Joe West, at 66 years old, knows he has reached the age where it is almost time for him to leave.
He has spent a major-league-record 40 years as an umpire, working six World Series and three All-Star Games. He is hoping that the most prolific part of his profession remains intact even after he is gone, but it looks more possible than ever that computers could replace umpires behind home plate.
The game seemingly took another step in that direction Wednesday night, when a computer program was used to call balls and strikes during the Atlantic League All-Star Game in York, Pa. You wouldn’t have noticed if it had not been announced because an umpire stood behind home plate making the calls, but only after they had been fed to him through a Bluetooth earpiece.
This technology cannot be shaken off as some mad science experiment by an independent professional league, either. The Atlantic League has become a guinea pig for Major League Baseball and the Robo Ump is the latest test. It will continue to be funded by MLB and used during the second half of the Atlantic League season.
No surprise, West is opposed to the idea of replacing umpires with computers.
“If they’re trying to replace us, the problem is that the way they judge the pitches are done with algorithms and not actual perfected positions of the ball and home plate,” West said during a recent visit to Citizens Bank Park.
The umpires are already graded by computers in what is called a ZE (zone efficiency) rating and West has no problem with using the tool in an attempt to help the umpires improve. He also believes the current technology is far from perfect.
“One of the things they’ve struggled with is it doesn’t call all the pitches and you can’t have a do-over because the machine missed it, especially when it’s a 3-2 count and the runners are on the move,” West said.
The setup in the Atlantic League does seem to alleviate that problem. The home-plate umpire in the All-Star Game had the ability to overrule the computer if he saw what he thought was a mistaken call, which means he could also rule on a pitch if the computer failed to make a call.
That, of course, could create all sorts of other problems, but it’s not difficult to visualize a future in Major League Baseball with computers calling balls and strikes.
“I have seen this coming. It’s inevitable,” Atlantic League umpire Derek Moccia told the Washington Post. “The game is changing. Baseball needs to speed up to keep up with the world. And if you want to be on board with this, you have to keep up. The game is bigger than you, bigger than any player.”
It is bigger than any umpire, too, including Joe West. Still, Cowboy Joe makes some valid points.
“We have the best officials in all of sport doing this,” West said. “The grades that I’m getting back and I’m seeing from the zone evaluation system are all over 95 percent and the average is at 97.5. The ones that are being missed are borderline, a little too high or a half inch off the plate. I mean, come on. Can you get any better than that?
“To say we’re going to discard all the umpires, that’s a big mistake and baseball knows that. They want us to get every pitch right and so do we. Believe me, these guys are striving for that. They look at their ZE scores and they check them and there are pitches the umpire will challenge the machine on and 20 to 30 percent are given back because the umpire is right.
"This is a specialty profession and working home plate is probably the hardest thing to officiate and we’re at 97 percent. Pat them on the back. Don’t try to replace them.”
A small sampling of players agreed with West. Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins is not convinced that the box you see on your television screen is always right because it does not take into account plate dimension.
“I hope I’m out of the game by the time they [use a computerized strike zone],” Hoskins said.
Phillies reliever Adam Morgan is old-school on just about everything in baseball and that includes umpires calling strikes.
“Umpires make mistakes and that’s part of the game,” Morgan said. “But catchers spend a lot of time learning how to frame a pitch and how to make a ball a strike and that’s all gone with an automated strike zone. Part of the game is the catcher and umpire talking to each other. Where do you have that pitch? Oh, it’s down.”
All of that goes away with an automated umpire.
“I like the old-school way of things,” Morgan said. “I just feel like it’s gone. Now it’s all about numbers and launch angles, and if you want a job you have to buy into it.”