Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I, Umpire

With the computer Watson blowing up CBS on Jeopardy! this week and visions of Skynet from The Terminator dancing in my head, it struck me: Will machines one day replace umpires in baseball and furthermore would it be a good idea?
For several years now ESPN has employed the "K-Zone" software to help analyze and show where pitches fall in the strike zone as defined by the rules of MLB. Fox also uses a similar program that was prevalent throughout the 2010 playoffs, almost to the point of being annoying. From what I observed, the computer representations of where the pitches fell in the strike zone was dead on. More importantly it was impartial and that's why I think, if the technology some day becomes available, specialized computers should replace umpires.
Numerous reasons abound as to why this would be an excellent idea. First and foremost would be a consistent strike zone. One of the most irritating aspects of baseball for players has to be adjusting to a particular umpire's strike zone. Some are wide as Michael Moore's waistline, others are smaller than Papa Smurf. By introducing a pre-programmed strike zone that is unilateral throughout all major league ballparks, it removes the guessing game and hopefully reduces ejections and fights.
Another reason why baseball could profit from robotic umpires is that computers are completely devoid of emotion. How many times in baseball do you see a manager or a player argue balls and strikes and the next thing you know the strike zone shrinks quicker than Seinfeld's George Costanza emerging from a cold ocean? The idea of impartiality for umpires is both naive and a falsehood. I'm not trying to say that umpires are dishonest or that they don't try to be impartial. I'm just saying I've seen the situation I've just described happen too many times to not realistically think that heightened emotions play a factor in calling the games.
I'd be remiss if I didn't include the most obvious benefit to robotic umpires: accuracy. It is a proven scientific fact that computers are much more accurate than human beings when it comes to quantifiable data. Routine diagnostic checks would ensure that the robot/computer would consistently do its job correctly.
Right now people reading this article who prescribe to the idea of "the human element" are probably approaching my townhouse with torches and pitch forks. But before you go all angry mob on me why don't you go ask the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals how much the human element benefited them in game six of the World Series? Or ask the 2001 Oakland As to argue the merits of the "human element" when it comes to plays at the plate?
In any case the "human element" will remain. Managers still have to know when to pinch hit, when to sacrifice, or what reliever to bring in. Players will continue to anticipate the next pitch, decide when to steal second, or when to play shallow in left field. The human element isn't going anywhere.
Now the realistic question is will this ever happen? Probably not. Traditionalists and others will argue that something will be lost if we hand over the umpire duties to computers and their contentions will undoubtedly be enough to stymie any Isaac Asimov-like takeover. To be fair I can see their point. I'll take the crack of the bat and the smell of fresh cut grass on opening day over WAR and FIP every time. However, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs like BBIMH, we are more inundated by computers than any time in the history of the world. Is it so unrealistic to think replacing umpires with robots is a distinct possibility? Like the success of popstar Ke$ha anything is possible. So don't get angry when I suggest that replacing umpires with machines might happen.
I only call 'em like I see 'em.

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