Atlantic League Deploys First Robotic Umpire | Athletic Business

Atlantic League Deploys First Robotic Umpire

The independent Atlantic League became the first professional baseball league to allow a computer to call balls and strikes. 

According to ESPN, a “robot umpire” was behind in the ear of plate umpire Brian deBrauwere during the Atlantic League all-star game.  An iPhone in deBrauwere’s pocket relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system, which uses Doppler radar to distinguish balls from strikes.

"Until we can trust this system 100 percent, I still have to go back there with the intention of getting a pitch correct, because if the system fails, it doesn't pick a pitch up, or if it registers a pitch that's a foot-and-a-half off the plate as a strike, I have to be prepared to correct that," deBrauwere said before the game.

Players said they noticed a difference in the delay between the pitch being caught and deBrauwere making the actual call.

"One time I already had caught the ball back from the catcher, and he signaled strike," said pitcher Daryl Thompson, who didn't realize the technology was being used until he disagreed with the call.

The umpires can apparently override the computer, as the system will still call a strike if a pitch bounces ahead of the plate and into the strike zone. TrackMan is also unable to evaluate check swings.

Morgan Sword, MLB’s senior vice president of economics and operations said it was an exciting development for all of baseball. "This idea has been around for a long time, and it's the first time it's been brought to life in a comprehensive way,” Sword said.> 

Atlantic League President Rick White said the system is going to be implemented league-wide over the next few weeks.

"After that, we're relatively confident that it's going to spread through organized baseball," White said. "We're very excited about what this portends not only for our league but for the future of baseball. What we know is technology can help umpires be more accurate, and we're committed to that. We think the Atlantic League is being a pioneer for all of the sport."

For his part, deBrauwere said the system wasn’t a problem at all.

"This is just another plate job, and I just get a little help on this one, so I feel very relaxed going into this one," he said.

The MLB is taking its time implementing the technology.

"We need to see how it works, first in the Atlantic League and then probably other places, meaning other parts of minor league baseball, before it comes to Major League Baseball," said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. "Kind of gets back to the question that I was asked earlier about the baseball. We hear all the time from players: Why don't we have an electronic strike zone, why don't we have an electronic strike zone? We try to be responsive to those sorts of expressions of concern. We have spent a lot of time and money on the technology. It's not just to address player concerns. It obviously has broadcasting uses. That same technology can be used in our broadcast, which has value to our fans. But we feel it's incumbent upon us -- people that play the game raised this as something that could make the game better. We kind of feel it's incumbent on us to figure out whether we could make it work. And that's what we're doing."

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