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The rise of the Robo-umpires

Groundskeeper Alvin Homer sprayed home plate before the start of the robotically umpired game.
Groundskeeper Alvin Homer sprayed home plate before the start of the robotically umpired game. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — For official purposes, the home plate umpire for the July 30 game between the New Britain Bees and the Long Island Ducks was Tim Rosso, a polite 37-year-old from Brighton with more than a decade’s worth of umpiring experience.

In reality, however, the task of determining balls and strikes fell to a bulky, blinking hunk of computer equipment wedged beside some cardboard boxes in a quiet corner of the stadium’s press box.

Robots have come for farmers and factory workers, operators and check-out clerks. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before they came for the umpires, too.

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Last month, the independent Atlantic League announced that, in partnership with Major League Baseball, it would be implementing a number of experimental rule changes for the remainder of its season, with the idea they might eventually be adopted at the game’s highest level.

Of those rule changes, none has generated the same type of heated reaction as TrackMan, a computerized system that uses Doppler radar to track every pitch and instantly transmits the result — ball or strike — to an earpiece worn by the home plate umpire.

The idea, of course, is to create a standardized strike zone immune to human subjectivity and error. And for those who’ve spent far too much of their lives arguing whether a two-seam fastball caught the corner, it’s a welcome development.

“A long time coming,” said Bobby Valentine, the former Major League manager whose relationship with umpires was such that, following a 1999 ejection, he famously returned to the dugout in disguise.

“It’s 2019 — there’s no reason that a ball should be a strike or a strike should be a ball.”

A piece of radar equipment is used to read balls and strikes. The resulting call is fed to the umpire via an earpiece and he verbally announces it for the crowd and players.
A piece of radar equipment is used to read balls and strikes. The resulting call is fed to the umpire via an earpiece and he verbally announces it for the crowd and players. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As various professional sports leagues have sought to increase the accuracy of their officiating — implementing more instant-replay options, as well as post-game officiating breakdowns — perhaps it was inevitable that baseball’s most subjective call would fall under scrutiny.

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In an exhaustive study released earlier this year in which he examined some four million game pitches over an 11-year period, Boston University professor Mark T. Williams determined that Major League umpires made 34,294 incorrect ball and strike calls in 2018 alone — an average of 14 per game and 1.6 per inning.

Among Williams’ conclusions was that it was “unrealistic to assume that home-plate umpires, unassisted, can collectively achieve the accuracy rates increasingly demanded by the sports industry and deserving fans.”

But in a game that has long embraced its traditions — among them, the possibility of seeing a manager politely urge the guy behind the plate to remove his head from a certain lower-body cavity — some response to TrackMan’s arrival is predictably chilly.

Among the least amused, it might not surprise you to learn, have been the umpires themselves.

“Umpiring’s an art,” said Rosso, who trained at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring before spending the next decade-plus honing his craft while working his way up the professional ladder. “And when you put science into trying to fix art, I think that’s going to be fallable.”

Even some managers admit they feel for the guys behind the plate, who now find themselves at the whim of technology.

“He’s the messenger,” said Bees manager Mauro Gozzo, a bit of sorrow in his voice. “What is told to him, he’s got to say.”

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Which is not to say, however, that Gozzo’s sympathy has translated to the field.

Gozzo admits he is continuing to lodge impassioned complaints with home plate umpires — “natural instinct,” he said — though his grievances have lately taken on a decidedly different tone.

“Come on, you got to do something about that!” he might yell. “Re-calibrate!”

So far, said Atlantic League president Rick White, the technology has worked largely as it’s supposed to — a few kinks not withstanding.

During one game, a hard slide nudged home plate slightly, affecting the strike zone for the remainder of the game. In another case, High Point (N.C.) Rockers pitching coach and former Red Sox pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola earned the distinction of becoming the first coach ever ejected from a game for arguing computer-determined balls and strikes.

(According to White, Viola’s displeasure stemmed from a belief that the umpire was disregarding the computer’s calls in favor of his own. “He thought the umpire had gone rogue,” White said.)

Despite any nostalgic misgivings, however, the TrackMan system seems a natural next step in the evolution of sports and technology.

A decade or so ago, Valentine said he seriously considered purchasing a patent for a technology similar to TrackMan — a specialized home plate that used lasers to create a virtual strikezone. And as Gozzo points out, managers have long been relying on computer-based analytics to tell them everything from how a player performs during day games to which ballparks he’s most likely to struggle in.

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“Really,” Gozzo said, “a computer’s making these lineups, too.”

Whether or not the technology one day works its way to the Major League level is likely to depend largely on how well it performs over the next few months and beyond.

But as Atlantic League umpires adjust to the technology and its long-term implications, at least one way to see its potential impact was on display at the game.

In the top of the sixth inning, Hector Sanchez, a meaty catcher for the Ducks, took a called third strike for the inning’s third out. It was a borderline call, the kind that has prompted more than a few face-to-face shouting matches between batter and ump.

But as Sanchez popped his helmet off and turned to face Rosso, the umpire was ready.

“It’s the machine,” he shrugged, pointing to his earpiece. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.