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August 16, 2013

Overthinking It

Learning to Love the Replay Proposal (Almost Unreservedly)

by Ben Lindbergh

On Thursday, Major League Baseball ended a five-year wait for the expansion of instant replay review. You’ve already read about the details, but the proposal cooked up by Bud Selig’s replay committee comes down to this: managers will be allowed one challenge of a reviewable play from the first inning through the sixth, and two more from the seventh inning on (challenges that prove successful won’t subtract from those totals). We don’t know exactly which plays are part of the plan, but we do know that reviewable plays will cover 89 percent of past incorrect calls, excluding balls and strikes. When a challenge is issued, an on-field umpire will contact a fifth umpire at MLBAM headquarters in New York, who’ll have access to every available video feed and who’ll quickly confirm or overturn the original ruling.

It’s not a perfect plan, and the internet was quick to focus on the flaws. But there’s a lot here to be happy about, and amidst all the fault-finding, I’m not sure the real significance of the proposed system has sunk in. So I’m going to give you the glass-half-full perspective, as opposed to the glass-half-shattered, shards-embedded-in-eyeballs perspective that seemed to take over Twitter when the news was announced.

Consider this: from the moment you became a baseball fan—and this goes for every fan before you—you’ve watched each game with the knowledge that its outcome could hinge on something that didn’t actually happen. Great plays, pennant chases, and perfect games can all be wiped away by a call that you, on your couch, can tell was the incorrect one. After every close call that goes the other team’s way, managers argue, umpires posture, and viewers complain about how long games take today. And almost always, the incorrect calls stand. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball has been slow to embrace a proven technology that could end most arguments before they begin and help ensure umpires’ accuracy.

We’re almost at the end of that era, and within reach of an almost unimaginable Baseball Without Bad Calls. The new proposal has its problems; Sam Miller and I discussed some of them on our podcast today. But this is still a step forward, and we might be underestimating its size.

According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, MLB studies have shown that a blown call occurs, on average, once every five games, or roughly three times per day (assuming a full schedule). He doesn’t specify what kind of blown call, so let’s assume that refers only to the ones that will be reviewable. That means that the odds of three blown calls occurring in any one game are one in 125, and the odds of four blown calls occurring in any one game are one in 625. There are 2430 games in a regular season, which means that there might be roughly four games in all of 2014 in which the number of blown calls—most of which don’t matter—exceeds the minimum number of challenges allowed to one team. And since both teams get three challenges, it would usually take more than four blown calls in a given game to pose a problem. Compare that to the almost 500 games per season with a permanently incorrect call under the replay system baseball has employed (with one change) for the last century and a half or so.

Now, keep in mind that most of the preceding paragraph is wrong, because oh man the math is hard. For one thing, there are extra innings. For another, blown calls aren’t completely independent, because certain umpiring crews must be more prone to making them. That means the probability of multiple misses in a game is higher for some matchups than others. Then there’s the fact that blown calls are presumably distributed evenly across innings, whereas challenges won’t be, thanks to the odd inning split in the proposed system. But there’s also the fact that successful challenges are retained, which means that in practice many more than three might be allowed. And the fact that home run reviews won’t require a challenge. Plus plenty of other caveats too complicated (for me) to account for.

The point is, mistakes—especially the costly kind—are mostly going to be gone. Every once in a while, we’ll get a game where one team wishes for one more challenge, and we’ll wonder why the system doesn’t work another way. But only once in a while, as opposed to weekly, or worse. Whoa.

It’s only natural, initially, to be disappointed by the specifics. We wanted replay to be perfect. Heck, we waited long enough for a plan with fewer kinks to be conceived. The challenge system is philosophically strange, since the point of relying on replay is to make the most correct calls possible. Why put a ceiling on how correct we can be, however high that ceiling is in practice? Why not add a fifth umpire in the same MLBAM bunker who functions less like a genie and relays correct calls without being asked?

But come on, folks: forest for the trees. Our long national no-replay nightmare is over, and reality-based baseball is here. We can’t undo Don Denkinger, but we can prevent future infamous calls. That’s something to celebrate, even if the implementation isn't ideal.

(If you need to vent about something, you can still be mad about bad balls and strikes. Maybe even more mad about bad balls and strikes, now that we’ll have fewer other calls to complain about.)

This plan still has to be approved by the owners and both the Players and the Umpires Associations, so there could be considerable tweaking before it’s put in place. Even if it were instituted as is, it’s not as if this proposal is destined to be baseball’s official replay policy for as long as the sport was without one. It will evolve, and if challenges prove to be a pain, they’ll be replaced by something more sensible. But the new commitment toward replay won’t waver.

