With a larger focus being given to sports wagering in the past few years, all of the most popular leagues have started having discussions about how they can improve their product—specifically by maximizing the accuracy of individual calls and penalties and ensuring the right outcome without error.

And aside from professional football, no other sport has pushed harder for this self-evaluation than baseball.

The meteoric rise in MLB betting [valid where legal], along with skyrocketing franchise valuations and salaries, has left the league office wondering whether it’s time to implement an automated strike zone and robot umpires rather than physical humans.

To many, this idea will sound ridiculous on its face. But it is a very real possibility.

In fact, the MLB has already started exploring and testing out ways in which they can transition from human umps to artificial intelligence to call their games. Which begs the question: Is the game of baseball on the verge of being changed forever?

How Would Artificial Intelligence Umpires in MLB Work?

When pondering the possibility of AI taking over as MLB’s primary umpire source, most immediately begin having visions of human-like robots roaming around the field. But that’s not how AI officiating would work.

“White Sox at Orioles” by Keith Allison  is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Baseball is instead interested in implementing an automated strike zone, so that balls and strikes would be called in uniform and mathematically calculated ways rather than the eye-test interpretation from humans. Under this model, there would be no arguing about inconsistent strike zones. Every pitcher and hitter from every team would adhere to the same one.

Now, when it comes to ruling on runners thrown out, base hits, home runs, plays at the plate and any of the three bases, MLB would still be relying to some extent on humans. However, instead of physical umpires on the field, they would have paid technicians at a central remote hub who review every play and make the final calls based on the footage from various different angles.

Opponents of this approach have argued it could take longer to relay balls and strikes, as well as live-ball calls. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, believes the technology is advanced enough to be rendered in real time.

MLB Still Searching for Ways to Test Out Robot Umpires

Before AI umpires take over MLB, the league first needs to test it out. And they haven’t been able to do that just yet.

Baseball pitcher throwing ball to batter watched by Umpire and Catcher.

Entering the 2022 season, the plan was for the Atlantic League, an independent professional baseball league featuring 10 teams, to install the automated ball-strike system. But this was only going to be on a partial basis, in the name of assisting human umpires with balls and strikes.

Regardless, MLB was partnering with the Atlantic League and intending to compensate them for serving as the guinea pig of this process. And then the plans fell through. The Atlantic League opted against partnering with MLB at the last minute.

Since then, many believe MLB will invariably roll out AI umpiring in Triple-A and Double-A baseball either next season or sometime in 2024 to gauge its effectiveness, according to CBS Sports.

How Far Away is MLB from Robot Umpires?

Unfortunately, there is no answer to this question at the moment. Major League Baseball has yet to even install the proposed system at any level. And even after they do, it will most likely be years before they decide to implement it within MLB itself.

“Phil Garner Argues The Balk” by Scott Ableman  is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Experts are also skeptical the league can ever fully replace human umpires. Someone, somewhere, still has to be on-site to deliver the automated calls and accept communications from the remote office of umpires watching plays from various different angles.

Framed this way, Artificial Intelligence isn’t actually the future of MLB umpiring. It’s too unrealistic. It’s more likely Major League Baseball uses AI to supplement the umpires they already have as opposed to outright replacing them.

At most, MLB may be able to cut down on the number of human umpires calling each game. Perhaps instead of four to six umpires being on-site at each contest they only have two or three.

Whether that’s a possibility, of course, depends on the success achieved by the AI technology once MLB finds a place to experiment with it.

Image Source: BigStockPhoto.com (Licensed)


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