Major League Baseball Inches Closer to the Day when Umpires Could be Replaced by Machines

What would Major League Baseball be without thousands of fans in the stands -- and millions more watching at home -- screaming at the umpires for missing an obvious bad pitch? We may find out sooner than you think, as a new MLB partnership opens the door ever so slightly for an umpire-less future.

The TrackMan Baseball system uses sophisticated cameras and computers to track the minute details of a pitched ball's path from the mound to the plate, and supporters of the technology say it could be used to call balls and strikes instead of relying on an umpire's senses. Every MLB ballpark already has TrackMan tech, but it's not being deployed for this purpose -- yet.

The MLB recently announced a partnership with the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, an independent league currently unaffiliated with MLB or Minor League Baseball. However, as part of this new partnership the Atlantic teams have agreed to be the testing ground for a handful of experimental tweaks to gameplay and officiating that may someday make their way into MLB games, and top of that list released today is the use of TrackMan to "assist" home-plate umpires in calling balls and strikes.

MLB teams are already using TrackMan to analyze all manner of pitching and hitting data, from spin rates of pitches to launch angles of batters' swings, but the league has long been reluctant to implement technology in a way that might supersede an umpire's authority.

After all, it took until 2008 for MLB to decide that certain plays could be challenged by managers using instant replay, but the league has thus far said no to allowing replay review of balls and strikes.

Among the other changes that the Atlantic League will be trying out for future use by MLB or MiLB teams include:

• No more mound visits by players or coaches, except for medical issues and pitching changes.

• Requiring that pitchers face at least three batters (or until the end of an inning) before being removed from the mound. This seems intended to speed up games and prevent the ever-increasing practice of bringing in specialist pitchers just to deal with one specific batter. There is an exception for injured pitchers, obviously.

• Killing the infield shift by requiring that two infielders must be on either side of second base when a pitch is thrown. Critics of the shift, wherein the shortstop moves to the other side of second, and the second baseman moves further to his left and deeper into the outfield, have claimed that it has resulted in fewer hits and less interesting games. Supporters of the shift say that players need to adjust and figure out how to not hit into the shift.

No word on when or if fans might see any of these changes implemented at the Major or Minor League levels.

"This first group of experimental changes is designed to create more balls in play, defensive action, baserunning, and improve player safety," said Morgan Sword, MLB's Senior Vice President, League Economics & Operations in a statement. "We look forward to seeing them in action in the Atlantic League."

Major League Baseball Inches Closer to the Day when Umpires Could be Replaced by Machines | Sports