Tuesday, June 19, 2007

In The Future There Will Be Robots

Is it me, or have the calls umpires have made this year been the worst baseball has seen since 1979? It seems everywhere, bad strike calls, missed judgments on balls in play, and Willie Bloomquist magnitude screw-ups have been fantastically commonplace. Every time I see these feckless, doddering, old fossils stand there around and argue a call that can be proved indisputably incorrect by three seconds of video evidence, I wonder why even have umpires in the first place. Replace them all with robots, I say!

Now, to an old-school baseball purist, what I just said would border on heresy. They would have you believe that umpires are the caretakers of the game, and the heralds of the grand national religion of ours. But at one point in time, priests were the great caretakers of Christianity, and then they started insourcing by the truckload from Africa. Outside of some enclaves in Uganda, nobody plays baseball in Africa, so how true can this all really be? My logic is unassailable.

Priest and baseball are the same thing? Brilliant!

If you believe in chaos theory then one missed strike call can inexorably change the outcome of an entire season. Think about it: one wrong third strike call, one less chance for a batter to drive in runs, one less opportunity to use more elite relievers in a superior situation, and one less win total at the beginning of October can make a big impact—just see the winners of the AL Central last year, or the AL East the year before that. Grandpa might shake his head, and would argue all folksy-like that “it all balances out in the end” but does it really? If this is all completely random, and subject to the whims of one person of a seventy person umpiring roster on one particular day, has anyone even bothered to quantify such a claim? For an industry so concerned with the latest statistical trends and scouting, it’s inexcusable that more studies haven’t been done on this.

The fact is, high speed cameras, light-weight sensors, and instant replay can do the jobs umpires do, but even better to the point of perfection. They’ve already started doing this in Japan, with generally positive results. Hirugaki Corporation president Oroku Saki is quoted as saying that the Japanese Pro Baseball League is very happy with the accuracy of the robot’s reading in the test phase rollout, and are looking forward to full robotic integration within the next few years (along with a hefty check, I suppose).*

Will the slight replay phase with the computers and the lasers and the *GLAVIN* slow the game down? Marginally, perhaps. But no more than Steve Trachel’s dithering, Lou Pinella’s arguing, or every major league hitter sniping over balls and strikes. Now, those who are unwelcoming of our new robot overlords (I deem thee “anti-integration”) might say that these little foibles make the game fun. However, the way SABRmerics are headed, a soulless, mechanical approach to the game seems all but assured, so why not get this glorious new revolution off on the right foot with the umpire version of the AWESOME-O 3000?

There are some problems to this, of course. There is an umpires union that needs to be managed, and by “managed” I mean, broke with the wrath of an early 1900’s factory owner when crushing socialist inspired rebellion. But that shouldn’t be too hard. Parks will still have grounds crews, so turning the hoses on deposed umps won’t be too tough, and umpires aren’t in exactly strong in numbers, so a massive physical intimidation campaign ain’t really all that massive. As for the actual players, who perhaps would be the umpire’s greatest ally, they would all probably rather chase women or get wasted rather than getting in a tricky labor dispute that could hurt their endorsement potential. Communism doesn’t play well in Peoria.

I don't care who you are, Karl Marx + lampshade = Funny.

At this point, the only reasonable argument against mechanical umpires would be that it is the first step towards a Terminator 2/Matrix-style robotic world takeover and enslavement by machines.** While probable, isn’t this a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing the call was indisputably right? I just am sick and tired of seeing blown call after blown call affect the way the game is played. Baseball shouldn’t be soccer or the NBA where the tenor of officiating drastically affects games. When the assimilation integration begins, that's something we'll never have to worry about. The future is nigh. One day, there will be robots. Let’s let them do the umpiring. In your face, Isaac Asmov.

*Alright, outside of the 1st sentence, nothing in this paragraph is even remotely true. Oroku Saki was the name of the original Shredder in the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons, and the “Hirugaki Corporation,” basically is a very Japanese sounding name for a fake company. Nor will there be a massive check for the implementation of robot umpires. But does this revelation actually take away from my original points? I don’t think so. Robots = cool, badass, death. Embrace the madness.

**If you’re ready for some good old fashioned Japanese nightmare fuel, then click here and here. Try not watching it before falling asleep.


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