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July 9, 2012

Out of Left Field

Ending the Empire

by Matthew Kory

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With the All-Star game upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at the state of the game. So, on the pulse of things as always, that’s exactly what commissioner Bud Selig did. He pontificated about a number of topics last week, but the one that stood out was his brief discussion of instant replay. Here’s Commissioner Bud on the expansion of instant replay in baseball (via Paul Casella of MLB.com)

People in our sport don't want any more. Given our attendance and everything we're doing, we're in the right place with instant replay. Baseball is a game of pace. You have to be very sensitive and careful not to disturb that pace.

Let’s parse this a bit.  There are three points. Point the first:

People in our sport don't want any more [instant replay].

When Selig says “people” he’s talking about the owners. They may not be keen on adding more replay if for no other reason than it’s an additional expense that they will end up paying for. Whether front offices, players, and other assorted members of the baseball community want replay is likely off Selig’s table. Clearly they’re not actively fighting for it, but they likely aren’t going to him and saying they don’t want replay increased either. I wouldn’t doubt that after particularly egregious missed calls, the kind that seem to pop up about once a week of late, Selig might hear a few voices in favor of increasing replay. Not that he would say so.

Of course it only matters what people in the sport want on the margins. Eventually, if there is enough call for replay from the paying customers, the ones who keep baseball in business, replay will come. It won’t come as quickly as if support for more replay already existed inside the game, but eventually fans will demand that calls are made correctly. Heretical thought, I know.

Given our attendance and everything we're doing, we're in the right place with instant replay.

This is a justification for keeping the level of replay static. So according to Selig, people are watching and attending baseball games in record numbers so everything in the sport is perfect, or at least the amount of instant replay used in the game is. It won’t take but a moment of thought to reveal this as a silly argument. What Selig is in effect saying is that improved umpiring would drive down attendance. People love baseball and people are watching baseball in record numbers, but that doesn’t mean the product on the field can’t be improved by, oh say, improving the frequency of correct calls.

Why would improving the level of umpiring drive down attendance? The only real way that would happen is if MLB adopted a replay system that was so time-consuming and ponderous that it serial-murdered the pace of the game.

Baseball is a game of pace. You have to be very sensitive and careful not to disturb that pace.

Every pro sport is a game of pace. Baseball isn’t unique in that regard, though that hardly rules it out as a concern. What it does do is point out that, while MLB has resisted replay like a child who doesn’t want to go to school, other sports have embraced replay with few if any repercussions.

The NHL has a central replay “war room” in Toronto where every goal scored (and goal almost scored) is reviewed to ensure the correct call is made. The system can slow down the game once in a while, true. Most goals are no-doubters, but infrequently, roughly once every three or four games, a goal is close enough that the review machines in Toronto are fired up and players have to stand around on the ice for a minute or so while officials figure out if the puck crossed the line. This can affect the pace of the game, but as soon as the puck is dropped the pace picks right back up and, this is the beauty part, nobody spends the rest of the game complaining about a missed call and how it inexorably altered the outcome of the game. Because, while pace is important, aren’t we all more concerned about outcome?

How many times have you had this conversation?

Person 1: So, what happened at the game?
Person 2: Oh, the Giants won. It was the best paced game I’ve ever seen.
Person 1: The Giants? Wasn’t that the game where the runner was called out after clearly touching home plate in the tenth inning?
Person 2: I really don’t remember.

It would really go more like this:

Person 1: So, what happened at the game?
Person 2: The ump blew the call in the tenth and the Giants won!
Person 1: The Giants? Wasn’t that that really well paced game?
Person 2: What the hell are you talking about?

The NFL uses a much more cumbersome process of “challenges” from head coaches which results in referees running from sideline to sideline to discuss things with each head coach while everyone waits (or enjoys hilarious light beer commercials: “Ha ha! I can’t believe that dolphin just gave that guy the finger!”) and then spending two minutes hidden under an 80’s-era photo booth.

Football’s system is a great example of how not to set up replay. It’s overly time-consuming and it actually penalizes coaches for correcting inaccurate calls on the field. But, here’s the thing: even with this awful replay system, people LOVE football. Love it! Crappy games between two non-playoff contenders routinely beat baseball in the ratings. This isn’t meant as a comment about the viability of one sport versus the other, just that even with a garbage replay system (and the ridiculous refereeing in football in general) that completely destroys the flow, pace, and whatever else of the game, nobody really cares that much. Or at least not enough to stop watching.

Pacing is important, of course, but we all survive just fine with interminable commercials during playoff time that also kill the pace of the game. Nobody is seriously talking about slowing the spread of commercialism during playoff time, which, while not my favorite, is another fight entirely. Getting the calls right is, or should be, the central point. How to go about getting the calls right is a discussion that should follow. Pacing is an issue within that following discussion, as are expense, umpire dignity, umpire jobs, logistics, and the like.

Those are issues for later. They’re not issues which should prevent improving an unacceptable umpiring situation that consents to incorrect calls and wrongly won games in the interest of… something, it’s unclear what.

When MLB allows bad calls to be made, just as when players play outside the rules, the integrity of the game is compromised. When you think about it, there isn’t much difference between actively allowing bad calls, as MLB does now, and letting players use corked bats, scuffed baseballs, or steroids. All impugn the integrity of the game.

Pacing matters, as the commissioner notes, but it’s a minor point that can be accommodated by smart planning. The rest of the argument is nothing. The technology exists to get more calls right today. The technology will improve and allow us to get more calls right tomorrow. As soon as it exists, MLB should work to implement it. Because getting the calls right should be the whole point of umpiring, right? We fans deserve it and so do people in Selig’s sport.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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