Unsettling perfection in league of robot umpires

Anyone who’s heard about that crazy, umpire-free independent league in California is hereby forgiven for waffling on the issue. You can’t decide if it’s the next frontier in the majors or just too spooky to contemplate. That’s understandable. Future shock is never easy.

As instant replay has become the game’s new rock star, the real question is how much technology do we want? Will umpires still be necessary by 2025?

One possible answer is the Pacific Association’s experiment with computerized tracking of balls and strikes. The human home-plate umps aren’t entirely obsolete – someone still has to make calls on tag plays and force-outs at the plate. And the remaining three are still needed to work the lines and the bases. But the strike zone is the domain of high-tech sensors. One is positioned in center field, the other two are at the corners of the backstop.

Of course it’s a gimmick, but it’s also – considering it’s been devised and promoted by former major leaguer Eric Byrnes – worth taking seriously. You bet MLB’s higher-ups, including the commissioner, were paying attention. Tellingly, Rob Manfred says, “if I knew there was a machine that could eliminate arguments on balls and strikes, I’d be interested.”

Byrnes’ system claims to do just that. “Right now, our margin of error is within an inch,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle, noting that the average umpire is accurate only up to a foot.

With some satisfaction, Byrnes asks, “Which do you feel better using?”

Depends on whom you ask. The game’s hierarchy is pro-technology, at least for instant replay, which will continue to expand. The managers are split: Some are sympathetic to the umpires, others say the check is coming due on years of bad attitudes and lack of accountability.

Of course, the umpires’ most vocal advocates are the umps themselves, who believe it would be a mistake to sterilize the game.

“There’s a dynamic, whether you’re a player or a manager or an umpire, we all collaborate,” said Brian Lam, an attorney for the umpires union. “We make the game what it is.”

Part of the calculus is the arguments, which Lam says, “fans enjoy.”

“One of the biggest complaints of instant replay is that manager and players can’t yell at umpires anymore,” he said. “We don’t miss (the arguing) but we acknowledge that’s part of the game.”

Indeed, the era of managers getting in umpires’ faces, whipping up the crowd and ultimately getting ejected in dramatic fashion is fading into history. Billy Martin and Earl Weaver, two great showmen, would have less of a place in today’s sport.

Arguing, said the Orioles’ Buck Showalter, “is something you used to work on. It’s a skill-set that’s slowly being phased out.”

But that should be a blessing, no? Fewer arguments are the by-product of fewer blown calls. And the mistakes are being overturned by instant replay. Theoretically, this is a manager’s definition of heaven.

But, ironically, it’s the umpires’ imperfections that create a bond with some old-school managers.

“People need something to bitch about, it’s part of sports,” said Toronto’s John Gibbons. “The game has been so good for so long, sometimes you just have to leave it alone.”

The Pirates’ Clint Hurdle agrees and not just because arguing is fun. He admits he’s threatened by technology, maybe not today or tomorrow but somewhere in the years ahead.

“If machines replaces umpires, then the next step will be the managers,” Hurdle said. “Baseball is called a game for a reason; it’s not an equation. If it’s going to be all about computers someday, then I’m finished.”

To this, Byrnes and his technological revolution offer a rejoinder: Isn’t the idea to get the call right, regardless of how it’s done?

Ask any Cardinals fan whether they would’ve objected to a robot working the bases instead of Don Denkinger in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. Somehow we doubt it.

But it appears the umpires are getting better, at least behind the plate. According to fivethirtyeight.com, the number of “true” strikes – those verified by PITCHf/x – has increased from 82 percent to over 90 percent in the seven years since MLB installed the tracking system.

That’s still 10 percent shy of Byrnes’ computers, but some pitchers are okay with that.

Given his reliance on the knuckleball, R.A. Dickey said, “I would be one to benefit” from eliminating human umpires. Yet, he added, “I care more about consistency; if I know your strike zone, I can adjust. And honestly, I can live with the margin of error. I love having umpires rip off their mask and yelling into the dugout because someone is complaining about balls and strikes. It reminds me this is a game.”

Dickey goes on to make a key point about the camera’s limitations — not all strike zones are the same. They change depending on the size, positioning and posture of each batter. Only a human can interpret the differences. Even Byrnes’ camera has to be calibrated by a living, breathing operator.

But if that’s true today, what about a decade from now? Think of it this way. Your Uber ride will someday be controlled by a computer. Human drivers will be unnecessary, maybe even illegal. Anyone who thinks technology can be stopped or even slowed is in denial.

Baseball, for one, plans to enhance instant replay again next year, adding more cameras around the bases and reducing the time it takes to review a challenge.

So far, it’s been a success. The super-slow motion images are so trustworthy and so accurate, some say it’s actually diminished the quality of umpiring on the bases.

“Right now you have six to eight (umpires) who have no business being in the big leagues, but they’ve got IR to clean up their mess,” said one talent evaluator.

The folks in the commissioner’s office disagree and say it’s a moot point, anyway. Even if umpires are slowly being marginalized, Manfred isn’t looking to put them out of work.

“In a union setting, automating people out of jobs is a pretty tough topic,” he said. “It’s not impossible, but we’re a ways away.”

That might be the domain of a future commissioner, presiding over a game that’s been thoroughly sanitized by computers. No disagreements, no blown calls, no ejections. The umpires, mere figureheads, will be paid to collect lineup cards.

Are you intrigued?

Or spooked?