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I’ve been kicking this can for months, looking for a place to dispose of it properly. I could have kept kicking it, too, but for Casey McGehee and Doug Eddings. It was the seventh inning of Friday night’s Angels-Giants tilt, and the Angels had a runner on first base with nobody out. San Francisco led 1-0. Kole Calhoun led off the top of the seventh with a clean single to left field, bringing up David Freese. On an 0-1 count, Freese hit a double-play ball to McGehee at third base. It was a terrifically easy play, leading McGehee just enough to his left to shorten the first leg of the around-the-horn twin killing.

McGehee, however, flubbed it. The ball bounced up past his glove, deflected of his left side and rolled toward shortstop. Brandon Crawford, a great defensive shortstop who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, grabbed the ball and threw to second base brilliantly. It was a great, reflexive, instinctual play, though ideally, he’d have thrown to first base, because there simply wasn’t a play on the lead runner, Calhoun. Calhoun beat the throw, though somewhat narrowly.

Alas, that’s not the way Eddings saw it. He called Calhoun out, drawing one of the quicker team decisions to challenge in the short history of the replay system. A few looks confirmed what most fans had seen even in real time: the call was wrong. Calhoun beat the ball to second base with his feet-first slide. It confirmed that, and yet, the call stood. Calhoun had to jog back into the Angels dugout. There was one out, after all.

The official ruling was ‘call stands,’ mind you, not ‘call confirmed.’ Those are distinct decisions. A replay umpire in New York may issue either edict. ‘Call confirmed’ signifies that the umpire made the correct call, and was corroborated by video evidence. ‘Call stands’ means only that the standard set by the replay rules implemented when the system took effect last year—that there must be “clear and convincing” evidence that a call was incorrect in order to overturn it—was not met. In this case, because of some imperfect camera angles and the modicum of ambiguity about when a ball is considered caught by a fielder holding a base, there was sufficient uncertainty to prevent flipping the call.

When an umpire blows a call and a review is ordered, we use the first two slow-motion looks to determine that the call was wrong. We use the last six to determine whether this is one of the rare occasions on which the broken system in place will permit actual justice to be done. That’s the sad truth of the matter. The language of the replay rules ensures that the on-field umpire’s judgment of a play remains paramount, because whatever he decides, a replay must provide incontrovertible clarity in order to overrule him. The implication here is that the umpire on the field, watching the play at real speed, with human eyes, from only one angle, has some cosmic understanding of the capital-T Truth of the play that no camera can match.

Of course, that’s nonsense. Very often, while a camera can’t give a definitive, 100-percent-certain answer on a call, it provides us with a much better idea of what the correct call ought to have been than an umpire could. When a replay is ordered, we should always, always, always be asking ourselves only this: what does it look like the correct call should be? Whatever call is best supported by the multiple angles of slow-motion, high-definition footage, that should be the call. Instead, we get moments like Friday night, wherein a mistake by a human doing his best was compounded by a bureaucratically contrived system doing its worst. The theory to which one must subscribe, in order to find this tenable, is that an umpire understands some subjective truth about a play in motion that we don’t get from the objective evidence provided on tape. That’s indefensible, and yet, it’s replay law.

Why does it have to be this way? The easy, lazy answer is that the umpires union would never allow straightforward, blank-slate appeals, because it would cut the legs out from under the umpire on the field. That explanation is not only insufficient, but untrue. There is always some concession in return for which a union would agree to a given measure. Union leaders tend to be hard-boiled and hard-headed, and that’s truer of the umpires union than of almost any other, but ultimately, a union is an advocacy group. It has certain objectives, and an offer that promises enough advancement on those objectives can overcome almost any seeming poison pill. Be it friendlier rotations, better pay or a greater degree of tenure, there’s some horse for which Cowboy Joe West would trade the umps’ unearned benefit of the doubt. Blaming unions is one of the more popular ways of dodging real problems with a number of institutions, these days. They’re hardly ever the real culprits.

No, what’s standing in the way of progress here is that humans are horrible at dealing with progress. We fear change and that which is unknown, and so, we fight progress until it becomes obviously inevitable, by which time it has been actually inevitable for a while. We only hurt ourselves by doing this. We put ourselves in danger and gain nothing. It’s like resolutely marching downward on an escalator going up. Half measures and roadblocks to change, like the language that gives one bad look at a play the leg up over five good looks, only stop us from living well. There’s a human cost to moving forward; that is not to be denied. But the societal cost of resisting progress is astronomical, in money, lives, and happiness.

