Early last week, Yonder Alonso was called out trying to steal second in the top of the second inning. He was initially called safe, but forensic replaying showed he came off the bag just a little bit for just a little bit. The Blue Jays challenged, and Alonso was called out. And then some folks got a little bit grumpy.
We had to have replay in baseball because we could see, in super high definition, when a guy beat out the throw at first but was called out. And we would boo and cry because that was dumb. The league was out to get us. The umpires were incompetent, we cried. It undermined the credibility of the game, because we knew the result on the field was wrong and were forced to live with it. We will put up with a degree of human error, but not if we have to see it. Even though the moment itself doesn’t change, somehow knowing that the call was wrong (it’s just wrong!) changes the character of the moment. It transfigures it into something pointed, something malicious, something sinister. This isn’t human failing. This is bias.
So we embraced technology, and got the problem Sam Miller, Ben Lindbergh and Jason Wojciechowski talked about on Effectively Wild last week: a thing we didn't know was happening (coming off the bag by a little bit for a little bit) or didn't care was happening was exposed and became a thing teams could use to get outs. We got replays in key moments, where quick thinking and quick feet lost out to teeny, tiny millimeters. And now we all boo and cry when they do because it seems dumb, or at least overly fastidious, to punish a runner (who is doing a fun and exciting thing) for the way physics works. It takes the thing we say we ought to be enjoying (Fun! Boldness! Speed! Stealth!) and subordinates it to bureaucracy, and niggling. It shifts the focus away from the brilliant moment, and instead centers the story on the yada yada yada.
The problem is that no one wants to have to unpack the yada yada yada. We couldn’t see it before, these brief, unimportant, glitches in the game. We yada yada yada’ed them for a reason. The second baseman probably didn’t feel robbed and the runner probably didn’t feel lucky because for all they knew, there was nothing to feel robbed of or lucky for. The runner was simply trying to steal second, the throw was a little wide or the tag was little late, yada yada yada, he stole second base. His momentary pop up was a result of how matter reacts when it collides with other matter at speed. The tiny infraction was barely discernable to the eye, and we weren’t particularly interested in trying to make it so. We knew what was important. As Elaine said, “I mentioned the bisque.”
We understood what replay was for: to right injustices. To overturn the big failures, not bog the game down in administrative law. Except now we know a bit more. We have been conditioned by sabermetrics' ongoing quest to eke out what tiny value it can in what weird corners it can. Maybe if we hadn’t been able to see it, it would have been different. But the super slo-mo rendering of a foot coming the bag is too much for our brains to handle. We know that possibility is there, and burdened with such knowledge, we can’t help but fixate on the yada yada yada. We have to. We worry. They wouldn’t yada yada yada an out, would they? If we had never known that there might be an out lurking there that our team could exploit to save pitch counts and runs, we might have been able to let it go. Except we can’t now. We have to peek in because we suspect there might be something there.
All of which is a long way of saying that we shouldn’t invite robot umpires and an automatic strike zone with such abandon. It’s not that it’s not a solution to a problem, or to deny that there is a problem. Our screens and timelines are full of the slights of the strike zone, large and small. We grit our teeth on behalf of poor lefties. We bemoan the quietly framed pitch, incredulous that any person with eyes could ever, ever think that was a strike. We boo and cry over the obviously missed ball call, and demand justice. I’ve done it myself. We are certain that, with all this knowledge, the credibility of the game is being undermined, because what could be more fundamental than the strike zone? Except I wonder if we are risking another victory on the part of the yada yada yada. What if moving past some of that minutia greases the wheels in an important way? What if we can’t let go of the possibility of certainty, even when we ought to? What if, even in the service of something noble and just and true like righting wrongs, we end up allowing banality to be mistaken for thoroughness? Perhaps it will level the playing field between hitters and pitchers but what if, in attempting to solve problems, we unwittingly introduce a solution to our not-problems, too?
There’s no putting replay back in the bottle, and given some of the silliness we’ve witnessed over the years, that’s probably for the best. But perhaps we ought to learn something about the nitpicky angels of our nature, and consider carefully ceding them more ground. We can’t resist wanting to knowing more once we know something, and we risk getting trapped in a cul-de-sac of yada yada yada. Maybe we already know a lot of the most important things, or at least train our eyes on the most important important ones. After all, we’ve already mentioned the bisque.
Thank you for reading
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