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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Linked by Jason Snell

Robot umps now!

At The Wall Street Journal, Jared Diamond reported about the Atlantic League’s experiment with balls and strikes (that’s baseball, kids) called by computer rather than human being:

Every Atlantic League stadium, including the Patriots’ TD Bank Ballpark in Central New Jersey, now features a TrackMan device perched high above the plate. It uses 3-D Doppler radar to register balls and strikes and relays its “decision” through a secure Wi-Fi network to the umpire, equipped with an iPhone in his pocket connected to a wired earbud. That umpire, positioned behind the plate as normal, hears a man’s voice saying “ball” or “strike” and then signals the verdict…

Ducks manager Wally Backman predicted that MLB will adopt the system within five years. “It’s going to happen,” he said. “There have been a few pitches that are questionable, but not as many as if it was a human. The machine is definitely going to be more right than they are.”

This is the point that a lot of critics of this technology miss: even if the computer was wrong a few times a game, it would be vastly more accurate than the human umpires are. We didn’t used to know just how inaccurate umpires were at calling balls and strikes—and it’s not their fault, it’s essentially impossible for a human being positioned in a safe location behind a batter and catcher to accurately register the movement of a 100mph baseball through a three-dimensional space—but modern technology has revealed everything. We now know, with high precision within fractions of a second, often overlaid on a television broadcast, whether a pitch was really a ball or a strike.

The sooner Major League Baseball embraces the “robot ump”, the better it will be for everyone, including the umpires. Home-plate umpires have lots of other tasks to do—and now they won’t catch grief from players or their own bosses for the mistakes they make doing an essentially impossible job.

Here’s a funny Apple tech note from Diamond’s piece:

Officials initially gave umpires a wireless Apple AirPod to keep in their ear, but abandoned that approach over concerns about battery life. They also tinkered with the possibility of putting lights on the scoreboard to visually represent the call or sending audio tones instead of words to the umpire’s ear.

I think we all could’ve told them that AirPod batteries weren’t going to last the duration of an entire baseball game. My guess is that when this comes to Major League Baseball, though, there will be a custom earpiece (or other bit of wireless hardware, perhaps a handheld “clicker”?) that will make this seamless for everyone involved.

It’s time. Bring on the robot umps!