The next job at risk of being marginalized by robots: Major League Baseball’s umpires

Dave Briggs, special to CNBC
Jonathan Schoop, #6 of the Baltimore Orioles, slides into second base with a double as Alexei Ramirez, #10 of the San Diego Padres, misses the throw while umpire Bill Miller looks on during the fourth inning of a baseball game at Petco Park on June 28, 2016, in San Diego, California.
Getty Images

When the Chicago Cubs play the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, it will be a historic match-up of two baseball franchises.

The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. The Indians last won in 1948.

But there's another, less discussed reason this series will be historic. It could be one of the last World Series in which balls and strikes are called by a home plate umpire.

Sportvision, a subsidiary of sports powerhouse SMT, has the technology to call every single ball and strike with near perfect accuracy, using its "Pitchf/x" product.

Pitchf/x is the rectangle you see on TV that shows the strike zone. It's the same technology that undermines umpires when they clearly miss a call. And it's the same technology that can reduce umpires from key decision-makers to caretakers at baseball games.

We'll probably never completely rid ourselves of umpires, but they will be like pilots: Sure, we see a captain at the front of a plane, but most flights are controlled by autopilot technology.

Mike Jakob, the president and COO of Sportvision, told CNBC, "from a technology standpoint, we've shown that it [automated balls and strikes] can be done."

Former MLB outfielder Eric Byrnes agrees with Jakob. "If you asked me before this season I'd have said it's 10 years out, now I'd say closer to five. Just a matter of commissioner and umpires union buying in," said Byrnes. "This is a similar innovation to autopilot, the union may not want to punch in coordinates and land the plane a few hours later but we have the technology, let's use it."

Being a home plate umpire isn't easy. With more than a handful of pitchers hitting 100 mph on the radar gun and pitching changes at an all-time high, the job has never been more difficult. According to research, MLB's best umps are calling balls and strikes correctly 88 percent of the time — good but far from perfect.

How does Pitchf/x eliminate the errors? Sportvision installed three cameras at all 30 Major League ballparks. Two cameras, one on the first baseline and one on the third baseline, measure the pitch at 20 different points in the pitch's path while a third camera positioned in center field helps establish the strike zone for each hitter. As Jakob puts it, Pitchf/x is a "multidimensional data capture that goes from the fans to the teams to broadcast."

Viewers have become accustomed to seeing f/x technology in every national baseball broadcast. Subscribers to the MLB At Bat app can see a pitch-by-pitch account of every one of their team's games on their iPhone or Android.The only one who doesn't have access to this technology during the games is, ironically, the one who needs it most: the home plate ump.

Umps need the most help calling the outer edge of the strike zone, where pitchers make their living. Yale professor Toby Moskowitz, the co-author of "Scorecasting," studied nearly 1 million Major League pitches and found even the best umpires are missing one of every four pitches on the outer 3 inches of the strike zone, a number that increases to one in three on the outer 2 inches. That's enough to change the outcome of a game — or a series.

The home team also gets an advantage. Research found that two-thirds of the mistakes go the home teams way. "When in doubt, human nature tends to side with the home crowd," said Moskowitz. Eric Byrnes, who hit more than 100 home runs over a decade in the bigs added: "The bottom line is this [automated calls] is a better and more efficient way of getting it done, more importantly it's about getting the calls right."

Sportvision — soon to be rebranded SMT — isn't just changing the trajectory of baseball. The company is responsible for the Emmy-winning Virtual Yellow 1st & Ten line that has long been a staple of both NCAA football and NFL broadcasts.

The company's technology also goes beyond what viewers are seeing on their TVs and mobile phones. Data is at the heart of what Sportvision does from football player speed and total distance to NASCAR real-time access to data in an interactive format. Their insights are also integral in player development, analytics, coaching and recruiting.

That's why SMT — which has development deals with the NBA, NHL, the PGA Tour — acquired the sports and entertainment innovator. After the acquisition, SMT CEO Gerard Hall said: "Although we have been marketplace competitors for many years, SMT has always had a tremendous respect for the applied science, the cutting-edge technology, and the creative innovation that runs through the DNA of the Sportvision team."

The question remains whether the Pitchf/x technology remains just a cool broadcast element or will it soon be weaved into very fabric of America's favorite pastime.

Some fans, like Bryant Gumbel, believe the technology is bad for baseball. "If you're going to tell me it's more important to get it right, I'm going to tell you that's not true, it's more important to maintain the integrity of the game," he said on his "Real Sports" show. Bob Costas, Gumbel's colleague at NBC Sports, disagreed, telling CNBC that "integrity is getting the calls right."

Former 2-time All-Star pitcher Brad Lidge, who sealed the Phillies 2008 World Series Championship, said a move to automation could actually hurt pitchers. Lidge views the strike zone as "the last important form of human error" and feels "the ability to take advantage of the strike zone is a skill set that you develop starting in Little League."

Then there are the umpires themselves, a group that's naturally resistant to this technology for fear of losing their jobs. Sportvision and change agents like Byrnes both agree, the home plate umpire is an essential element in the game and always will be. The World Umpires Association did not return calls or emails for comment.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has a different take, telling reporters at the start of this post-season that even though the technology "has continued to improve," it needs to become "more feasible for use on the field."

"I don't believe we are there yet," said Manfred.

That could all change soon.

Dave Briggs is a host and anchor for NBC Sports Group. He currently serves as the co-host of Fantasy Football Live on NBC Sports Network.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the spelling of SMT CEO Gerard Hall's name.