Thursday, October 25, 2012

Instant Replay in the MLB

If you've been watching the MLB playoffs, you've seen a lot of questionable calls - some at critical stages of the games. And you've heard the renewed clamouring for instant replay. In this post I am going to outline my proposal for how some sort of instant replay should be implemented.  In my next few articles I am going to review some of the more controversial calls that we have recently witnessed and break down if and how my replay solution would impact them.


Basics of my proposal:
  1. NOT initiated by manager. It can only be initiated by a member of the umpiring crew.
  2. Would NOT apply to plays where there was continuous action, unless the call undid the action that resulted (for example: it could change a fair ball to foul, but could not change a called foul ball to fair).
  3. Does NOT need to be conclusive. Just a "preponderance of evidence"
  4. NOT applicable to ball/strike calls.
  5. Does not matter if it's a scoring play or not.
Let me address each of these points in order:

1  Not initiated by manager
Why not?  Many of the proposals seen around the interweb talk about an NFL style challenge system.  Each team only gets a certain number per game.  Or it's unlimited but there's penalties if the call isn't overruled. I have seen everything from automatic ejections, to costing the team an out(!).  I see several things wrong with any of these approaches.

First of all it's too gimmicky.  Games are won or lost based on the "strategy" around when to ask for a review, rather than what happens on the field.

If there is a limited number of challenges:
  • penalizes teams that have many bad calls against them in a game. Teams might not challenge for example a ruled dropped foul fly ball, with an 0-2 count on the batter and 2 outs in an early inning, thinking more crucial situations may come up later. But that batter could then hit a home run and the final score is 1-0.  Or they could challenge a couple of such plays, but then in the 9th inning of a tie game, an Umpire may obviously kick a call and there's nothing the victimized team can do
  • late in a game, a manager may challenge a call that was obviously correct to buy some time for a reliever to warm up. Or to kill the opposing team's momentum. Or if it's raining, to delay the game so that it's either called if they have a lead, or if losing before 5 to ensure the 5th isn't finished. Or just to be a jackass. Or MLB may even encourage this in quick games, so that TV networks get their full 3 hours of advertising revenue. (Sorry, I'm getting cranky again).
If there is a penalty for unsuccessful challenges:
  • some calls aren't conclusive. This has been apparent numerous times in the NFL where broadcasters will say "it looks like maybe the ball hit the ground, but it's not conclusive so they won't overturn it".  In the ALDS Nate McClouth of the Orioles hit a ball just to the right of the foul pole. The Umpires checked the replay and upheld the original foul call.  I believe the video shows a very slight deflection of the ball as it goes by the pole, implying that it did in fact touch it. However, it is not conclusive, and I agree that the Umpires would have a very hard time in overruling the original call.  But it would add insult to injury to penalize Buck Showalter for asking for this replay and not having the call reversed.
So, who should initiate the calls? This is an easy one - the 5th Umpire. Have them in some room with a monitor. It doesn't even have to be at the stadium. They can all hang out in Bud's basement and do it while watching a series of TV monitors, while eating cracker jacks and having some cold ones (ok, maybe not).  I can envision a system where older Umpires instead of retiring get "promoted" to "replay Umpire". It's a good way to stay involved in the game when you can no longer be physically active. If they see anything that looks close, they send some kind of signal (through an earpiece?) to the crew chief or plate Umpire and he calls time while waiting for confirmation. As well, it could be initiated by any other Umpire. Remember the Jim Joyce / Galarraga perfect game? Joyce was sure he saw it right, so didn't ask for any help (which, by the way, is the correct way to handle this. Otherwise you will second guess every single call you make). But even without the "replay Umpire", any other Umpire could have said "hey, wait a minute, Jim - let's take another look at this".
This would NOT delay the game in any way that I can foresee - in fact it should speed it up. Instead of a manager running onto the field and spending 5 minutes yelling at an Umpire and making a mockery of the game, he would jump out of the dugout and immediately the Umpire would say "hold it coach - we're gonna double check this". ...wait 20 seconds, and give the ruling that they hear from the "replay Umpire".  Even if the manager wasn't happy, he likely wouldn't argue it much as he knows the Umpire looked at the replay.

