Video. Replay. Now.

The year is 2012. On Sunday, a human being left a pod suspended by helium 24 miles in the air and plummeted to earth at a speed that was faster than sound, in free fall for four minutes and twenty seconds. This was broadcast to us live from several different camera angles to our telephones, computers and televisions. Later that evening, another human being failed to see a base runner get tagged by a fielder in an important baseball game and incorrectly called him safe when he should have been out. This, too, was broadcast to us live from several different camera angles to our telephones, computers and televisions.

While the impressive accomplishment incorporated and embraced technology in order to make it possible, the folly had to ignore and turn a blind eye to available innovations in order to ensure a negatively impactful error.

Perhaps I’m being unimaginative, but I don’t believe there’s much in the way of a valid argument against the purpose of video replay, which is to ensure the most accurate judgment calls possible. All baseball fans want this. We must also admit that humans, alone, simply aren’t able to provide a suitable level of accuracy to meet this desire.

Now, I should clarify. When I refer to instant replay, I’m not writing about balls and strikes. As I’ve expressed before, I actually rather like the idea that no matter how the rules might define it, every single pitch involves a theoretical strike zone space as imagined by an umpire, a pitcher, a catcher and a batter. This battle for interpretation is something that defines baseball, and makes each match up that takes place one that involves the reading and complying of what is essentially a text that’s already been written and interpreted during the  previous plate appearances.

Baseball games are often characterized by a strike zone, and a uniform one would make for uniform games, which I don’t believe to be anyone’s goal. I liken an umpire’s strike zone to something similar to outfield fences in different stadiums. They’re unique, and as long as the walls aren’t moving in and out too frequently, they’re a part of the entertainment value inherent in unique experiences. This, to me, is part of baseball’s charm, and when arguments in favor of “the human element” come up, I’m inclined to agree, as long as it pertains solely to the strike zone.

Accuracy in this instance isn’t as important as consistency. And consistency is better made certain by ensuring that good umpires call games rather than relying on a machine or technology to automatically infer whether each pitch is a ball or strike. In addition to this being a soulless prospect that would take away from the character of the game, it wouldn’t be feasible in terms of time or, as we’ve seen before, in stopping conflicts.

However, these excuses don’t exist for actual plays that happen outside of the strike zone. Major League Baseball has already made accuracy a priority when it comes to boundary calls judging home runs and fan interference. The collective bargaining agreement signed this past off season also called for expanded replay on fair-or-foul calls as well as trapped balls in the future, but why stop there? Why doesn’t Major League ensure that safe/out calls are as accurate as possible? This can make a very significant difference in a game.

Evidence A: Robinson Cano, on what should have been a run scoring single, is called out.

Evidence B: Omar Infante (who appears as surprised as anyone), on what should have been the third out of the inning, is called safe.

This is not to push blame toward Game One’s first base umpire Rob Drake or Game Two’s second base umpire Jeff Nelson. Human beings are not perfect. We make errors, and while these two officials made especially important ones, which arguably cost the Yankees both games, they also made several correct observational calls throughout both games. We’re selectively pointing out the very worst in them with these images, which is rarely fair.

These are merely two recent examples of easily correctable mistakes interfering in the outcome of an important game. So, again, why? Why would baseball not extend the same level of replay, which is granted to spectators solely for entertainment purposes, to those whose job it is to actually determine what the replays are making it easy to see? It’s like giving someone a hieroglyphic, asking them to interpret it without assistance, while those judging the interpretation have a literal translation already in hand.

In a non-facetious manner, I’ve asked for arguments against instant replay being used by umpires on several different occasions. I’ve never come across an issue for which the opposition’s argument makes such little sense to me, and so I’ve wondered if I’m not missing something. These are the counter arguments with which I’ve been presented.

It’s About Tradition

Tradition is important, perhaps more so to baseball than any other sport. However, it’s ridiculous to suggest that moving forward with improved practices somehow discredits it.

The athletes who play baseball have evolved, as has the way that fans ingest the game. By not allowing tools for umpires to keep up with faster and stronger players making more agile maneuvers and closer plays, while simultaneously providing these very same tools to the audience for their enjoyment, the competitiveness of the game is at risk of becoming questioned on a frequent basis.

