of my favorite umpires is Joe West. They call him Cowboy Joe. He’s such a bad umpire that he’s entertaining. He once called two balks on Mark Buehrle in the same game and then ejected him. I’ll bet a robot couldn’t do that.

Robots don’t make mistakes, and that would be a problem when applied to baseball. Sometimes the fans need someone to blame when their team’s doing badly. You can’t really criticize a robot for being stingy around the corners, but you sure can take it out on an umpire. And umpires make lots of mistakes.

I kind of like that, because I enjoy yelling when watching sports. I think it runs in my dad’s side of the family. I usually talk like my mom, but when an umpire or a referee blows a call, I sound just like my dad. There’s a great feeling of catharsis you get upon informing the umpire that it’s time for a new prescription.

It’s becoming harder to do that when watching baseball, though, even on TV. Now most stations superimpose an imaginary strike zone on the screen during each pitch so you can judge for yourself.

I think it’s stupid. No one ever said that fans have the right to call pitches. There just wouldn’t be any fun in that.

But who’s complaining? I’m not. It’s just constructive criticism.