Cubs manager Joe Maddon says umpires would accept automated ball-strike calls
Will plate umps one day be willing to cede their primary duties to automation? Joe Maddon thinks so
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is known as a forward-thinking sort, so it comes as no surprise that Maddon is in favor of leveraging technology for things like replay review. What may come as a surprise, however, is that Maddon is also open to the idea of automating ball-strike calls. As Maddon tells Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post, that's not all ...
"At one point, I thought I'd be totally against [automating ball-strike calls], but I can't tell you that I am now. I even think umpires would be fine with it, too. Because I don't think there's an umpire out there that wants to negatively impact the game with a bad call."
Typically, workers don't take kindly to ceding any of their duties to robots or computers, in large part because that's a first step toward obsolescence. To hear Maddon tell it, though, plate umpires might not be reflexively opposed to no longer calling balls and strikes.
Such a drastic step isn't going to be a near-term reality, but it's a natural evolution. It'll probably happen at some point, but the horizon for such a change is far from certain. Simply put, with as hard as pitchers throw these days and with such a selection bias and developmental emphasis toward sharp, late movement, calling balls and strikes with perfect or near-perfect accuracy isn't humanly possible (not that it ever was). Automating balls and strikes would improve that accuracy and also allow MLB to tweak more seamlessly certain elements of gameplay. Now, for instance, MLB is giving off signs of wanting to raise the zone and eliminate some of those unhittable low pitches. That's in the service of getting more balls in play, and that's a good thing. Altering the zone with human umps is of course a far greater undertaking than adjusting the automated zone with a few keystrokes. Looming over all these considerations is the fact that commissioner Rob Manfred has shown a ready embrace of structural change early in his tenure.
In general, fans probably overestimate how much upheaval this would cause from the observational standpoint. You'd still have plate umps in place to make safe-out calls at the plate and the like. They'd also likely be tasked with communicating the automated calls, so the visuals would be very much in line with tradition. Also, plate umps would probably be tracking balls and strikes on their own in case the system glitched out or didn't register a pitch.
The biggest hurdle to getting to this point is probably umpire resistance. From Maddon's standpoint, though, maybe that's not such an impediment. We'll see about that, possibly sooner than we think.