Umpire of the future?
Armando Gallaraga had done it. He had made history. On June 2, 2010 with two outs in the ninth, he got Cleveland Indians infielder Jason Donald to ground out to third base thereby sealing the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. 17,738 fans in attendance at Comerica Park saw it that way. All of the players on the field saw it that way. Both benches saw it that way. Thousands watching on television saw it that way. The broadcasters saw it that way. The ice cream vendor trying to make a last minute sale in section 302 saw it that way. However, there was one man who saw it differently: first base umpire Jim Joyce. Upon the throw hitting the back of Gallaraga’s glove and his foot hitting the first base bag seemingly a step ahead of hitter Jason Donald, Joyce, to the surprise of everyone else watching, called the runner safe. As a result, history was altered and Gallaraga and the Tigers were denied an entry in Cooperstown. This call by Joyce sent the baseball world into a frenzy. Knee-jerk reactors began calling for Joyce to be axed or forced to retire, others were calling for a formal apology (which Joyce did give), others called for baseball to award Gallaraga the perfect game regardless of the outcome. Meanwhile, the most sensible and fair minded baseball fans questioned what could be done to prevent this from happening again. Up until this point, baseball had a form of instant replay. However, under that system, only umpires could initiate a challenge of a previously made call and only another umpire could overturn it. The only type of play that could be challenged was a home run boundary call. It took MLB four more years to finally find a solution to the call that kept Gallaraga from his perfect game and oodles of other controversial calls which led to a non-transparency of umpires in both years previous and in the three seasons to come since that fateful day in Detroit but in 2014, that solution finally came. Baseball expanded instant replay, making many more calls reviewable including safe/out calls and force play calls which would have saved Gallaraga’s history. Other reviewable situations included trap plays, tags on the basepaths, ground-rule doubles, fan interference, timing plays, scorekeeping issues and virtually everything while the ball is in the field of play.

As great as instant replay has been for the integrity of the game and the putting in place of umpires as game officials rather than game deciders, another big question still stands: what about the no-hitters that are taken away by a third strike being called a ball and that batter going on to single? What about the perfect games nullified by a strike being ruled a ball and that batter going on to walk? And as importantly if not more importantly, what about the ball and strike calls that tip the scales in favor of one team or the other sometimes multiple times a game that lead to a win for one team and a loss for the other? From 2013-2016, Major League Baseball claimed its home plate umpires called balls and strikes with 97% accuracy. However, this October, Dr. Toby Moskowitz, a Yale professor with more time on his hands and more patience than a patron saint, cooked that goose. By going back and looking at the PITCHf/x results of every single pitch recorded in MLB over that three year time frame, almost a million in total, he calculated that umpires only make the correct call 88% of the time. That means plate umpires are making incorrect calls 30,000 times a year. Even more baffling, it means they are making an incorrect call once every eight pitches. Looking at pitches that were within two inches of one of the corners of the plate, the results are even more terrifying. In those situations, umps got the call wrong 31% of the time or once in every three pitches. That’s right; one in every three corner painting pitches called inaccurately. These numbers prove that the fully human home plate umpire system isn’t only ruining the integrity of baseball, it is demolishing it at an alarming rate in every game played. If baseball hopes to make its umpires and officials truly transparent, something has to be done about balls and strikes. Over the years, many things have been suggested: fully robotic umpires, fully computerized strike zones, etc. However, whether it be because of fear of backlash from the umpires’ union due to the loss of umpiring jobs, fear of imperfect technology or fear of the next SkyNet takeover in the wake of a humanless behind-the-plate umpire environment, none of those ideas have gotten that far past the drawing board.

So what is the solution to calling more accurate balls and strikes? I bring you to a few weeks back while I was out holiday shopping. While at an electronics expo last month, I may have found the answer to this seemingly age old question. I present for your consideration augmented reality balls and strikes.

The technology I propose be introduced to baseball is called augmented reality. As opposed to virtual reality which completely replaces your real world surroundings with a simulated one, augmented reality preserves your natural environment but modifies it. Since the technology was perfected and the devices burst onto the consumer scene in 2013, they have proved plenty useful in a variety of fields. Along with the obvious embrace of augmented reality by the video game industry, it has also been adopted by the tourism industry where they act as tour guides pointing out famous historical landmarks when the wearer does nothing more than look at them and suggesting places of interest based on the region the wearer is in, it has been used in the print media by magazine companies who display digital content on top of their printed work and it aids in the translation of text in a foreign language, automatically deciphering it to the wearer’s native tongue when viewed. Augmented reality technology and devices have been most widely used in the education field, making lessons much more interactive than simply reading out of a textbook or sitting through a lengthy lecture. Thanks to AR, students who use it in the classroom retain information much more advantageously and are scoring better on exams. Augmented reality has also been used in the medical education replacing textbook photos with visuals of the real thing on a real life human being, in the automotive and manufacturing education system where a lot of complex instruction is better illustrated than simply stated and in the education of architects where blueprints are laid over actual structures.

