In mid-May 2023, the high school baseball world was in an uproar. It was because of the ‘robot umpire’ that appeared during the qualifiers for the Golden Lion Tournament (14-29). First introduced in the round of 16 of the Shinsegae E-Mart Baseball Tournament in March, robot umpires were used in the preliminary rounds of the Golden Lion.
Although it is called a robot umpire, there is no actual robot involved. Cameras and sensors installed in the stadium measure the position, speed, and angle of the ball thrown by the pitcher, and then judge the ball/strike and deliver it to the umpire. It is an attempt to reduce the number of balls/strikes by using objective machine eyes rather than the human umpire’s eyes, which are subjective.
A total of 55 games ended due to umpire mistakes
The reason why the robot umpire, which was well-received during the E-Mart ship tournament, became a target of criticism during the Golden Lion is that it ruled all pitches that appeared to be in the strike zone as balls, resulting in an excessive number of walks. For example, in the preliminary round on May 15, there were 78 sasagus (a combination of balls and balls in play) in the three games at Mokdong Stadium where the machines called balls and strikes. The Busan Industrial University-Arogo BC game had 39 pitches. There were also complaints from the field that the ball should be thrown only to the center. For comparison, the three games at Shinwol Stadium, which were officiated by human umpires, had 36 dead balls.
The next day, the Korea Baseball Softball Association (KBSA) reset the strike zone for the robot umpires. However, amateur pitchers still had difficulty adapting to the robot umpire’s strike zone, as a total of 20 pitches were thrown by both teams in the round of 16 match between Seongnam High School and Gyeonggi Air University at Mokdong Stadium on May 22. “I thought it was a strike, but it was a strike, and I thought it was a strike, but it was a strike,” said one parent.
In the world of baseball, the strike zone is a sensitive issue. A single pitch can throw off hitting form, throw off pitching mechanics, and even change the course of a game. That’s why the strike zone of the day is so important to fans at the end of every game. Some fans breathe a sigh of relief before the game when a certain umpire is assigned. The strike zone is stressful for umpires, teams, players, and fans alike. Humans are fallible creatures, and we can never be 100% confident in a strike zone that is judged and called by imperfect humans.
Umpire error is well documented by statistics. According to a study published in April 2019 by researchers at the Boston University School of Management, there were 89 major league umpires in the 2018 season, with an average age of 46 and an average of 13 years of experience. Each umpire worked an average of 112 games and called balls and strikes in 28 of them. Over the course of a full season, that’s roughly 4,200 pitch calls. However, during the 2018 season, umpires made 34,294 incorrect balls and strikes. That’s an average of 14 per game.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what butterfly effect each misjudged pitch had on the game, there must have been some calls that changed the course of the game. “Major League umpires tend to misjudge obvious balls for strikes on two strikes, and in 2018, a total of 55 games ended due to umpire ball misjudgments,” the Boston University researchers explained.
Rulings vary by race and experience
Here’s another interesting statistic. A team of economics researchers at the University of Texas analyzed more than 3.5 million Major League Baseball pitches from 2004 to 2008 and found that umpires favored pitchers of their own race. For this reason, pitchers were also more likely to throw the ball in the middle of the strike zone rather than outside of it when facing umpires of a different race. With 89% of umpires being white and 70% of pitchers being white, you can imagine the discrimination faced by pitchers of color in the major leagues.
Another statistic is that proven pitchers, those who have been selected to the All-Star Game multiple times, are less likely to call strikes. When analyzing calls from 2008 to 2013, 13.2% of pitches in the strike zone were called balls. Only 86.8% were called strikes correctly. 안전놀이터
It’s hard for a human to stay in the same position for over three hours and make consistent calls on pitches that fly by in less than 0.4 seconds. It’s not uncommon for the same call to be misunderstood by fans depending on the umpire’s background. This is why there is a longing for robot umpires who can never make emotional judgments.
Technological advancements have also been a strong driver of robot umpires. Major League Baseball first introduced QuesTec, a pitch-tracking system, in 2001, and in 2008 implemented PITCHf/x, a more sophisticated version of QuesTec. With the advent of the third eye, ball/strike call data accumulated, and the staggering number of calls was enough to spur the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI)-based automated officiating systems.
Major League Baseball first piloted robotic umpires in the independent Atlantic League in 2019, followed by the lower Single-A and Arizona Fall League. In 2022, some Triple-A ballparks also implemented them, and by 2023, all 30 Triple-A ballparks were equipped with automated ball/strike judgment machines.
The KBO has been testing robotic umpires in the Futures (second division) league since 2020. An official from the Korea Baseball Organization said, “We are planning to introduce it in 2023, and we are seeing a time-saving effect. By switching to a dedicated receiver, it is as fast as a human umpire’s decision,” he said, adding, “I think we have established the stability of automatic judgment.” However, challenges remain, such as calling strikes on pitches in the zone that batters can never hit. Major League Baseball’s office, which had originally considered introducing robotic umpires in 2024, is still hesitant.
World Cup Qatar introduces semi-automated offside calls
Sports officiating technology has become increasingly sophisticated to ensure fair play. Just look at professional soccer. At the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, semi-automated offside technology was introduced to eliminate unnecessary debate, and inertial sensors were embedded in the ball to capture even the slightest ball movement. Professional tennis was an early adopter of hawkeye technology for accurate in/out calls. Cricket, which is similar to baseball, also uses wireless technology for umpires to make calls.