2 Does not apply to plays with continuous action
Ok, what do I mean by this?  What I mean is that any play where if the call is reversed would lead the Umpires to have to guess where baserunners would end up, is not reviewable.  For example, runner on first, batter hits a ball in the outfield which hits close to the line. If it is called "Foul!", it cannot be changed to "Fair" on replay. Because if it was, then what do you do with the runners? Is it a single or a double? Based on the game situation, was the 3rd base coach likely to waive the runner home or not? Please don't put those kind of judgements in the Umpire's hands. Of course, if it's the type of hit that goes out of play, then you could reverse the call.  Example - it bounces close to the line and then goes in the stands. If it was fair, it would be a ground-rule an automatic double. If it is called foul, it is easy enough to reverse it and award bases like you would on an automatic double.
More complicated cases: R1, R2 1 out. Grounder to shortstop, with runners running on pitch. Throw to second, while R2 rounds 3rd and heads home.  R1 called safe, so 2nd baseman throws ball home to cut down R3 instead of going for double play at first. R3 safe at home.  If you reviewed play at 2nd and determined that runner was actually out, where are you placing the runners now? Because it's likely that the second baseman would have thrown the ball to first to complete the inning ending double play. Or maybe not. Worms. Can. Opening.  However, same situation with 2 outs. R1 called safe, 2nd baseman throws to 1st not in time to retire speedy runner, while R2 comes around and scores. You COULD review the call at 2nd and if the runner was out, the inning is over.
Or on a possible trapped catch - with no one on base, best course of action is to call it no catch, and wait for the replay. But with runners on base, you can't reverse it, because if you do decide the ball was caught, what about the runners? Do you keep them where they were? If they were running on the play do you assume they'd be doubled off? Do you assume they would have tagged up and advanced?

What this does mean is that umpires need to be really careful in the calls they make. If they think a ball might be foul but it's really close, better to call it fair, and then undo the play if you have to. If you call it foul and it's wrong it's too late to change anything.  Same with a ball that a batter chops down and rolls in the infield that may or may not have hit him in the batter's box. If the umpire thinks it hit him and calls it a dead ball, there is no undo. But he can let the situation play out, and after the play review it and see if it is a fair ball or just a dead foul ball.  But in some situations, they will have to call it as they see it, because they know it can't be reversible.  

3 Does not need to be conclusive
Listen people - we are not sending people to the electric chair if we get the call wrong. (Actually, I'm in Canada - I mean life in jail with no parole for 25 years).  Nothing infuriates me more than watching an NFL replay where everyone is 80% sure the call was wrong, but since it's not 100% conclusive, it is not overturned. WHAT IS THE POINT OF REPLAY IF YOU STILL GET IT WRONG! If you think the call should be overturned, then overturn it. 

4 Does not apply to ball and strike calls
We already know that no Umpire in the majors calls a textbook strike zone. Not to mention the wide variation between an 0-2 and a 3-0 pitch.  Or the extra large zone you get if your name is Mariano Rivera. Trust me, nobody on the field wants to see a textbook sized zone all the time. I've had players and coaches even at fairly high levels (semi-pro, collegiate) ask me to adjust the zone even if it's against them (big lead, late inning, opposing pitcher can't throw strikes. I'm begged to call everything a strike just so everyone can go home already).  Pitchers, catchers and even batters know that the strike zone will adjust based on the situation. You can argue that maybe it shouldn't, but it does. If we used instant replay to call strikes and balls, then you could just do away with umpires entirely (I can see a lot of you like this idea!).

5 Not only on scoring plays
Just addressing this point as I've seen it on some message boards. But baseball isn't like other games. Non-scoring plays affect scoring. If someone makes a bad call on a runner trying to steal, and the next batter hits a home run, that call directly cost one of the teams a run.

There have been several controversial calls recently.  I will show how this implementation of instant replay would have impacted each of them in the next few posts.  Stay tuned....

Post 1: Infield Fly call against the Braves
Post 2: Check Swing
Post 3: Yankees Robbed

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