And aside from all this, it’s pretty hard to argue against adaptation to societal change given baseball’s shameful history of discrimination and racism. After all, it’s tradition to not allow African-Americans and several other races not to compete at Major League Baseball. That’s not to compare video replay to racism, but it is to compare the illogical thinking at the root of both issues when it comes to baseball.

It Would Make The Umpires Look Bad

An overturned call doesn’t reflect negatively on the umpire whose original judgement is revised. As we’ve seen in the NFL, fans are typically relieved enough by the correct call being enforced that the official who made the original error is seldom even remembered. If anything, video replay shows how quickly events transpire in real time, and forgiveness, not shame is the end result. In fact, I’d suggest that opinion of umpires would improve, not be denigrated, by the enhancement of replay.

The argument also assumes that umpires get the majority of close calls wrong, which simply isn’t true. More often than not, video replay will serve to confirm that the umpire has made the correct call.

It Makes The Game Longer

Instead of managers arguing calls for what amounts to no tangible reason whatsoever, we’ll have replay requests that actually make a difference. The time it takes to pause a game and have someone watch a play from a couple of angles pales in comparison to the amount of time it takes for a player and a coach and a manager to dispute a call that won’t be overturned anyway. Video replay, if anything, would make the game more efficient, not less.

 Stopped Plays That Should Have Continued Are Too Subjective

This argument relates specifically to trapped balls that are originally ruled as catches, as well as fair balls that are originally called foul. If we allow umpires to enforce ground rule doubles and automatic doubles (which are slightly different), and move runners forward according to where they are when the pitch is released, why can’t we allow them to make judgment calls based on where the ball lands and the proximity of the closest fielder? Or, if you feel that this is putting too much power into the hands of the umpire, have a hard rule like the ones that are in place for ground rule doubles and automatic doubles.

Arguing against video replay on the condition that it creates complications fails to take into account that adding a subjective element still protects the game from the greater inaccuracy. Even under a worst case scenario, when an umpire’s judgment on the placement of the batter and the base runners is inaccurate, it’s still, at the very least awarding a hit and advancement that otherwise wouldn’t have counted. Obviously, the less subjective calls are in the field, the better, but in this case, it’s the lesser of two evils.

The Cost Is Prohibitive

Estimates place the cost of additional cameras and staff to create an enhanced replay system at a dollar figure between $30 million and $40 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but to put it into context, Major League Baseball will earn $12.4 billion from their television deals alone over seven years. Taking a million dollars out of each team’s pot will hardly break any banks. In fact, we might go so far as to suggest that it’s a small expense to further ensure the legitimacy of the game.

I’d also add a question wondering if there is a greater cost than the potential for a Jim Joyce-level mistake leading to a World Series Champion.

It Eliminates Entertaining Arguments

If you truly feel that the arguments between managers and umpires are an integral part of your baseball watching experience, I would invite you to first consider that you are doing it wrong, and then use the video archives and YouTube to watch until your heart is content. There should be enough of those confrontations available for viewing to render new ones as hardly necessary.

The end result in all of this is that the rules are in place to make the sport interesting. It’s the limitations in baseball that ultimately provide us with entertainment. Without them, it would be little more than the chaotic recess of an elementary school. If these rules aren’t enforced equally, the competition that baseball fans love becomes less legitimate. And we’re already to starting to see this with the increased wariness controversial calls are receiving from baseball fans.

That’s not to suggest that umpires are any worse than they’ve ever been. It merely means that we have more ways of telling that they’re wrong now than we did before. Major League Baseball and the umpires themselves should stop viewing this as a bad thing. My perception is that baseball thinks of replays showing bad calls as something of a pesky hindrance, when the truth is that it could and should consider using it as a tool that goes beyond an umpire’s observational skills and allows those officiating games to acquire a stronger level of authority.

