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Instant Replay

June 29, 2010

Yesterday as I had a conversation with my mother about whether or not the Boston Red Sox would ultimately be able to overcome their mounting list of injuries, the conversation ended up taking a turn towards instant replay’s place in baseball. Coincidentally, early this morning I also received a message on Facebook from one of my friends who was looking for my opinion on the subject. So naturally it seems like an ideal opportunity to expand on my thoughts.

Before I delve into my opinion on the concept of instant replay let’s take a quick look back at the key underlying reason why this has been such a central conversation piece this season.  I am, of course, referring the “imperfect perfect game” when first base umpire Jim Joyce blew a call that cost Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga a Perfect Game against the Cleveland Indians back on June 2nd. With two outs in the 9th inning Indians rookie shortstop Jason Donald grounded a ball to the right of Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera fielded it cleanly, flipped the ball to Galarraga who was covering first base, and Donald was called safe. Galarraga would bounce back and get the next batter out but the Perfect Game was already lost. Replays showed that the ball clearly was in Galarraga’s glove before Donald’s foot hit the bag. Much of the Tigers team was up in arms about the blown call but Galarraga remained calm towards the situation. Joyce, one of the more respected umpires in the league, broke into tears at a postgame press conference after viewing the replay himself. He was upset with himself for blowing the call and felt horrible for costing Galarraga the Perfect Game.

The “human element” of umpiring is a part of the game. Mistakes happen. They have happened for years. But with all of the innovations in technology over the past few years there are steps that can be taken to compensate for these mistakes. This is where instant replay comes into play.

First, it needs to be recognized that part of the recent uproar calling for expanded instant replay is because there have been so many innovations in technology. Twenty years ago many of these same blown calls took place but we didn’t have the ability to instantly replay each and every play during live broadcasts of the games. ESPN’s Sportscenter wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now and the network’s Baseball Tonight show hadn’t yet been developed. The Internet wasn’t around, at least not like it is now, to make access to every play available to millions across the globe. Technology has improved the way we follow events around the world – both sporting and non – and this new ability to review every single play makes every single mistake magnified.

Many of these same innovations in technology can be utilized to implement some kind of instant replay in sports. The NFL allows each team a predetermined number of challenges over the course of the game. Then, in the final two minutes of each half the officials have the power to review (and overturn) a call. The NBA allows referees to review close plays at the end of the game, particularly to ensure that close calls don’t sway the outcome. As things currently stand in baseball, the only calls that are reviewable are home run calls – whether the ball went over the wall or not, whether it was inside or outside the foul poles, whether the ball passed over the wall without fan interference.

Now before I continue it should be noted that Commissioner Bud Selig has already said that he has no intentions of expanding instant replay at this time. In fact, it sounds as though he has no intentions of even discussing it at this point in time. So every suggestion from this point forward is just that, a suggestion.

Reviewing pitches at the plate is simply not an option. Sure, each umpire seems to have his own definition of the strike zone and that definition varies from game to game, even from inning to inning. But that is one aspect of the game which cannot be governed by the threat of instant replay. Calling balls and strikes is one aspect of the game where the human element is vital. Would Greg Maddux have been so effective if every now and then the umpire didn’t give him an extra inch on the outside part of the plate? Sure, he would have still be dominant but things just wouldn’t have been the same if every single game, with every single umpire, the strike zone was 100% universal. It’s an impractical request.

A few years ago MLB instituted an electronic monitoring system, called Questec, into many of the ballparks. It was/is a system devised to monitor how accurately the umpires call the strike zone. Little has been publicized about the system to date, aside of course from Curt Schilling’s constant complaining about it before his retirement (and subsequent gaining of 60 pounds if you’ve seen him on Baseball Tonight anytime recently). We’ve never heard of an umpire being disciplined for being too inconsistent or for missing too many calls behind the plate. Could this be evidence that these calls are correct (or close enough) the majority of the time? Or has MLB just been able to keep any sanctions/fines/discipline over this matter quiet enough that we’ve just never learned of them?

We may never know the true answer to these questions. But what we do know is that if instant replay was ever implemented for balls and strikes then we’d be seeing countless replays a game. Managers on both sides would argue nearly every call. Pitchers, catchers, and batters would all gripe and complain over any call that didn’t go their way (more so than they already do). Games would take even longer to complete. It would become ridiculous, thus defeating the whole point of reviewing calls. So let’s throw that idea right out the window now before we even more on.

To get back to the Joyce/Galarraga situation, plays on the bases should be reviewable. These plays, no matter what part of the game they occur in, can have a dire impact on the game’s outcome. The umpires have the ability to congregate and overturn a call if there is supporting evidence that the original call was incorrect. Yet, these discussions rarely take place. Ultimately it wouldn’t take much to review these plays in order to get the call correct. But the argument against this is the simple fact that some feel this would lengthen the game in an unnecessary manner. In fact, that’s the biggest argument against all types of replay in baseball.

Sure, baseball games take a long time to complete. But that, to some, is part of what makes the game great. These games can’t be completed in an hour. In fact, if you look at every other professional sports game you won’t find a single one that can be completed in such a short amount of time. But the difference is that most feature continuous action. Baseball is a different animal but that is part of the nature of the game. Would taking 3-4 minutes to ensure that a call is right really make that much of a difference? I personally don’t think so.

Regardless of what is deemed reviewable and what is not, the biggest question that would need to be answered is how to actually implement and regulate the replay process. For this, there are two ideas that have been suggested that do make some sense to me.

The first is simply an expansion of the current system that is used to review home run calls. The umpires leave the field of play, huddle around a strategically placed television, and watch the replays. They come to a consensus, return to the field, and make their ruling. It’s really a simple process. Expanding it to include calls on the bases really shouldn’t be such a reach. If the argument that this process takes too long is really so prevalent, then alter the process. Each umpiring group has a crew chief. Change the system so only the crew chief goes back to review the replay. He alone makes a determination as to whether there is enough
evidence to overturn the original call. This system is working just fine in the NFL.

The second suggestion that has been thrown about by various media outlets would be to add a fifth umpire to each crew. This umpire is not on the field and does not have an immediate impact on the game’s action. He could be positioned near the press boxes or even back in the umpire’s locker room. He’ll watch the game on TV, with the instantaneous ability to review replays as they take place. In a sense, he’d be watching the replays as we simultaneously watch them from the comforts of our own homes. If there’s a call that needs to be reviewed or overturned, he can signal the crew chief to pause the game’s action until a ruling can be determined. Sounds fairly simple doesn’t it?

Some have suggested implementing a system similar to the NFL where each manager has a certain number of “challenges” that can be used throughout the game. Even giving the managers a “challenge flag” has been proposed. Yet the concept wouldn’t work in baseball, in my opinion. Managers would use their flag rather than arguing a call. Arguing a call often gives the team a morale boost, proof that their manager will stand up for the players. Tossing a little bundled up flag onto the field doesn’t quite have the same effect.

The issue of instant replay is obviously not one that can be summed up in any simple fashion. In fact, after 1600+ words I feel that I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the idea. There are many scenarios that need to be considered, ideas to review, and methods to evaluate. This is a discussion that will continue on for some time. Even if MLB were to implement expanded replay we would still see discussions about whether it is effective, whether there need to be changes, and whether replay makes a difference in the game. Ultimately there does need to be some form of expanded replay brought into the game of baseball. But it needs to be done in a way where the “human element” of the game is not lost.

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