Six Things I Know About Replay

By Bill


Instant replay in baseball — specifically, the obvious need for as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible — was sort of my pet cause over at my old blog, and I continue to rail about it regularly on Twitter (where my personal favorite hashtag is #robotsnow, which I realize could be read as “Robot Snow,” but is not), but I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about it here. So I’ll try to hit all the main points fairly quickly:

1. Julio Lugo was out at the plate. Some really smart people, like Rob Neyer and Jonah Keri, gamely attempted to tell us yesterday that Jerry Meals’ safe call ending the 19-inning Braves-Pirates marathon on Tuesday night might have been correct. Which is something that really smart people love to do — convince people that something they think they know is wrong. It’s good sport, for those smart people.

But here, they’re wrong. Really, obviously wrong.

It’s there. You can watch it over and over again, and each time, from each angle, you’ll see catcher Mike McKenry’s glove brush Lugo’s leg well before the latter comes near the plate. Lugo’s own body language after the tag is made confirms it, too (and there’s nothing wrong with using body language when what it conveys is against the conveyor’s interests; it’s not like Lugo was only acting disappointed). It’s not a good tag, and it’s not a lot of contact, but it’s definitely there. Hard to see doesn’t mean impossible to see, and we can assume that a trained major league umpire sitting in a booth in front of an HDTV could have made this call in seconds.

Meals himself basically confirms that, having admitted after viewing the replay that he made the wrong call. Which leads me to the next point:

2. The field umpire does not typically have a special perspective on a play. He certainly would have twenty or even ten years ago, but today, with every play of every game being filmed from multiple angles in HD, all the umpire has is one full-speed view of one angle (and often a bad one) of the play. A point that was pressed on me yesterday (and one Neyer basically makes in his article as well) was that my “fifth umpire in a booth” replay system, by removing the field umpire from the ultimate decision on a play, ignores the most important perspective.

There might be some situations in which that’s true — in which case the video replay would almost certainly be too inconclusive to make a ruling on anyway — but I can’t actually think of any. As Meals confirmed with his comments after viewing the replay, the play on Tuesday night certainly wasn’t one of them. Multiple angles of a play in high definition and slow motion — especially when viewed by a fully qualified umpire — will, at least in almost every case, tell us everything the field umpire could, but a lot more of it and a lot better.

3. There’s no excuse for not getting the vast majority of blown calls right. It’s not a delay or game-length issue. Most people immediately picture the NFL system, which is a steaming pile of detritus and is entirely too complicated for baseball, which has the advantage of a wide-open field with clear sightlines and that only very rarely sees a pile of large humans in pads obscuring the camera’s view of the real action at issue.

No challenge flags, no huddles. Put a fifth umpire in a booth, as I said, in front of a TV. I think you could make him (or her, but since we’ve got no female umpires yet, I’ll just keep using the masculine) part of the regular crew, rotating right along with the other four, but I don’t really care. If he sees a play that he wants to see again before play continues, he buzzes down to the plate umpire. When a bad call happens on TV, you and I know it within a few seconds; this guy, with a trained eye and in control of the replay itself, can know it faster. Prohibit managers from coming out to argue calls that have been reviewed through replay, and you probably save time, overall. At the most, it’s a few seconds.

It’s not a matter of technology, certainly. We can get almost all of these calls right, and if it’s inconclusive, he can send it right on back down. Some bad calls is better than a lot of bad calls, after all.

Ultimately, it’s an issue of fairness. An incredibly huge portion of this game already comes down to random chance; putting the outcome of a game at the mercy of an umpire’s mistake, when technology has made it no longer necessary to do so, seems to me to add an unneeded extra layer between the abilities and performances of the players on the field and the outcomes. Which, again, leads me to the next thing I know:

4. There’s a big difference between “has always been so” and “should/must be so.” Yes, umpires and their flaws are part of the game. That’s because the National League was founded in 1876, and there simply wasn’t any other way to do it, then or for the next 120 or so years.

But that’s all they ever were: a necessary evil. Someone needed to be there to impartially judge what happened, so umpires were born. I don’t know who invented baseball or when, but I really doubt he or she said, after explaining how pitching, hitting, running the bases and defense would work, was like “and then we’ll have these umpires, who will try to judge what will happen, and sometimes they’ll be infuriatingly wrong, and that’ll add this whole great other element!”

Yeah, no. The players on the field (and to a lesser degree the managers, coaches, etc.) are and always have been meant to decide the outcome of a game; the umpires are there to watch and keep order and that’s it. There’s nothing more painful in this game than watching your team lose a game you thought they should have won because of a blown call by an umpire, and there’s nothing particularly rewarding about watching your team win one of those games, either. One bad call can ruin an otherwise great game (which is exactly what happened on Tuesday night).

Old-school guys love to talk about “the human element.” And that is indeed part of the game, a great part: the triumphs and failings of the human beings who play the game, that is, and the ones who manage them. Mistakes by umpires can only detract from the real ”human element.” If we were to get (or when we get) to the point where robot umpires can do the job flawlessly and reliably, the part of baseball’s “human element” that makes baseball really interesting to the great majority of us would be at an all-time high.

5. The only real obstacle to implementing instant replay is Bud Selig.
The players’ union doesn’t have any grounds to interfere with instant replay (and the great majority of players seem in favor of it at this point anyway). The umpires’ union can certainly whine about it, but: (a) my plan creates a whole new full-time umpire position on each crew, which protects existing umpires’ jobs and creates new ones, a great thing for the union; and (b) the power of the union relative to the MLBPA is roughly proportional to the uniqueness of the unions’ members’ talents — in stark contrast to the players’ union, the MLB has never had a problem strong-arming the umpires into change that MLB wants.

And as I said above, the other objections, especially the one about lengthening an already-long game, are concerns only because people’s minds are stuck on the NFL replay system, which is needlessly complicated for the NFL as it is, and would be much more excessive for baseball.

We can do this quickly, reliably, and at relatively low cost. The only thing we need is a commissioner or ruling body that is forward-thinking and interested in actually addressing and fixing problems in the game, rather than in continuing to grow the owners’ bottom line.

So, obviously, it won’t be happening any time soon.

6. Checked-swing calls by base umpires are ridiculous. A bit off-topic, I suppose, but I can’t get over this one. Who decided that base umpires have a good view of whether or not a batter offered at a pitch, and how is it that we’re still doing this? I think most appeals to the base umpires are pretty obvious calls — the plate umpire could make it himself, but he permits an appeal out of an abundance of caution — but give a base umpire an actual borderline swing, and he will give you an almost completely random guess as to whether the guy swung or not. I doubt they’re right on those close plays more than about 55% of the time; a base umpire can see a swing checked at the exact same point twice in the same inning, and is likely to rule two different ways.

This isn’t the umpire’s fault; they’re simply being asked to do something that human beings can’t do, which is to discern at what angle a very fast-moving object stopped, to within a couple inches, from 90 feet away and at a very poor angle from which to do so.

This is something a computer could be doing, right now. Put a camera in the dugout, trained on the plate and perpendicular to the line created by the pitcher and batter, and set up a computer to judge immediately whether or not the bat crossed the plane, like the automatic line judge machine they use for appeals in high-profile tennis matches. It might not be perfect (though I suspect it would be pretty close), but it couldn’t help but be better than those poor base umpires.

Quantcast