Cubs catcher Yan Gomes paused to gather his thoughts. He wanted to be precise in his reaction to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s comments about wanting robo umps in the big-leagues by 2024.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Gomes told the Sun-Times. “The best thing in baseball, and professional sports in general, is the human element of things.”
Manfred revealed the timeline to implement some form of the automated strike zone to ESPN as part of a wide-ranging profile that was published Wednesday. It’s not yet clear the extent to which so-called robot umpires will be integrated into the game.
The system may call every pitch, or players may have the option to challenge an umpire’s call, as MLB is testing in the Low-A Southeast league this season.
Cubs players who spoke with the Sun-Times in the aftermath of Manfred’s comments had a range of responses, from cautious neutrality to frustration.
Asked his opinion of robo umps, manager David Ross joked, “I’ve never met one.”
He added: “I have a long history with umpires being a [former] catcher. The interaction there is fun. And you understand our game’s imperfect, and trying to make it perfect can be tough. But also that taking out some of the argument of balls and strikes, what that will look like and be like, we’ll see.
“I think there’s always unintended consequences of every change. And hopefully a lot of those are good, but sometimes there may be some bad and you may have to make another adjustment.”
For Gomes, whether the automated strike zone will call every pitch or just the one’s a player has challenged doesn’t matter.
“That part of the game,” Gomes said, “it’s been such an art of guys hitting their spots or catchers being able to present pitches well. . . . And as soon as that part of the game [framing] starts getting better, we just want to change it and figure out a way to do something different.”
Fellow catcher Willson Contreras, who made huge strides in framing before becoming a 2020 Gold Glove finalist, anticipates a massive shift in the catching position if MLB introduces an automated strike zone.
“It’s going to be like playing first base if you’re behind the plate in 2024,” he said. “Just catch the ball and throw it back.”
But Contreras, who added, “why not keep every umpire accountable instead of putting in robo umpires?” was far more concerned with the proposed pitch clock, which MLB is expected to introduce as a way to combat pace of play concerns.
Ian Happ, the Cubs’ MLB players association representative, could have some say on new rules implementation. He’s also an alternate on the competition committee.
“I think it’s a more holistic way to look at this,” Happ said of the new joint committee, which is comprised of active players, MLB appointees and an umpire, “as opposed to MLB coming in with rules changes, us rejecting it, and then it getting put in. So, hopefully, there’s some compromise or maybe thinking through what possible outcomes could happen before they happen.”
Kicking around ideas in front of the dugout Thursday afternoon, Happ suggested a plan that could serve as an alternative or intermediate step to robo umpires.
“With the technology of the earpieces they’re wearing now, I think it would be a nice first step to give them feedback in-game,” Happ said. “So, to be able to say, ‘Hey, that pitch is on the black, good call,’ or, ‘that pitch is two inches off.’ “
Players are able to check their sense of the strike zone in-between innings through video in the dugout. Umpires don’t have that kind of in-game resource on balls and strikes.
“Let’s see if that would help,” Happ said. “And I think that that’s only going to make them better. Because at the end of the day, they want to be the best version of themselves on the field just like we do.”