There have been hopeful moves in positive directions, at least in terms of comments from the MLB Commissioner, but the likelihood of modern baseball broadcasts uncovering a terrible call in an important game is enough to make baseball fans not only hope for their favorite teams while watching a game, but also a fair contest without incident. This is something that a fan shouldn’t have to worry about, and it’s a worry that umpires shouldn’t have to face either.

All we ask is that they get it right, and that they be given every tool to do so. I don’t understand anything that’s wrong with that.

Comments (18)

  1. The “human beings are not perfect” excuse is valid for the first call, which is an extremely hard call to make.

    The second one though? That’s not the human element, that’s just a guy who is rotten at his job.

    • Agreed. The call on Cano doesn’t really bother me all that much, it was pretty close. But Infante’s was just gross.

  2. agree with you about the strike zone. what effect would this have on the jobs of umpires present and future? “they took our jerbs!” – as much as people are wont to crush umps under the wheels of progress like so many elevator operators and the like – you aren’t going to have robot umps in little league for some time. so at some point there will be a gap between who is willing to get paid nothing to officiate a game, and places where they cameras can officiate…without a prospect of many MLB jobs with accompanying mlb pay and security…it seems to me unlikely that you’ll attract the same level of skill necessary to produce consistent strike zones, as you have now. i could be totally wrong on that – i know umps zones tend to evolve over time…but i wonder about the umpire training process.

    which brings me to the other thought i had reading your piece: we’ve all heard that the sign of a good umpire is that you don’t know their name. of course, this is because the only time umps names arise is if they blow important calls, have egregiously large or small zones, or court attention (*cough* “cowboy” joe west). the question is: how do umps determine who and what makes a good ump? we have pitch/fx to look at for MLB PAs, which give us some idea of who calls things and how – but most of these (nearly all, in fact) umps were trained before such technology existed to give objective representation to what their “zone” was…and how well they monitored it. are there umpiring journals? and how do we account for why umpires zones differ? is it entirely subjective? their interpretation? or might there be some physiological aspects to it – in other words: do some umpires “see” the zone differently not because they interpret the rules differently, but because their body/brains process the events differently?

  3. Selig’s just taking his sweet-ass time to satiate the haters. I don’t think there’s any question that the ball’s already rolling.

  4. I don’t care for more replay. I enjoy the human element of the umpires. If they miss a call once in a while, so what. For the most part, I believe MLB umpiring and professional sports refereeing as a whole to be excellent.

    The world’s best professional athletes makes mistakes, we get upset about it, and we move on. It’s part of the story of sports. Professional umpires make mistakes, we get upset about it, and we move on. It’s part of the story of sports.

    No, we don’t need to continue poor practices just because they are tradition, but I don’t consider the odd blown call to be that big of a deal.

    And yes, if it were my team, I’d be pissed about for a while, but then I’d move on. Again, the fallibility of human umpires is something I enjoy having in the game.

    We don’t watch sports to see the umpires, but nonetheless they are part of the game. I have no desire to reduce their role, for any reason.

    I like to point to the blown Galaraga-Joyce call. If that call wasn’t blown, would anybody remember (aside from maybe detroit fans) galagara’s perfect game? Not many, because he’s a shitbag.

    The blown call makes for a better and more memorable story.

    But I’m talking to the wrong crowd here, because “narratives” aren’t something we’re supposed to be interested anymore.

  5. I think it’s possible to make an argument against “Replay On Everything”, but it’s impossible to make much of an argument against expanding to “Replay On A Set Of Clearly Defined Situations That Won’t Introduce Additional Nebulous Umpire Judgments”.

    • Nah, I’m seriously happy with it the way it is. I assume I’m distinctly in the minority, but whatever.

    • Also: If you think that enumerating all of baseball’s possible play (to decide if they are reviewable or not) is impossible due to infinitely many possible play permutations, you could propose the rulebook could say something like “The Umpire Crew Chief shall determine in his judgment if a play is Reviewable. A play is Reviewable if, in the Crew Chief’s judgment, that if the play were to be overturned on review of video replay, that no additional judgment would be required to determine the result of the play (such as placement of runners, additional outs, etc.) The Crew Chief’s decision on what is reviewable is final and is not subject to appeal” etc.

