This article was originally published on April 27, 2022.

From the Albuquerque Isotopes to the Charlotte Knights, to the El Paso Chihuahuas to the Sacramento River Cats, robotic umpires are calling the shots behind home plate this baseball season. And they are one step away from Major League Baseball (MLB).

But if you go to a game this season, don’t get your heart set on seeing C-3PO standing behind the sign — or even a robot that looks like R2-D2. The robot is not so much science fiction as a black box.

From high above home plate, Sports Illustrated chronicled it in a recent article as “shiny as a television screen that never turns on, and […] it looks like an extremely unsophisticated security camera.”

The robot hides in plain sight, behind the scenes, relaying the call to its human counterpart.

How do robot referees improve games?

Umpires wear a headset that is attached to a smartphone in baseball parks that have the new automatic ball striking system (ABS), or “automated strike zone.” The robot passes a line to the umpire (“hit” or “ball”) and the umpire repeats the call for the players and the crowd.

The robot tracks the pitches using radar. Specifically, ABS “uses radar technology to provide a reliable, precise, ‘correct’ strike zone for pitchers and hitters.” according to a Sporting News article. The robot identifies the location of the ball, records it and then makes a call. Because battery life was an issue for the AirPods, the judges used an earpiece.

If necessary, the judges can override the robot’s line. As they call behind the plate for fans, the experience looks no different from the low-tech version. And the pace of the game is not affected at all. While it’s true that ABS is far from a low-tech first-time game almost two hundred years ago, around 1839, before baseball became America’s pastime, the Major League Baseball Umpires Association endorsed it.

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The first robot umpires in baseball

The independent Atlantic League was the first professional baseball league to use robots to make calls through the slab. Testing debuted at the July 2019 All-Star Game and continued through the end of the season.

Arizona Fall League also used robot umpires, but had complaints about the way the system called breaking balls, according to ESPN. With no minor league ball in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the robot umpires did not reappear until the 2021 season, where they called pitches in eight (of nine) Low-A Southeastern League games .

The future of MLB robots

in article for NPRMLB officials said the robot umpires are “designed to increase action on the base paths, put more balls in play, improve the pace and length of games, and reduce injuries to players.”

Most baseball historians consider Ted Williams to be the best hitter in MLB history. and his theory about the strike zone also made history: “A batter has three strike zones: his own, the opposing pitcher’s, and the umpire’s. The umpire’s area is defined by the rulebook, but it is also more importantly defined by how the umpire works. A good umpire is consistent so you can learn his strike zone. The batter has a strike zone in which he considers the pitch to be the right one to hit. Pitchers have zones where they are most effective. Once you understand a pitcher and his zone, you can set up for a certain pitch.”

Will this strike zone theory change with a robot umpire?

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