Independent Baseball’s Newest Umpire Isn’t Human

A simple Twitter search of #RobotUmpsNow or #UmpShow will show fans have been clamoring for an electronic umpire for the strike zone — among other things — for some time. While major league baseball isn’t quite ready to make that jump just yet — nor are any affiliated minor league clubs — there is one hero ball club we can turn to. The vaunted San Rafael Pacifics of the Pacific Associate of Professional Baseball are set to debut a strictly PITCHf/x umpire for tonight’s and tomorrow’s game.

SportsVision, creators and owners of PITCHf/x, are working alongside the Pacifics in handing off the task of calling balls and strikes to the system, though former major league player Eric Byrnes will be on hand for assistance should either team object to the system’s judgement. The two-game affair is designed to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation and for each called ball or strikeout, Byrnes will donate $100 to the foundation. If either coach disagrees with the strike zone, Byrnes has the option to eject a player or manager, and in doing so would then donate $10,000 to the foundation for each person tossed from the game.

Given PITCHf/x’s enormous popularity among statistically-inclined baseball fans — including but not limited to Brooks Baseball, Baseball Heat Maps, Texas Leaguers and Baseball Savant — seeing progression towards a computerized  strike zone, even in a charitable role, is amazing. The three camera system on hand for the Pacifics is set to capture a triangulated zone, and since three cameras are better than two eyes, we’ll see an automated strike zone for the first time in organized baseball.

The need for an automated zone is pretty clear, especially when we have the technology to review missed calls in near real time. For example look no further than Jeff Sullivan’s posts on The Worst Called Strike/Ball of the First Half, or more recently, let’s observe one of Sunday’s games. Danny Salazar of the Cleveland Indians started the game, and according the PITCHf/x system over at Texas Leaguers, he may have been robbed of a handful of calls at a very important point in the game.


It looks as though three pitches touched the strike zone that were called a ball with an additional trio of pitches in the zone that were called balls. It’s hard to boil down a game to a single pitch, however one pitch can be the difference between walking back to the dugout after the third out or being lifted with two outs and runners on. The latter situation actually happened, and thanks to MLB’s Gameday, we can see the events unfold.


Salazar gets ahead of Tyler Saladino 0-1 before the second and third pitches, both appearing to be in the strike zone get called balls. Salazar does well to even things a 2-2, however he probably should have been out of the inning with the score still tied at one apiece. The calls don’t go his way and Zach McAllister comes on to relieve Salazar, who was at 113 pitches, and promptly gave up the tying run. Again, it’s one pitch, but it was arguably the sequence of events that decided the game.

The Indians and the White Sox are both likely outside of the playoff picture at this point, however that shouldn’t be the focus. Given that we have the technology to get the calls correct, it’s awfully disappointing to only see Independent baseball willing to go with an automated system. As Ken Jennings once wrote, I for one, welcome our new computer overlords.

(Header image via the Pacifics’ website)

You can catch David spouting off about baseball, soccer, esports and other things by following him on twitter, @davidwiers.

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7 years ago

There’s got to be a limit to the charitable contribution right? If not I’m going to be disappointed that the game ends on anyway besides a forfeit with two outs in the bottom of the 9th with Byrnes tossing every player and coach out of the game.

7 years ago

What a fun way to do this. Come the 9th inning, I’d tell everyone on my team to get thrown out. Would love to see that procession of ejections.

7 years ago

It’s a fun way to do this indeed, but more important, it opens the door a crack.
Hopefully, in the future robots will be calling balls/strikes. It’s tiresome seeing pitchers, as well as hitters, being hurt by umpires with an inconsistent or poor strike zone. But I suspect that day is far away; MLB is always slow to drag their feet when it comes to changes.
And will fans get as much pleasure from calling a robot “you blind bum!” (among the milder descriptions employed to describe the shortcomings of an umpire) as they would a human being?

7 years ago
Reply to  Vilnius

Exactly this. Think of how weird and quiet ballgames will be when nobody is yelling at the umpires.

Doug Lampert
7 years ago
Reply to  Wildcard09

I can still yell at the Ump. Because there will still be an ump at home base and he’ll still be deciding things like swing/no swing, hit by pitch or not, foul tip or not.

mark monforti
7 years ago

the best thing is if the player gets to see location right after the pitch so they can calibrate their own strike zone.