Since I dropped my philosophy minor at the end of my freshman year, though, let’s talk about the baseball cost of Friday night’s debacle. The Angels would have had runners on first and second and nobody out, had that call gone the right way. The run expectancy for that situation this season is 1.45. Instead, they had to live and work around a one-out, runner-on-first situation, the run expectancy of which is 0.51. (For the sample-size police, those numbers were 1.40 and 0.48 last season.) Eddings made a mistake worth nearly a full run, and the replay system concretized that injustice. The Angels would tie the game in the frame, but were unable to take the lead, and after another volley of single runs between the teams, the Giants walked off as winners, 3-2. A one-run umpire error went uncorrected in what turned out to be a one-run game, despite the play going under the microscope of replay. The Angels had been 36-percent likely to win that game before Freese hit the ball. Had the play been called correctly, they would have been roughly 44-percent likely to win. When the dust settled, they had just a 29 percent chance to win.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to act as though the call decided that game. Mike Scioscia inexplicably allowed C.J. Wilson to bat with two runners on and two outs in that seventh inning. Wilson had thrown only 63 pitches to that point, but the heart of the Giants’ order was due for a third time in the bottom of the seventh, and frankly, the leverage of that plate appearance (for the initiated, as Russell Carleton would say, the Leverage Index was 3.26) demanded a competent hitter. Scioscia managed as one unaccustomed to life without the DH. He seemed unprepared for that situation, for which there is no excuse. There’s also the matter of a really great encounter between Sergio Romo and Mike Trout in the top of the eighth. After an error and a single put two on with nobody out, Romo fanned Trout on five pitches, in a delightful battle wherein Trout fell behind 0-2, took a tough pitch, fouled off a tough pitch, then whiffed on a classic Romo slider. When Trout stepped to the plate, the Angels trailed but had a 55 percent chance of winning. After he swung through the slider, loudly swore, and stomped back to the dugout, the number was 40 percent.

The Angels are in freefall. (One could say that it’s been a long day, living in Reseda, except that Reseda lies well within Dodger Territory.) After opening the season with nearly a two-thirds shot at reaching the playoffs, they wake up Tuesday on the wrong side of a weighted coin flip, according to the Playoff Odds report. Part of that is the fact that the Astros have gone streaking, but the Angels can’t exactly give that as an excuse: they’re 11-14. It probably is not the case that a single call derailed their season. Rather, their owner’s petty and clumsy handling of the Josh Hamilton relapse created just the distraction a somewhat ramshackle roster didn’t need, and injuries (not least Hamilton’s, though his injury is no longer the reason he’s not contributing) have played a role. Still, we should make a note of the farce that was the McGehee-Eddings-Calhoun play. It’s a good reminder that even having access to the best imaginable resources with which to solve a problem can mean nothing, if our collective fear of the next step prevents us from using them.

