MLB seems to be softening up to the idea of robot umpires.
In a Q&A with The Athletic published Wednesday, commissioner Rob Manfred noted how fast strike-zone technology is progressing and suggested that league owners could be faced with a tough decision sooner than originally expected.
“I think we are much closer than we were a year ago to having the technological capability to actually call the strike zone,” Manfred said, when asked if he could foresee a time when strikes and ball are called by technology and not umpires. “The accuracy is way up – way better than what it was a year ago. The technology continues to move… and it actually moved a little faster than I might have thought.
“There remains a fundamental question the owners are going to have to address. When you take away the home plate umpire’s control over the strike zone, you take away a principal piece of his authority in terms of managing the whole game. You really need to think carefully about whether you want to make that change.”
This is a different stance than Manfred has articulated in the past. As recently as August of 2017, Manfred remained firmly opposed to shifting to an electronic strike zone, and he previously cited inadequate technology as the primary reason why the league couldn’t make the switch. But he’s been thoroughly impressed with the recent improvement, citing the work of Executive VP of Strategy, Technology and Innovation Chris Marinak and Chief Technology Officer Jason Gaedtke.
“Hats off,” Manfred said.
A major factor in a change of this magnitude, though, is how current umpires would react. Manfred commended his umpires while discussing the potential strike-zone alteration.
“The umpires are in fact really skilled,” Manfred said. “When you motivate them to move in a particular direction, they do. What concerns me more is the unpredictability of the outcome of a particular change.”
Manfred thinks the umpires could warm up to an automated strike zone — the same way they eventually accepted and embraced replay.
“It’s interesting,” Manfred said. “Fifteen years ago, the umpires were violently opposed to instant replay. They came around and actually wanted it. Who knows? We haven’t had a lot of conversations with them on this topic, but I do think there is a serious management-of-the-game issue you’d have to think about with respect to that change.”
Manfred also addressed the topic of juiced baseballs.
Last week, a committee of 10 experts released their findings from an MLB-sanctioned study into the dramatic increase in home runs over the last several seasons. They found that the the surging rate was the result of “a decrease in the ball’s drag properties, which cause it to carry further.” Manfred claimed that change in drag properties had nothing to do with MLB.
“The report says something happened that reduced drag,” Manfred said. “Whatever it was, there was no purposeful or known alteration of the baseball. (People wanted to test) whether the specifications were too wide (in range) or not. The report says they’re within a much narrower range than the actual specifications.
“They don’t know what the drag change is. Maybe it’s global warming, who knows? We’re going to continue to test and hopefully we will get to the bottom of that.”