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May 29, 2008

Prospectus Today

Instant Replay

by Joe Sheehan

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I suppose that if I keep getting asked enough times on radio about instant replay, I should write about the topic. Let me make this simple: the only human element I want involved in the outcome of a baseball game has a minimum salary of $400,000. Players and their actions should be all that determines wins and losses, not the interpretation of what they've done by what amounts to middle management making a fraction of that number.

Throw out the mythology surrounding the position. Umpires are middle management, hired by the leagues to move things along, arbitrate disputes, and keep the players from killing each other. Some umps are better than others, some clearly worse, and nearly all have a much more grandiose view of their role than is warranted. When players strike, the game stops. When umpires strike-or quit en masse--people sigh in relief and mock the arbiters for their misguided arrogance. Umpires make from $84,000 to $300,000 per year. What does that mean? No umpire is worth as much as the scrubbiest player on a roster.

So if a player's left hand scrapes across the plate just before a catcher sweeps his glove hand across the sliding player's back, that player is safe, and the run counts. It shouldn't be not so because a 45-year-old man couldn't see through the catcher's legs to where the player's fingers were, but could see the tag. When a 2-2 slider, moving in three dimensions at 88 miles per hour, runs off the plate by two inches, and the batter correctly reads the break and takes the pitch, he shouldn't be called out on strikes because the man standing slightly behind and to his right wasn't able to correctly discern the location of home plate and the baseball, a task for which human eyes are poor tools at that level of detail.

Bring on the technology to get these calls, and every one like them, right. Perhaps in the early days of baseball, when contact rates were sky-high and the value of control of the strike zone was as low as it ever would be, when hurlers threw 80 with nickel curves, you could stick a man behind the catcher and assign him the job of discerning hittable pitches from unhittable ones. That hasn't been the case for some time now, however, perhaps not since the development of the slider. Today, the act of calling pitches on the margins is guesswork for everyone involved, so much so that the strike zone looks nothing on the field like it does in the rule book. We have the technology to fix this, and we should use it. For all the whining about the run-scoring levels in the modern game, and the style of play that has become prevalent, the single fastest way to change both of those things is to call the rulebook strike zone. Give pitchers back the the four inches from the belt to the letters, and you change the game. At the same time, call a 17-inch wide plate, instead of the 19-, 21-, and 23-inch versions so prevalent today.

Machines can do these things better than people can. That's not an insult, that's a fact. There's a reason they let machines get involved in tennis now: the balls move too quickly for the human eye, even the well-trained one, to track. Machines don't have that problem. Systems have now been installed in all 30 major league parks (and will be installed in each of the new ones coming on line) that can do a better job of calling balls and strikes than people can. They should be used for that purpose, because the game will be better for it.

In fact, mechanization of umpiring should proceed as quickly as the technology allows. The "human element" of Doug Eddings calling a batter out, then safe, then dissembling about his "mechanic" is of no value to anyone. I don't need to see Bob Davidson, closest man to the play, allow himself to be overruled on a home-run call by three people further away with worse angles. I'm still not sure if Matt Holliday touched home plate, and I have to figure lots of Padres and Padre fans would have preferred a definitive answer to that question.

So bring on replay. It can't solve everything-there are significant "flow" questions that have to be handled carefully-but it can make the game better. The system I have in mind would turn ball/strike calls over to the technology, with the umpire there to receive the signal from the system and relay the call to the participants and fans. The umpire would still play a critical role on foul tips (most often called by sound) and checked swings (for which there will never be any good solution). Those of you concerned about delays are encouraged to watch the…deliberate…manner in which many umpires deliver strike calls under the current system. This will be no slower.

For decision plays, I would implement the college football approach. Every crew would have a fifth member in the booth, observing every play and buzzing the crew chief when a call deserved review. The opinion of that official would be final.

This is where the problem with flow becomes an issue. If you rule a ball fair on the field, and the booth umpire calls it foul, that's not a problem. Send everyone back and do it again. If you go the other way, well, everyone has stopped. What do you do then?

The simplest response is that dead balls do not get reviewed. So a "fair" call could be reversed, but a "foul" call could not. That's something of a kludge, but the replay system isn't designed to be perfect, it's designed to close the gap between where we are now and perfection. We have the technology to be more correct on high-leverage calls, and move closer to a world in which the players on the field, and not the judgment of four men scattered among them, determine all of the outcomes.

Umpires, of course, have long expressed a distaste for technology, and despite their union being weak and repeatedly broken, MLB has been unable to leverage them to improve the caliber of umpiring except in short spurts. What I like about this idea is that it creates jobs. Not just jobs, but fairly cushy jobs that would serve as sinecures for veteran umpires for whom the grind of on-field life has become too much to bear. You wouldn't have to assign the booth umpire to a crew. I wouldn't assign them by park, either, but you could do it by region, where seven umpires serve as the rotating booth ump in the Northeast cities or such. That would lessen the travel burdens on these older umpires, and since it's the older umps who tend to be less inclined to favor the use of technology, this may convince them to go along with a scheme. It creates good jobs for members of the Association, and by putting veteran umps, only veteran umps, in the booth, instills confidence in the system in the public and should help undercut internecine problems among the umps. (Better the elder to correct the younger than vice versa.)

Anyway, that's the Sheehan Plan for Umpire Replay (SPUR). It leverages the technology, adds jobs, improves the game on the field, and should do all of that with minimal fuss. The answer to this problem isn't baby steps: it's embracing technology all the way.

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

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