Here’s One Profession That Should Not Be Automated

One of the topics that we have discussed at length this semester in a variety of capacities is the driving force that is automation. All industries in one way or another are trying to make a concerted effort to make their processes more efficient, precise, and ultimately cheaper. Automation has led to companies across the economy to change the way in which their organization’s function and employees have had to develop new skill sets in order to remain an important piece to their company’s success.

While we have seen many success stories through automation, we need to make sure that we don’t get carried away and automate everything, which I’m afraid some people would be fine with doing. Though we are becoming a more digitally automated society, there are still places in which human error should reign supreme. The one area that I think automation should remain out of is Major League Baseball (MLB), specifically pertaining to some calling for an automated strike zone to replace human umpires.

If you have watched a MLB game on TV in recent years, you might notice that the broadcast has some advanced features that were not present a decade ago, one of which being the pitch zone.

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Though some stations have the strike zone digitally placed directly over the live shot, most broadcasts have a virtual strike zone off to the side of the screen that charts each pitch thrown in a given at-bat. This technology was first introduced by ESPN in 2001 and is now widely used across MLB broadcasts. I often find myself checking the strike zone on the side of the screen after pitches to see if the umpires get the call right or not, and for the most part they usually do, which makes sense because they are professionals. But the rise in the use of this technology begs the question: if a human umpire calls 97% of the balls and strikes correctly, why should we not replace him with an automated umpire that calls 100% of the balls and strikes correctly? Some of the millennial qualms with baseball are that the pace of play is too slow, there is not enough action over the course of nine innings, and they have not done enough to incorporate technology and digitally enhance the game to attract a younger audience (the median age of a baseball viewer is 53 years old).

Contrary to popular belief, baseball has been more much progressive in recent years in terms of enhancing the fan experience and highlighting the skill being displayed on the diamond. This movement came to the forefront with the creation of Statcast, which was implemented in all 30 MLB stadiums at the beginning of the 2015 season. Statcast is a high-speed, high accuracy automated tool powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) that was developed to analyze player movements and athletic abilities. MLB front offices have been using data analysis for years to gain a competitive advantage, but this technology has introduced advanced metrics such as “launch angle” and “spin rate” that can be combined with traditional metrics such as “batting average” and “velocity” to give teams new perspectives on their players. While the teams do not disclose how they use Statcast’s data, the platform is widely used on MLB broadcasts to enhance the overall viewing experience. Almost all highlights that MLB posts to its social media pages include the Statcast data.

I could talk a lot more about the way in Statcast has changed Major League Baseball in just the few years that it has been in existence, but I bring it up because I believe that is the extent to which automation should be included in professional sports, especially Major League Baseball. The pitch tracking technology is a nice, additional piece to a television broadcast, but I don’t want it to be deciding a borderline strike call in Game 7 of the World Series.

What bothers some people is that the MLB rule book has a clearly defined strike zone, which is anything that crosses home plate between a batter’s knees and the middle of his torso. The strike zone is supposed to be black and white, but it’s not because each home plate umpire has a different interpretation. Some umpires like to give a few inches off the plate, some don’t like calling low strikes, and some give a call to a pitcher if he’s doing a good job locating his pitches on a given day. Then, there is always a chance that an umpire has an off day and makes a series of bad strike calls over the course of a game, which is no different than a person working in a cubicle filling out some forms wrong because he didn’t get enough sleep the night before.

Would an automated strike zone get rid of all of these problems? Probably, but they would actually take away parts of the game that players and fans love. People who call themselves “baseball purists” agree that there is a certain gamesmanship that takes place between the two teams on the field and the home plate umpire. All players try to subtly work the umpire to some extent in the hope that he will give their team a favorable call at a turning point in the game. Pitchers will stare down the umpire after a call doesn’t go their way as a way of telling the umpire that they thought the pitch should have been a strike. Players will chirp from the dugout as a means to get in the umpires head for when a similar call has to be made later on in the game. This idea of gamesmanship creates a game within the game on the diamond and would be lost if we replaced the human umpire with an automated machine. If we were to replace the human umpires with machines, the two teams would be playing something that resembled a computer game more than America’s Pastime.

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One of the most exciting things that can happen during a baseball game that doesn’t include a live play is an ejection of a player or coach. Since the arguing of a play that has been reviewed leads to an automatic ejection, basically the only way that a coach or player can get ejected nowadays is if they argue with the umpire about balls and strikes. These heated interactions get the crowd fired up and provide some quality entertainment for social media enthusiasts. These iconic moments would be lost because I couldn’t see any coach or player ever getting into a fight with a machine at home plate.

I am not an advocate against automation by any means. I think that it is beneficial more often than it is not, but I think that we as a society need to make sure that we do not get “automation happy” and take the human element out of everything. While the automated strike zone is a very unique example, I think that it raises a good point, which is that there are some industries in which human error/subjectivity has value. The possibility of an automated strike zone has been mentioned by multiple parties for several years, but it thankfully has never come to fruition because it would bring about a series of problems that would not outweigh the possible benefits. I’d be curious to hear what you all have to think about the possible automation of officiating not just in Major League Baseball, but other professional sports as well.

6 comments

  1. I’m glad to see that baseball is becoming more open to adopting technological advancements into the game. The use of a strike zone would have been tricky to implement without computer assistance, and the fact that there could even be a possibility of an automated umpire proves how far we have come in sports technology.

