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Would robot umpires have prevented the Wilmer Flores Giants-Dodgers controversy?

The technology exists to eliminate controversial calls. But should it be employed?

The Giants’ Wilmer Flores, right, is called out swinging in front of Dodgers catcher Will Smith for the final out of the ninth inning Thursday. The controversial checked swing has raised the specter of an unlikely savior: robot umpires. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP)

Amid all the talk over the controversial Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants checked swing Thursday night about what the umpire did, what he may have gotten wrong and how it might have changed the course of baseball history, a more fundamental question was mostly left unasked: Do we need an umpire in the first place?

If sweet sleep caused you to tune out before the game ended, Thursday night’s decisive National League Division Series game saw first base umpire Gabe Morales call a third strike on a checked swing by Giants infielder Wilmer Flores in the bottom of the ninth inning, ending the night — and season — of MLB’s best team of 2021. Flores appeared to hold up. The call was immediately denounced by TBS commentator Ron Darling and then quickly dissected on social media, where reactions became instant memes.

But the backlash raises the question of whether a so-called robo-umpire — essentially, a set of highly placed and well-programmed cameras — could have automatically adjudicated the checked swing, leaving the Giants with a feeling of equity and the rest of us with a lot less to argue about.

It’s not a hypothetical question: MLB is in the middle of a three-year partnership with the independent Atlantic League for just such a robo-umpire, a system called Automatic Balls and Strikes (ABS), that this past season rendered a home plate umpire moot for his most important job. MLB hasn’t given a timetable for when the system could reach the big leagues, but it’s clearly a trial balloon.

ABS is overseen by TrackMan, a Denmark-based start-up that began by helping golfers with their swing and then expanded to baseball before broadening again to auto-officiating responsibilities. Under their ABS system, players are measured for a strike zone before the season, with their info then fed into the machine.

Then, during the game, the company’s sensor in the stands behind home plate uses Doppler technology to determine where the ball is thrown and where it should have been thrown based on the player’s strike zone. The sensor then relays the call to, well, whomever wants to hear it. In the case of the Atlantic League, this is an actual umpire behind the plate who, in an ironic reversal, is a human who simply does what the machine tells him to do and announces the call.

The system is not being used for checked swings, but the technology is equally applicable; it makes little difference whether a ball is crossing the plate in one direction or a bat crosses it the other way. (The MLB executive overseeing the program, Morgan Sword, declined to offer a comment on the record about whether the majors would one day use ABS for this purpose.)

But accuracy is only part of the equation. Presumably TrackMan could have made the right call — but what effect would such automation have on us socially? An argument can be made that it would increase consumer confidence and eliminate discord; an equal argument could be made the other way, that subjectivity is what makes the public realm, or at least baseball, a dynamic and interesting place.

The Flores checked swing, in other words, gets at the question that stretches across much of innovation: Just because we could, does that mean we should?

James Bessen, the executive director of the Technology & Policy Research Initiative at Boston University’s Law School, has studied the intersection of automation and society, and he offered a simple calculus to answer the question. “If the robot can be more objective than an umpire,” he said Friday, “then I think that is good for baseball, especially if fans feel that the robot is objective. Better umpiring removes the focus on controversial calls and puts it back on the performance of the players, where it should be.”

Not everyone agrees. Some fans have questioned whether judgment calls are part of the fun of baseball and a legalistic rendering is contrary to the spirit of the game. On the field, some, particularly pitchers and catchers, have raised objections. Catchers worry it will make the so-called art of framing a pitch moot, while pitchers such as former Cy Young winner Frank Viola ask whether it will remove a pitcher’s artistic ability to essentially will a strike with a good pitch that just happens to be an inch off.

But a surprising number of big leaguers have expressed optimism, hoping it rids the game of the subjectivity that makes them kick dirt and get ejected. “Those things are going to happen; it almost has to happen,” Don Mattingly, former New York Yankees MVP and current Miami Marlins manager, said of robo-umpires.

Ironically, Morales himself provided some support for robo-umpires, basically admitting he couldn’t do the job as well as technology could.

“Check swings are one of the hardest calls we have,” he said after the game. “I don’t have the benefit of multiple camera angles when I’m watching it live.”

There is precedent for robotics in other high-level sports. The U.S. Tennis Association employed Hawk-Eye Live technology at the U.S. Open this year to replace all line judges, even for match-critical points. The move ostensibly eliminates all human ambiguities and, of course, player replay challenges; there’s no point going to the same system to overturn the system you just disagreed with.

Still, there’s some doubt of how it might have been implemented in this case. Purists on Thursday night were quick to remind that the checked swing is determined not by where the bat ends but a more subjective “attempt to strike at the ball.” The TrackMan technology is good. But it can’t — yet — judge a player’s attempt.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Flores was playing second base Thursday night. He was playing first. This version has been corrected.