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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.

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ggdowd
5/02
I think people can disagree about whether it is right or wrong in some ethical sense that calls like the one above are overturned on replay; what I think is less debatable is that, if things like that keep happening regularly, teams will be forced to attempt fewer steals.

Suppose the break even success rate for steals is 75%. Now suppose that, upon further review, 1 out of every 10 would-be base-thefts is overturned due to a brief separation from the bag. This effectively raises the break-even "success" rate to 83.33% (.75 / .9). You can move my numbers up and down (a 1 in 15 overturn rate shifts the break-even point up to only 80.3%, for example), but I would think that as teams examine the added risk, it is bound to suppress steal rates at the margin.

One possible mitigating factor would be overturned out calls (say, when a throw beats a runner but the tab is late or high). Anecdotally this seems to happen less often, but there also seems to be a qualitative difference between punishing a fielder for missing a tag and punishing a runner for briefly popping off a base (maybe others disagree).
bhalpern
5/02
I think we have to move the nuHow many of these calls have happened? It can't be anywhere close to 38.
ggdowd
5/02
Maybe the numbers were aggressive; the Braves lost a similar challenge earlier this week (Mallex Smith appeared to steal second easily but maybe lost touch with the bag for a split second, although it wasn't clear to me, even in slow-mo), and Ben and Sam seem to bring it up on a weekly basis. I also think that, as teams realize how often there is incidental loss of contact with the base on slide/tag plays, they will challenge tag plays more often (and attempt to convince umps to use umpire challenges, which cost the team nothing and which umpires seem to invoke rather liberally). This happened last year with plays at the plate and balls dropped during transfer; once teams realized that slow-motion made more of these plays disputable, the challenge rates seemed to shoot up.

Jape82
5/02
I don't think the problem is with the replays themselves. What needs to be addressed is the manager standing on the top step for 30 seconds while someone somewhere looks at super slo-mo replays trying to determine if a challenge is worth it. I think MLB needs to either eliminate the video review person that teams employ and make these challenges based on what someone on the field sees with the naked eye, or force the manager to challenge within 10 seconds (or some number that reasonably reflects the normal flow of a game). Managers had no issue flying out of the dugout immediately in the past when they felt a call was wrong, so why do they get what seems like forever now? This simple rule change would probably make the replay system much closer to what it was intended for than the nonsense it has become.
tnt9357
5/03
This is quite a strawperson you've constructed, Meg. Is there some sort of link to the grumpiness you've described? Or was that supposed to refer to Alonso's hangdog look for paying the price for not knowing how to slide.

Haven't heard the EW podcast, but let's just say the reason I check out after the 30 team previews is their need for filler. Sometimes entertaining filler, but filler nonetheless.

The premise of this article is empty, a word salad masquerading as depth. From the very beginning, sabermetrics has, as Bill James himself put it, seeked the truth of what really happens in baseball. You seem disturbed by this because...I'm not sure, really. You keep writing "yadda yadda yadda" where it should say "what really happened on the field", as if finding that out was profane, a secret of the ancients not to be revealed to us mere mortals.

Bring on the robot umpires, and learn to slide, Yadier.
tnt9357
5/03
Edit: Learn to slide *Yonder*. That's what happens when you compose a comment on an iPhone with dwindling memory through Facebook.
SChandler
5/03
I agree with Noel, well maybe not the word salad maquerading as depth part, but the essence. If the runner comes off the bag, even for a split second, and the tag is on, then he is out. What's nit-picky about that?
Deadheadbrewer
5/04
I believe that the article acknowledges that the runner was out. In my reading of it, what the article questions is whether this knowledge increases our appreciation of the game. Baseball is, in large part, entertainment, and the game is perhaps less entertaining when three minutes are spent with the game on "pause," while people in another state determine whether the nits have been properly picked.

We lived for over 100 years with Alonso being "out" the vast majority of the time. The article is questioning whether we need to know the absolute (and that's assuming that a few extra camera angles actually DO "prove" what occurred) truth in every baseball situation. The means for discovering the truth in the game may in some situations obscure the pleasure of the game.