    I can exactly imagine what it’s like to have automated officiating in a sport because I’m an avid fan of tennis. In that sport, the large venues have automated cameras that can predict with near-flawless accuracy the placement of a ball relative to the court lines. During a match, a player can challenge the last ball played in order to dispute the validity of a linesman’s call. The computer’s projection is taken as the final call when a dispute arises, making the process effectively resolved by a machine. However, each player only gets a limited number of opportunities to challenge a call per match, preventing abuse of this system to ensure a more fluid match pace.

    I think if baseball were to adopt automated officiating, they may want to operate with a machine as a second opinion, much like how automation is implemented in tennis as a dispute-resolution method. Maybe this would serve to swing crucial calls to either team’s advantage without making a human umpire entirely obsolete. Regardless of baseball’s decision about automation, I think the incorporation of computers in sports is a topic that will only become more relevant over time as we encounter more uses for beyond-human processing capability.

    1. You make a great point about technology like this already being implemented in tennis. I think it has worked there just because the call itself is so black and white, which is where I think the difficulty comes in as it relates to baseball. While the rule book clearly defines what the strike zone is, there is still a massive amount of subjectivity and room for interpretation. This gets back one of the bigger difficulties that we have discussed about AI and automation as a whole. While its capabilities are powerful, we really don’t understand yet how to program a machine to be subjective, which is where the need for a combination of machine power and human judgement comes in.

  2. This was a great post! You did a great job of introducing your perspective and defending it. I totally agree with your point that we should not get “automation” happy and eliminate the human element out of everything. I had never really thought about how the interactions between the individuals on the field add to the sport. But I guess its something that we all experience and go along with, without thinking about it. Eliminating that would be very unfortunate. I get that in a perfect world, everything should be perfectly aligned as it was designed. But you’re right; what fun would that be? I think the great thing about sports is that sometimes the most controversial issues are often among the most remembered. I’m not a huge baseball fan myself but I have grown up watching soccer my whole life. Obviously they are two completely different sports but your post just made me think of how in soccer, there are always the memories of “that one infamous game” in “that year” where a wrong call caused something super exciting but controversial to happen. More specifically, there is one example that comes to mind of the 1986 World Cup match when England played against Argentina. I won’t go into the details but if you haven’t heard of it, the summary is that basically, one of the Argentinean players scored a goal but did so by punching the ball slightly to get it past the goalkeeper. None of the officials spotted the illegal play and therefore called it to be legal despite all the pleas of the players who saw what really happened. It was a wrong call but it wasn’t an intentional bad call. They simply didn’t see it. It was such a famous play that to this day it is known as the play of Diego Maradona and the Hand of God. Argentina went on to win the World Cup that year which just served to add to the legacy of that play. Of course, this is a very unique example and from very long ago so things have changed to prevent this kind of issue but I think it really goes along with your point that sometimes the human element, the possibility of flaws, adds to the exciting of not knowing whats going to happen. I think if there was technology in all sports measuring exactly what was going to happen and as a viewer you saw it happening, it would take away the suspense in waiting to hear what the referee or umpire or other relevant official will call. With it, as you mentioned, would be gone the human emotion after the call that adds some excitement to the game. My example from soccer happened before I was even born, but I have heard about it so much that I still remember it so well to recall it with just reading your post. I think that says a lot in how interesting these memories can be. In the end, sports are about passion and good and bad calls fuel that passion for players and viewers alike.

  3. Hey Dan, I want to thank you for writing this post, because I could not agree more! I think an automated balls and strikes in baseball would absolutely ruin the game and choke off the reason people love baseball. It’s such a human game, with so much history, and I can’t stand when you can hyper-analyze every single pitch and potentially blame the umps when things don’t go your team’s way. I am happy they added replay for home-runs that skim the wall, or for close calls on the bases, but I agree, balls and strikes need to be left alone.

    Additionally, as a huge Patriots fan, you can see the way replay has influenced the NFL. With their changing rules this past year on receivers maintaining control to the ground, the office in New York implemented a rule change for the Super Bowl that was inconsistent with the rest of the season, making the calls on field and the reviews too much a part of the game. On some level, it’s difficult to watch games that are being officiated from 3 different places – umps on the plate or refs on the sidelines, officials in a league office, and fans from their couches!

  4. Really great post about how technology should or should not change the game. This is the type of nuanced analysis I love.

  5. I totally agree with you. I am sick of watching sports where refs spend 15 minutes per game reviewing calls in super slo-mo and end up sometimes over analyzing them. There is something about the imperfections of calls that makes the game more exciting. I think that turning to technology/automation is a poor cop-out instead of looking to change the way officiating occurs.
    For example, some baseball coaches have said that when they evaluate their pitchers in practice from behind the mound and umpires would have a more accurate view of the strike zone from behind the mound. One solution could be to stick the home plate umpire behind the pitcher. Controversial calls at the plate are reviewed now anyways, but sticking the umpire behind the pitcher could lead to more accurate strike calls which cannot be overturned.
    The one great thing about Statcast is being able to comprehend the impressive feats of players. Sometimes they go overboard and will say that a player is the first in 15 years to hit 2 home runs in one day off of a Marlins pitcher (kidding, but you probably get what I mean), but understanding the accomplishments of bright young players like Judge, Trout and Harper make the game even more interesting.

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