    • NFL type model would work. Here are the types of plays that are reviewable. You get X (1?) review request. If you win the review your review is not used, if you lose you lose it.

      Umpire can always call for review if unsure.

      Also need to make sure they can process reviews quickly because the last thing baseball needs is more delays.

  6. I may get skewered for suggesting this but I feel it is necessary to at least mention….

    DISCLAIMER!!!! This is for all intents and purposes a baseless claim, I have zero concrete evidence to back it up, it is only personal observation leads me to this conclusion.

    It is my belief that when a fielder makes a difficult, or extraordinary play, that results in a “judgement call” at the bag, an umpire, perhaps subconsciously, errors on the side which benefits the fielder. Said differently, when a showcase of defensive excellence results in a close play at the base, the umpires tendency, right or wrong, is to error in favorite of the player who’s, effort/ ability took away what would normally be a sure basehit, and turned it into a potential out.

    I will argue that Peraltas bare handed pickup and subsequent throw against his body qualifies as an outstanding defensive play that merits reward by way of the umpire siding with him on what was, unarguably, a very close call.

  7. We are not watching a “narrative” when a game is being played. If you must think in such terms, we are constructing a narrative, one which is only complete after the final out. If you prefer stories that necessarily and inevitably hinge on umpire errors that change the result of the story, you are not entertained by the sport of baseball and its players, you are interested in stories with artificial controversy.

    I disagree on balls and strikes. Umpire-specific strike zones are moronic — and there is plentiful Pitch FX data that proves they are rarely consistent, Dustin’s criteria for approval. Not only that, Dustin’s objection — a uniform strike zone would mean games — is wrong. First, the strike zone always, and should, vary according to batter. Not uniform. Second, the strike zone’s affect on the hitter (and pitcher) always depends on the hitter’s stance and capabilities (as well as the pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses). Third, the varied configurations of each home field, which Dustin praises, also changes how the strike zone works.

    No, the only reasonable argument against digital determination of balls and strikes is there’s no good way to do it in real time on the field at the moment. When there is, I’m for it. As the cliché goes, I don’t pay to watch umpires and I hate it when they affect the game.

    • Bullshit it’s only complete after the final out. If you’re watching a film, do you only construct a narrative once the final credits have rolled?

      Yes, sports are live and unscripted, but that doesn’t make the events in the game a story, whether you choose to interpret as one that our brain creates (which is common view which I happen to agree with), or exists externally in the real world.

      Also, how umpire errors create “artificial conroversy?” The umpires are part of the game.

      If you’re okay with an umpire created strike zone which is inherently inconsistent and which provide multiple umpire errors per game, then I don’t really see the difference.

      And don’t tell me what I am or am not entertained by.

  8. Awesome piece. The point about arguments between managers and umpires reminds me of the argument in favour of fighting in hockey. Obviously they’re vastly different situations, but I think the root of the thinking—like what you said about tradition—is a problem. There’s plenty of entertainment to be found in trying to score points and preventing said points from being scored. That’s the game! And if you really need extracurriculars, I’d suggest putting the onus on streakers. “Onus” is an unfortunate word choice, but I stand by it. Naked.

  9. Don’t worry there will be replay next year, it was fine as long as the Yankees weren’t affected, but two bad calls on them, it will be changed quickly.
    Remember last year when the Yankees faked being hit by pitch twice – it worked for them so they were against replays, but now they have been affected negatively- replay will be implemented.

  10. I’m surprised you point out the call on Cano in the 2nd, because I thought the out call on Ibanez to end the 1st was way worse. I slowed that one down on my PVR and it looked like Ibanez clearly beat the throw but the umpire ruled him out. Remember: that was with the bases loaded and 2 out, just like the play on Cano the next inning.

    • Actually, saw an image of the play on SBNation that clearly shows Cano safe. So never mind. But I still think Ibanez was safe at 2nd in the first inning.

  11. The foul ball call off of CC Sabathia in game 5 against Baltimore (I think it was Nate McClouth) looked to have grazed the foul poul, in slow motion. Just saying.

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