Animosity toward umps is as old as the game, but the human element is so ingrained that some people have actually learned to like it, Stockholm-style. That’s just the tradition talking. Our kids won’t understand why anyone would have wanted to cling to the way replay works now. In fact, now that a new system is almost in place, the absence of a current one seems stranger already.

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

Related Content:  Instant Replay,  Replay Review,  Replay

20 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BirdlandPGH

I have to say this: while I've never enjoyed seeing an incorrect call (even when it's in favor of my team), I've also never *not* enjoyed watching a manager argue with an umpire. Maybe that's just from growing up watching Earl Weaver, but the elimination of arguments will take away some of the drama of the game. Nevertheless, I'm glad they're instituting replay. It will make games fairer and take the heat off the umpires.

You could have said the same thing about John McEnroe when tennis instituted instant replay. Gone was that drama but gained was a truer game.

Aug 16, 2013 06:42 AM
rating: 4
 
Quagmire

I love the idea of increasing the use of replay to correct bad calls. One thing quickly came to mind that hopefully will be addressed. What will happen is say a batter hits a sinking line drive in the gap and the OF makes a diving play and the umpires rule it a catch. Should the batter continue to run all the way around the bases in case it gets overturned? Should the defense try to tag him out even though he is already out? This could become a farce. There should probably be a standard 1 or 2 bases in cases like this so that batters do not run all the way around the bases after being called out.

Aug 16, 2013 06:53 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Neil DeMause mentioned a similar scenario to me this morning. If you're a manager, do you tell your baserunners to get up and run to third base after sliding into second, once the second baseman has thrown the ball to first? If a review reveals a neighborhood play, you could get an extra base out of it.

Aug 16, 2013 06:57 AM
 
nberlove

It looks like calls like these may the ones excluded from the new review process. Referring to the 11% of plays not covered, Schuerholz said: "Most of those plays, when you see them, are plays that if they are turned over, the reset of the runners and the play would be mind-boggling. It would be a nightmare. So that's the way we've chosen to start."

Aug 16, 2013 07:18 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

You're probably right about those being the plays that aren't reviewable, but I do disagree somewhat with Schuerholz about resetting the game state being a "mind-boggling" problem. Tricky, yes, and likely controversial no matter how you decided to do it. But I think MLB could define a set of easy-to-understand guidelines that mandate where runners should go after a specific type of overturn. I gave a few non-comprehensive examples of these a few years ago (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=11357).

I prefer the umpire-in-a-booth-reviewing-everything solution, and I'm not at all fond of using challenges, which may lend credence to the arguments of those who oppose all replay because of the delay involved. But if you buy the argument that you have to crawl before you can walk, any increase in the use of replay should be considered a good thing.

Aug 16, 2013 12:12 PM
 
DetroitDale

I don't understand allowing only 1 challenge prior to the 7th inning, or why umpires don't get to review as much as managers do in later innings, but on balance, this is a positive improvement

Aug 16, 2013 06:56 AM
rating: 0
 
eastlaker
(271)

If the manager knows he is right, there is no reason not to challenge in the early innings, because he will then receive a fresh challengE>

Aug 16, 2013 13:59 PM
rating: 0
 
BarryR

And he'll be right most of the time, since there will be someone in the clubhouse watching the broadcast who will alert him to what happened. Which raises the next question: exactly how long will the manager have to challenge the call?

Aug 16, 2013 16:44 PM
rating: 0
 
maphal

So what you're saying Ben is, games with Angel Hernandez and Laz Diaz are going to be much longer.

Aug 16, 2013 08:01 AM
rating: 3
 
sitdancer

"Why not add a fifth umpire in the same MLBAM bunker who functions less like a genie and relays correct calls without being asked?"

I've asked myself that about any sport I watch, with current replay rules or not (e.g. soccer). What is the reason for not going that route for MLB, do you know?

Aug 16, 2013 08:21 AM
rating: 1
 
nberlove

Because this would create an environment in which the on field umpires would feel every call was being reviewed. MLB still has to negotiate all this with the umpire's union and that ywould be a much, much tougher sell.

Aug 16, 2013 19:31 PM
rating: 1
 
NYYanks826

What I am curious about is if there is an egregiously incorrect call in the 4th inning, for example, and the manager has already used his pre-sixth inning challenge. What happens if he comes out to argue? Does he automatically get ejected? Will the umps still huddle together to determine whether or not to overturn the incorrect call? Are they even allowed to overturn an incorrect call if that team's manager doesn't have a challenge left?

