The seeds of the robot apocalypse are apparently being sewn in Minor League Baseball. Or rather, the minor leagues appear to be one more sector of society where automation is being used to “augment” and then potentially replace human labor.
This week, the MLB announced that it plans to “expand testing of the Automatic Ball-Strike System” (ABS) that had previously seen testing by the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League, two leagues associated with MLB. In the expansion of testing, “select games in the Low-A Southeast” of the minor leagues will use the systems, NPR reports. The experimentation comes amidst other rules change testing MLB is currently engaging in.
No, robo-umps won’t be an Arnold-Schwarzenegger-like android stalking the field, calling fouls, and shutting down angry coaches who don’t agree with their assessments. ABS is essentially a radar dish that scans and analyzes how pitches and swings are made. The product used in previous tests, TrackMan, is typically installed above home plate, and communicates its assessment to the human ump via an earpiece, who then makes the physical signal of the call to the crowd. It’s certainly an interesting change-up for a game that has long relied on the fallible opinion of a single man.
That’s kind of the point. The umpire is a contentious figure—and inspires a lot of hot emotions, given the weighted consequence of his opinions. The announced changes, including the potential adoption of ABS, “will provide valuable insight into various ways to create a playing environment that encourages the most entertaining version of the game,” Theo Epstein, a consultant to MLB, recently told NPR.
But the ABS essentially reduces the human ump to the same role served by grocery clerks at those stores where automated self-check-out kiosks have been deployed, i.e., they just sort of stand around and make sure the machines are working OK. Per a 2019 Forbes article on how ABS works:
Rather than calling a pitch a ball or a strike as usual, the umpire waited for a determination of the call from an audio signal. While a delay in the ultimate call from the home-plate umpire was anticipated, little difference was noticed by this observer in the time it took the umpire to physically call the pitch.
One might argue that watching a coach get so worked up that he starts hurling insults at an ump is actually a lot more entertaining than it is to watch a computer tell a man what is happening. But who’s to say? It might be the case that people just end up getting mad at the radar dish, instead.