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lichtman
5/05
I have to disagree with you 100% on one level. I don't think for a second that the rationale for the system as it is set up - there must be incontrovertible evidence in order to overturn a call - is because umpires have some magic skill, intuition or vantage point and we must respect their decision because usually they are right even though the high speed slow motion video evidence suggests otherwise on close plays. They merely don't want to have that many challenges and that many overturned calls, for whatever reasons. And although the system does not have to be that way, I think that it is quite defensible. For one thing it takes away some of the grey area. If you simply had a "de novo" review (i.e., the umpire's call is irrelevant to the decision), and the standard of review was "by the preponderance of the evidence," that would make some very close decisions difficult, but more importantly, controversial. What if one video umpire sees it as 51% and another one at 49%? What if the fans see it as 70% and the video ump sees it at 49%? It is simple, reasonable, and more importantly, practical for them to use the system they use (must be clear and convincing evidence to overturn). We use that system typically in the legal/justice system for similar reasons. As I said, you can argue that you prefer a different system, but you have to give your reasons. You have to discuss the pros and cons for both sides, which you didn't. And more importantly, you have to discuss both sides accurately, which you most assuredly did not. You misrepresented the status quo. As I said, the reason for the present system is NOT that they think that the umpire has better judgment than the high speed video, as you claim in no less than two sentences. That is a strawman. The reason, as I mentioned, is reducing the number of challenges and overturned calls and reducing controversy on close calls. The price for that is a few wrong calls on the close ones. Even this imperfect system, however, is far better than pre-replay (assuming that we want to get as many calls correct as possible).
matrueblood
5/05
I don't say. Not think, that baseball actually believes umpires have some understanding of the play the camera misses. What I'm saying is that only that farce of a stance could make the current replays system a logical outcome.
GBSimons
5/05
There's already a limit on challenges, one per team per game, increasing to two in the ASG and playoffs. http://m.mlb.com/official_rules/replay_review Rule II.B.1.
edwardarthur
5/05
I also question whether your problem is really with the "clear and convincing" standard, or with how it is applied. In this case, you seem nearly certain the call was wrong. Would you want calls overturned when the umpire's error is not "clear", or when the video umpire is not "convinced"? Perhaps video umpires need to be instructed to apply the standard a bit more liberally, but I don't think we really want plays on the field overturned when the video umpire merely think the call is 51% likely to be wrong. If it's a close call that is not clearly wrong, better than the guy on the field decide. He's the one who's going to get booed for it after all.
matrueblood
5/05
No, that's exactly what I AM saying. Whichever call the video best supports, even if it's 51/49, that should be the call.
Stevis
5/05
Speaking as a youth umpire, there's one thing you're missing--the umpire is in a much better position to see the play. If you could see it better from the camera well, that's where we would stand. No, the field umpire does not get the benefit of slow-motion or multiple looks. But he is in a position to see things things the cameras can't. Personally, I don't think the problem is the "clear and convincing" standard but that too often it is enacted as "beyond a reasonable doubt" which is too high. I mean, on the play in question, Calhoun's lead leg is angling up (indicating he hit the base and his momentum is being redirected) before the ball disappears into the glove. Seems clear and convincing to me that he should be called safe.
draysbay
5/05
What if the ump wore a camera on his hat?
brownsugar
5/05
It would provide hours upon hours of talk radio indignation the first time an umpire blew a call and the 'hat camera' revealed that he wasn't looking at the play in question but instead checking out a squirrel running across shallow center field.
cracker73
5/05
It is impossible for the umpire to see the foot hitting the bag and the ball hitting the glove at the same time. For that reason, the camera is far more reliable. Calhoun should have been called safe, no question.
AlexTheGreat
5/05
Umpires can hear the ball hit the glove. Video recordings are never perfectly synced to sound recordings so it's a clear advantage for the human there.
cracker73
5/05
If that's true, then this umpire must have poor hearing, because he blew this call.
edwardarthur
5/05
Thank you for clarifying. That's a reasonable position, but I prefer the clear and convincing standard, which is also a reasonable position. Once we're accepting that there is a high likelihood of error either way, I don't see the small marginal gain in accuracy justifying the reduction in accountability, impingement on tradition, and risk of additional delay (by encouraging more appeals, as MGL argues above).
misterjohnny
5/05
It's too bad we aren't able to thumbs down a BP writer's post, because I 100% disagree with this.
morro089
5/05
Is the purpose of a thumbs down to disagree with someone or to help eliminate useless or hateful comments? Because just disagreeing but not giving a reason why (a thumbs down) doesn't further the conversation. I would thumbs down a thumbs down in this instance.
misterjohnny
5/06
Just thought I would be repeating all the other anti- arguments. Clear and convincing is the right standard or all you end up with is more controversy.
Grasul
5/05
Clear and convincing is exactly the right measure replay officials should be using to overturn a call. I love reading you guys' opinions, but I completely disagree with this one.
matrueblood
5/05
Hey, that's why we do this. Disagreement is not a bad thing. (But I'm right. :) )
GBSimons
5/05
I want the calls to be made correctly as often as humanly/technologically possible.
ClownHypothesis
5/05
There's a practical dimension you're missing here, which is how often a preponderance of the evidence standard would change things, how consistently it would be applied by umpires, and how much additional time it would take. I agree in principle that the 51% stance is preferable, but whether the costs outweigh the benefits have to be determined empirically. (If you want 1500 more words on this: http://www.hardballtimes.com/does-the-call-need-to-stand/.)
gilpdawg
5/05
Love the Tom Petty reference.
draysbay
5/05
COULD. NOT. AGREE. MORE. Well put, Matt. These are the words that I have been seeking as our own Kevin Cash is now 0-12 on replays due to a corrupt, sinister system that allows one umpire to cover another's ass. I'm beyond uncomfortable with how these things are put in place. It's as plain as the nose on Angel Hernandez's face that the reviewer should not be "confirming the call", but relaying what they think the call should be. Otherwise, what's the point?
matrueblood
5/05
Yeah, that's another element no one talks about much, too. Joe West is the president of the umpires' union. He made a call a couple weeks ago that was clearly wrong (even, I think, by the current standard), but it stood. Which leaves me wondering: did the guy on the other end of the headset really want to tell his union boss he flubbed one?
AlexTheGreat
5/05
he's 0-12 because he uses them to buy time warm up his relievers
backwardgalaxy
5/05
MLB can afford more cameras AND microphones in the field if they think that will help. We're close to not even needing human umpires, honestly. Of course, the technology they do employ was more than adequate and they STILL got it wrong. So, who the heck knows?
morro089
5/05
For simply right/wrong they may not be necessary, but from a human interaction and informing players and coaches of right/wrong I don't think they'll ever not be necessary. Kind of when you call the bank and just pound '0' until a person talks to you.
jfranco77
5/05
Isn't it possible that this is a situation where Bayesian decision making (ie, starting with a "known" and updating only if the evidence suggests you should) is better? Or if you want a less scientific answer, isn't it possible that they just do it this way because the NFL does it this way?
matrueblood
5/05
The NFL precedent (which is equally disastrous, and with even more limiting language, so maybe worse) is definitely one reason we have what we have. To answer youri phoner at question: no, I don't think so. I see no value in using a potentially flawed assumption as a starting point for an important decision, when full information is available to make the correct decision.
theduke11
5/08
I'm of two minds. I hate the replay system and would rather go back to pre-replay days. I don't find the added precision at all enjoyable and I think it takes away some of the romance of the game. And after all it is a game Having said that, if we are going to technology I'd rather just go all the way and get rid of the overpaid grumpy assholes and just let the players go about their business and when their are disagreements - go to the tape. I mean how many times do you really need an ump? 10X a game? The whole game could be played on honor system except for automated balls and strikes