I feel that even though this new proposal for expanded replay is a step in the right direction, there are still going to be issues that arise that may render some of this progress moot.

Aug 16, 2013 08:39 AM
rating: 5
 
Agent007

Reviewing balls and strikes is a bit excessive. While the calls are sometimes wrong, to review these will send me to the fridge far too often than is healthy. I can see allowing appeals on plays that advance a runner. That should be enough.

Aug 16, 2013 09:38 AM
rating: 0
 
kcboomer

Some of you you are not recalling the absolute disaster that first the iteration of the NFL's replay procedure was which permitted lots of replay reviews. Goodness gracious, games went on forever and you had no idea whether to cheer or wait until 1) you realized there wasn't going to be a replay review or 2) the replay came back in your favor.

I know we can all come up with live action conundrums for any baseball review procedure. Expect lots of talking head criticism of the system when they implement it.

Aug 16, 2013 09:40 AM
rating: 0
 
vertumnus

One thing occurs to me - if challenges come at the manager's discretion, they're going to want to make the best decisions possible. I would think that involves having someone back in the clubhouse watching the game on TV who can see all the replays and tell the manager if it's worth challenging.

Now, the problem becomes that you need some time for the TV-watcher to make the determination and relay that info to the manager. I'd be worried about stalling in these situations.

For example, imagine that a runner tries to steal second and is called safe in a close play. Will the shortstop or secondbaseman be coached to dawdle before throwing the ball back to the pitcher, or will the pitcher be coached to take a really long time playing with the rosin bag before delivering the next pitch?

Conversely, if the runner is out, is the runner instructed to make his way really slowly back to the dugout, or is the batter coached to step out of the box a couple of times before the next pitch?

Maybe the effect of something like this would be negligible, but it might be kind of irritating to know that each time a play is remotely close, there's going to be a minute of unofficial delay while teams figure out whether or not to challenge.

Aug 16, 2013 10:16 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yeah, we brought that up on the podcast. Certainly seems like something that would happen.

Aug 16, 2013 10:21 AM
 
jdeich

Is there any incentive to not use all challenges? (Other than saving for a future bad call.)

For example, it's the sixth inning, and my previously-reliable starter walks the first two batters on eight pitches. I don't have a reliever warm. I can use my one conference to buy time, and then pounce on any reviewable play to stall for more, knowing that the chance of a bad call per inning is very low.

Maybe the batter hits a ball three feet foul of the base. Can I challenge the 'foul' call?

Somewhat more sportsmanlike: If there's two outs in the 6th or 9th, shouldn't I challenge any remotely questionable call? Even if I'm thinking it's 95% likely to stand?

All of this could lead to longer games, which isn't in MLB's best interest. If nothing else, they should couple this to reductions in how often batters may request 'time', enforce 8.04 (the time limit for a pitch with bases empty)etc.

Aug 16, 2013 11:20 AM
rating: 0
 
freyjabj

Errors by players and umpires are a natural part of the game. Exanded replay changes the game again into something different. Replay reviews can take the game out of the hands of the players. Example: runner on first, 1st inning, line drive down the first base line. Original call: foul. Overturned call: fair. Does MLB put him on third automatically or do they run his historical stats to see if he is slow enough to keep him at second. Same game bottom 9th tie game. Same runner on 2nd. Same hit down the line. Call foul, call overturned. Does MLB send the runner home ending the game with no defensive opportunity offered the team in the field?

Aug 16, 2013 16:55 PM
rating: 1
 
nberlove

I suspect MLB will err on the side of giving the minimum benefit. This is consistent with the rule, for example, that when a ball bounces over the out filed wall, the runners only advanve 2 bases irregardless of how fast or slow the player is.

Remember, under the current system, the team vicitmized by the blown call gets nothing. In your example, just Turning an out into a hit and only getting one base is better than the out.

Aug 16, 2013 19:24 PM
rating: 1
 
PeterBNYC

All of this commentary is premature until we get the reactions of the MLBPA and the Umpires union- unless (and I don't think this is how Bud Selig operates)the proposal has been extensively pre-viewed with them. My problems with it center around the weird incentives built into the limitations on "challnges"- WHY the limits segmented by the stage of the game? WHY no detail on the time limit within which a challenge can be issued? Yes, this is progress, because there is now a replay regime on the table, however flawed, but this is going to take a lot of time to get approvals from the MLBPA and the Umpires- I don't see it going into effect for the 2014 season. Remember how long it took to get agreement on the drug testing program.

Aug 19, 2013 09:50 AM
rating: 0
 
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