Most of these fields use either a cell phone or tablet to take advantage of AR technology. However, for our case, neither one of these devices will do the trick. So I come to my inspiration for this suggestion, a device I got to play around with and sample at a live in-store seminar, an augmented reality headset. These devices which are available through a variety of manufacturers, look a lot like the virtual reality headsets which are increasing in popularity among kids and look like the next generation of video games in that they fit over your eyes in the same goggle-like fashion but as stated, the technology is a bit different in that it doesn’t attempt to bring you to a new world but to enhance the one you’re already in. Without having to touch, press or perform any sort of third party action, the device transplants data and holographic images on top of the wearer’s field of view. It also comes complete with full head motion adaptability meaning as you turn your head, the device reacts. In this way, umpires wouldn’t have to worry about a strike zone overlay being in the way of them viewing a play in the field or a close play at the plate. The headsets, including the model I tried out, are third party friendly and thousands of apps and games already exist for them. Accordingly, MLB already owns and maintains working copies of their MLB At Bat app on different software platforms. The app already houses the Gameday feature and one of its main commodities, a PITCHf/x-based ball/strike system. My proposition is that balls and strikes be decided solely on these metrics with the umpire there only as a middle man between the undisputed truth behind the location of a pitch and reality. Since PITCHf/x cameras and WiFi are already installed in every stadium and AR headsets are WiFi compatible, making augmented reality balls and strikes an actual reality from a technological standpoint should be a pretty smooth process. In the same way that current video replay system created jobs because requires a field timing official in each park to manage inning breaks, a replay coordinator on each team to decide when to challenge a call and a group of third party replay officials to decide the calls in the event of a challenge, each park would likely need to hire someone to oversee the PITCHf/x system and a team to maintain it as well as educate umpires on how to use it. So not only would this suggestion help the game from a competition standpoint, it would aid the league economically by creating more employment opportunities.

The inescapable nature of humanity is that human beings make mistakes. For the home plate umpire who is tasked with making split second decisions about where an object travelling between 80-100 miles an hour over 400 times a night, that room for error is very wide. In the past and up until recently, those errors were understood and written off as part of the game. While they are still understandable and condoned on behalf of the umpire making them, a mortal whose occupation is not one of envy, now that something can be done to fix those mistakes and save the competition and integrity of the game, not only should it be done, it must be done. The players and coaches who give this game their lives deserve it, the fans who give it their hearts deserve it and the employees, including the umpires who are expected to fulfill a nearly inhuman standard while working under a very fine microscope thus making them the subject of tons of scrutiny deserve it.

Of course even though the technology is present, this isn’t an overnight venture. Many things would need to be done to institute it into the game. For example, the headsets would have to be fitted to sit over a home plate umpire’s mask and they would have to be outfitted to withstand the impact of a foul ball. It would also need the approval of both the players union and the umpires’ union. However, despite all of the obstacles, if baseball made this a concentrated effort, fool-proof balls and strikes called with near 100% accuracy could make their debut in baseball within the next few seasons, just in time for the commercial release of the Microsoft HoloLens, the device which is expected to dominate the AR market. Partnering with a tech giant like Microsoft has had fantastic results for the NFL who use their Microsoft Surface Pro laptop/tablet along the sidelines and could have similar inter-promotional outcomes for MLB. How amazing does “Cowboy Joe West’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Real Life Umpire Simulator: the only game that allows you to umpire along with the pros!” sound?

One of the founding principles of the office of the Commissioner of Baseball is to act within the best interest of the league and to maintain and strengthen the league’s integrity. With everything needed in order to make competition much fairer as well as the opportunity to create jobs and create a business relationship with one of the world’s biggest technological giants within grasp, Robert Manfred has an opportunity and a responsibility to do just that. It is a proverbial fastball headed straight down the heart of the plate. Manfred is staring right at it. Let’s just hope he doesn’t miss the call.