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Some Thoughts on Instant Replay in Baseball

I read a long article the other day about MLB’s plans for expanding instant replays in the near future. My first thought was an Ohio State-Indiana football game that I attended recently. The game began at 7:00 and ended shortly after 11. In the last five minutes virtually every play was reviewed, and the final decisions seemed no better than if the players had been allowed to call penalties like we used to on the playground. By the last minute the officials were not even making calls; they were just waiting for the replay official to decide.

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I sincerely hope that Major League Baseball, by being the last major sport to embrace replay, has learned from the foibles of the other professional leagues. It is easy to make a list of the things we do not want: endless delays, reversals of calls without clear evidence of a mistake, umpires becoming indecisive because they anticipate Big Brother watching over them. This list is easy to make because we have seen all of these things happen.

There are holes in the rules of each of the other major sports covering replay that MLB should be able to avoid. The NFL has a system of coach’s challenges that suffices when the game is well-called and there are few close plays. How many times have we seen a coach use his only challenge on a bang-bang play, then not have it available when his get hosed later on? This has been alleviated by reviewing all calls in the last two minutes, as well as all touchdowns and turnovers, but the biggest plays do not always fall within those parameters. This would be like MLB saying only calls in the ninth inning can be reviewed. Just saying it makes me feel stupid.

The NHL has an automatic review system for all goals, which has the advantage of fairness, but it had deprived the game of its greatest moment of ecstasy. Instead of an explosion of joy in the stands when the home teams scores, you have a brief cheer, then a minute or so of tension while the refs gather around a monitor, than a feeling closer to relief than excitement when the goal is finally confirmed.

The NBA gives its officials the authority to review any buzzer- beater, out of bound, play, or three point shot that they are not sure about. This seems to me to have led to an increased tendency for the officials to stare befuddled at one another whenever a close call comes along, as though the knowledge that they have a crutch gives them the freedom to be indecisive. There is also the problem of the waiting for the decision, which takes away a good bit of the magic of a buzzer-beater shot. Because of the nature of scoring and time, this is more of a problem in basketball than in other sports. My nightmare scenario is that there will be a game seven in Boston with a buzzer beater where the refs don’t want to rule against the Celtics because they know they’ll never make it out of the arena. Tell me you don’t think that’s possible.

So how can all of these fiascos be avoided? In my opinion, it is by limiting replay to the blatantly blown calls. My mantra has always been that if the officials cannot decide if a call has been missed within ten seconds, the call should stand. If you’ve looked at it ten times and you‘re still not sure, let it go. Generally by that point, looking ten more times won’t make you any more sure one way or the other, and most fans won’t object to a call where they are only 70 or 80 percent sure it was wrong. This would apply to everything in baseball except for balls and strikes and judgment calls like balks: in other words, fair/foul, home runs, and even safe/out calls, which comprise 90% of the blown calls just by their nature. Let’s face it, on the average stolen base call my first instinct is not as good as the umpire, and I often end up seeing that he was right after I see the replay.

But every so often I know that the call was blown right away, and the replay proves that I was right beyond a doubt. Think Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga. Those calls need to get fixed, regardless of how it disrupts the game. Here’s a process that’s out there a bit, but if you pay ten fans a hundred bucks each to watch a game between two teams they don’t care about, and when a call gets made all ten instantly push a button that signals the call was wrong, you review the call. Chances are that call was blown and needs to be overturned. If four fans agree with the call and six disagree, I would say that is not enough evidence to decide and the original call of the ump should stand.

There are two other things MLB can do to eliminate these questionable calls. First, let’s eliminate the ground rules that make these calls difficult. For example, the left field bleachers in Progressive Field have a yellow line at the top of the wall that supposedly signifies a home run. There have been balls that hit this line and were called home runs, although I honestly don’t know if that is the proper call or not. There have also been plenty of balls that hit the railing above the wall that were called home runs, although generally these are hard to identify for sure until you see a replay. Why not just say that the ball needs to leave the field of play to be a home run? This is simple, and simple rules are easier to enforce.

The other issue that needs to be addressed is balls and strikes. To say that each ump has his own strike zone makes about as much sense as saying that each cop has his own speed limit. You know how when you drive down the road and you pass a cop and you’re two miles over the speed limit, and you figure you’re safe, but you’ve got the one cop who enforces the speed limit to the letter. Well, imagine you’re a hitter and you see a pitch coming in two inches outside, but you’ve got the one ump who thinks that’s a strike and you strike out to end the game. There is a strike zone, clearly defined in the rule book.

It is obviously more difficult to call balls and strikes when a pitcher throws crazy breaking balls, like Chris Perez’ best slider, but by the time an ump reaches the majors he is supposedly the very best at his profession. The strike zone is a cube, with height, width, and depth, and if the ball passes through that cube it is a strike; otherwise it is a ball. If you want to be creative about it, find another profession. If we cannot use lasers to actually call balls and strikes, we should use them to identify the umps who are missing the most calls and give them a choice between conforming or flipping burgers.

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