HOW THEN SHALL WE JUDGE?: 2014 AND THE ERA OF MLB REPLAY

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Inside the historic Chelsea Market building in New York City sits a 900-square-foot room at the offices of Major League Baseball Advanced Media – the nerve center of Major League Baseball’s expanded replay system. Last winter, the thirty clubs of Major League Baseball (MLB) unanimously approved the expansion of instant replay at the conclusion of MLB’s quarterly owners meetings held in Orlando, Florida.

According to Paul Hagen, senior sports columnist of mlb.com, “every play of every game this season that is subject to review will be analyzed in this room by at least one umpire and one trained technician. Whenever a manager formally challenges a call, or after the sixth inning, if the umpires on the field simply want a second opinion, this is where the ultimate decisions will be made.”[i]

Essentially, an umpire will sit at a replay station on the right side of a cubicle with several high-definition monitors (twelve different camera angles surveying the action) in front of him. To his left will be a technician with several smaller shots of various angles. The replay official has three possible calls: Confirmed: if replay shows clear evidence that the on-site umpires got it right. Stands: the replay was too close to tell one way or the other. Overturned: if there is inarguable evidence that a mistake was made.

Perhaps the question that resonates amongst those fond of America’s pastime is exactly how – if any – will this new phenomena detract and/or aid this already stirring professional sport? One could in fact make a compelling case, like Will Leitch from over at Sports on Earth, whether all this is actually necessary. Leitch’s argument, supremely, sits on the fact that this seems to be a lot of work for plays that are seemingly inconclusive.

MLB’s media arm recently looked at 50,000 close, reviewable plays from the past 2013 season. Do you know how many reversible calls there were from that 50,000? 377. That’s one wrong call every 6.4 games. The problem, if I understand Leitch’s argument correctly, is that this system can’t possibly be perfect. Too many plays are wholly inconclusive, kinds to which no human, no matter how many cameras he or she had at their disposal, could ever figure out what happened.[ii]

But this is a lot of work for inconclusive. The reason replay is here is not because umpiring has been bad: it hasn’t, as MLB’s statistics clearly show. It’s here because umpires haven’t been perfect. Every umpire is fallible; namely, capable of making mistakes. However, my own principle fear is that of efficient-gentrification – the gnawing sense to renovate and improve an already praiseworthy system of baseball surveillance (which is what the umpires are there to do in the first place) and create a standard which appeals to the entire baseball ethos based on a framework of emotion. It seems to me umpires have lost some layer of legitimacy – no longer the sole arbiter of what can happen on the field.

What am I getting at? We live in a world of enchantments, don’t we? Instant outrage. Nevertheless, umpires still won’t get everything right. We won’t like that an obvious ball-strike call can’t be overturned by replay. Likewise, we won’t like that particular rival fan who thinks said play inconclusive when, we ourselves are certain it’s conclusive. None of these reactions are wrong, but can you feel that irrational craze coming through the door? MLB will have to reckon with the simple fact that this new standard allows people to become more demanding, not less. More focused on attaining precision, and less certain of the vigor this system infuses into the sport.

Perhaps this is the logical trajectory of technology in sports. The real heart of this piece is not whether the replay system is necessary (it is), but the challenge system itself. To make a case for this: let’s consider the Giants-Diamondbacks game last Tuesday night.

Tuesday night’s game ended with the Diamondbacks winning in an eventual 5-4 win. This game, in essence, best surmises the problems with MLB’s new replay system – namely, the “manager’s challenge.”  In the fourth inning, Giants manager Bruce Bochy rightly challenged a safe call on a pickoff attempt on A.J. Pollock.

The play, however, stood because there was not enough conclusive evidence to overturn. Here is where it gets problematic . . . since it was before the seventh inning, Bochy lost his right to challenge any further calls (he would have received another after the sixth inning if his challenge was upheld). Nevertheless, moments later Pollock ran home to score on a Gerardo Parra double and was called safe. Unfortunately, Pollock was very clearly out and the Giants could do nothing about it since they were out of challenges. The run stood, and the D-Backs went on to win by, yes, a single run.[iii]

The point of the replay system is to get the calls right. As Dayn Perry rightly sees, “the challenge system adds another tactical layer to the game, but at best that should be distantly secondary to making sure critical calls are made correctly. If we compromise that greater goal in the service of sprouting another twig on the manager’s decision tree, then we’re being too clever by (at least) half. If nothing else, every scoring play should be subject to review regardless of when it occurs and regardless of whether the manager in question has any lucky-best challenges left in his patent-leather, monogrammed shoulder holster of lucky-best challenges.”[iv]

Apart from this system that will most assuredly have its flaws and will change over time, 2014 does look promising – so enjoy it. After all, it is Derek Jeter’s last. Here’s to a great 2014 MLB season.


            [i] Paul Hagen, Baseball unveils state-of-the-art replay center. http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article/mlb/major-league-baseball-unveils-state-of-the-art-replay-center?ymd=20140326&content_id=70188846&vkey=news_mlb (accessed: 31 March, 2014).

            [ii] Will Leitch, Careful What You Wish For. http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/70183162/major-league-baseball-instant-replay-may-be-overwhelming (accessed: 7 April, 2014).

            [iii] Dayn Perry, Giants-Diamondbacks game shows flaws in new replay system.  http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/eye-on-baseball/24511002/giants-diamondbacks-game-shows-flaws-of-new-replay-system (accessed: 7 April, 2014).

            [iv] Ibid.

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Posted on by Logan Smith in Baseball, Featured, Sports

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