The MLB is experimenting with robotic umpires — and there’s already a surprising source of opposition.
Every major sports league pursues innovation on some level. The NBA and NFL are known for breakthroughs in sports medicine and treatment. In the MLB, recent advancements have hinged on the potential future implementation of ABS — the Automatic Ball-Strike System.
That’s right: the MLB is on the verge of transitioning to robo-umps. While the timeline of that implementation is unclear, the league has been testing the method in Triple-A all year. On the surface, it’s the perfectly calibrated solution to every baseball fan’s greatest frustration. The errant strike, the improperly judged ball. It could all be eliminated from the game completely.
And yet, not everyone is on board. On citric in particular might surprise fans.
MLB catchers might not like the implementation of robo-umps
One would think catchers would be the primary supporter of robo-umps. The strike zone wouldn’t change night to night. There’d be no need to argue with umps, no need to frame pitches. And therein lies the issue.
Evan Skoug, catcher for the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, had the following to say about the ABS system to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.
"“I’m completely against [full] ABS when I’m catching, because if you think about it, some of the best catchers that I’ve idolized and looked up to while playing have made their career defensively. It doesn’t really matter how great you hit if you can control the staff and steal some strikes. You can play for a really long time and you can make a lot of money.There’s so much more to the position value-wise that ABS would just put a damper on. But I think the challenge system is fun. I like watching hitters’ faces in the box. So it’s fun when the machine actually works and it shows you where the pitch was.”"
He has a point. Would baseball fans or players really like a perfect ball-strike system? Isn’t half the fun for fans arguing belligerently when the ump screws your favorite team? Is it not part of pitching to adapt and exploit an umpire’s tendencies? And yes, for catchers, half the defensive battle is framing balls as strikes.
We would no longer get ridiculous power displays from umpires who clearly don’t have a clue where the strike zone begins and ends. Sure, that can be annoying — but it’s also so ingrained in baseball culture, such a foundational aspect of the sport, that the idea of getting rid of it feels… wrong. Take away human error for sanitized, robotic perfection, and all of a sudden the game just doesn’t quite feel the same.
The MLB fandom will probably be split down the middle on this issue. The idea of getting the right call every time does have a certain appeal for the more rigidly lawful type. But baseball has long been a sport for humans, played by humans, and judged by humans. Maybe American’s favorite pastime should stay that way — human.