In two years’ time, the umpire behind home plate at baseball stadiums across the United States could be little more than a mouthpiece for a robot. Major League Baseball plans to introduce robotic umpires in the 2024 season, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred tells ESPN in this week. He framed the change as a way to speed up games, but anyone who has watched baseball in recent years will tell you that a machine would almost certainly call balls and bats better than humans.
There are two ways to implement the Automated Ball-Strike System, which is the technical term for these robotic referees. One is the fully automated version, where the AI-powered system designates each pitch as a ball or strike and routes the call to the umpire. Or MLB could choose to use AI as a review system, like VAR in soccer or the hawk-eye system in professional tennis: each side is given a set number of challenges, which are then decided by the automated system.
Robot umpires have been popping up at minor league baseball games in recent years, and the tech appears to be working. (It’s not very different from the shot zone you see overlaid on a TV show.) The existing system was developed by a company called TrackMan, which also develops sophisticated ball-tracking technology for golfers. In practice, it’s quite simple: the referees put a special iPhone in their back pocket and an earbud in their ear, and the system signals the ball or shot in their headphones after each throw. Part of the goal was to make the product look the same on the field, with umps making the calls – not a giant robot standing behind home plate – just faster and more accurate.
Still, the robots definitely changed the game. The automated system tended to call more strikes than a human, meaning players had to recalibrate their own understanding of which pitch is what. And even with these automated systems, referees still have a lot to do, calling check swings, playing the plate and even occasionally overriding the robots.
The robots started in the lower rungs of baseball’s minor leaguesbut this season they were too Used in Triple A games, which is the next best thing after the majors. Per ESPN, the robot referee lop nine minutes the length of an average game in which they are used. (Manfred also said that a pitch clock could be used to speed up the game, and that could come as soon as next year.)
Robot referees have felt like an ominous certainty for a while. They won’t solve everything, nor will they end fan disputes – just ask anyone who’s been screwed by a VAR call in a nerve-wracking football game. But as baseball continues to look for ways to appeal to a younger generation uninterested in a five-hour game, robots could help pick up the pace.