Texas Rangers

Robots or the human element of real umpires? A few Rangers weigh in on the debate

Joey Gallo said that pitch velocity and pitch movement combine to make a plate umpire’s job more difficult.
Joey Gallo said that pitch velocity and pitch movement combine to make a plate umpire’s job more difficult. rmallison@star-telegram.com

Robots are coming to take all of our jobs, or so we’re told, but the threat is getting a little more real for MLB umpires.

Baseball announced a three-year agreement with the independent Atlantic League to become testing grounds for potential rule changes. One of them, as first reported by the fine folks at Baseball America, is to use robot umpires to call balls and strikes.

The league will use Trackman technology to make those calls, and MLB and its 30 teams will have access to the data.

But questions about the concept Friday at Texas Rangers spring training brought to light the old debate between preserving the human element of the game and using available technology to get calls right.

Outfielder Joey Gallo and manager Chris Woodward both attempted to choose their words carefully, but they see both sides of the debate.

“I don’t want to get in trouble,” Woodward said. “I’d be interested to see how that goes. I would like to get the results on that and just see what the vibe is and what people feel and how hitters and pitchers react.

“I’ve always been a fan of the human element because it’s baseball. It’s what we grew up on.”

Gallo, who struck out twice looking Thursday on pitches he felt were not strikes, said that he also understands the human elements and that umpires and players are not perfect. But he and Woodward both said that the uptick in velocity and movement of pitches can make an umpire’s job even more difficult.

Woodward used Oakland closer Blake Treinen and his 99-mph sinkers as an example. Not only does an umpire have less time to see the pitch, but a catcher might not be able to catch it cleanly even though the pitch is in the strike zone.

“The pitchers are too good and the balls move too much,” Gallo said. “It’s tough on the umpires. It’s hard for them to keep up with it. If we don’t swing at a two-strike pitch, rarely is it going to be a strike. There are pitches that are borderline and can go either way, but if you say something to the umpire it’s usually pretty far off the plate.”

Designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo, who oftentimes seems to have more knowledge of the strike zone than the umpire, is also a fan of the human element and is concerned about how a robot umpire would affect pace of play.

Would MLB adopt a system similar to professional tennis, where players can ask for a review of line calls, as a way to appease the umpires union? It’s a quick process, but the number of challenges would have to be capped.

Safe to say, much has to happen before robot umpires are added to MLB games. But, it seems safe to say, the robots are coming for the umpires’ jobs.

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After 11 seasons covering the Rangers for the Star-Telegram, Jeff Wilson knows that baseball is a 24/7/365 business and there is far more to baseball than just the 162 games each season. There’s also more to Jeff -- like a family and impressive arsenals of Titleist hats and adidas shoes -- but sometimes it’s hard to tell.
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