We didn’t learn a lot about Major League Baseball yesterday, because we couldn’t possibly have. Though it’s fun to get some actual data going on the 2014 season, the first “real” inputs we’ve seen in many months, you hardly need me to tell you that one game is nothing near a substantial sample size. Mike Trout crushed a homer, but that doesn’t make him any greater than we already thought he was. Francisco Liriano struck out 10 over six scoreless innings, but that doesn’t mean that all the concerns we had about him being productive for two seasons in a row for once are out the window. Other than the injury issues — Bobby Parnell, Wilson Ramos, Jose Reyes — we aren’t a lot more informed about baseball than we were yesterday.
That’s probably still true about instant replay, because the five calls we saw on Opening Day mean that we still haven’t seen 25 teams use the option, and will represent a very tiny part of the full amount of replays we’ll see this year. Over time, we might be able to learn a bit about which umpires get overturned the most and which managers and teams are the best at knowing when to call for it. On April 1, we don’t know that. But since this is something brand new, and this is the first we’re seeing of it in action, it’s worth exploring — if not to judge the calls, then at least to see how the still-new process worked in its first day.
Inning: Top 5th
Situation: 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd
Call: Jeff Samardzija ruled out on back end of 1-5-4 (Neil Walker covering first base) DP
Time from end of play to decision: 02:27
Time from challenge to decision: 01:44
The first replay of the day backed up the umpire, ruling Samardzija out on a very close play in a big situation — the game was scoreless, and the Cubs had only managed to get a runner to second base twice up to that point. If Samardzija had been safe, then Chicago has Emilio Bonifacio, who had singled twice already, coming up with two runners on. With a WPA of -.142, the play ended up being tied for the third-biggest WPA swing of the day, behind only Neil Walker‘s walk-off homer (obviously) and Bonifacio getting thrown out at home in the eighth inning, although the umpire was correct here.
Despite losing the call, Samardzija praised the process:
“(The umpires) did a nice job,” Samardzija said. “It went quick and we didn’t have to sit around.”
Manager Rick Renteria was less impressed:
“I’m trying to figure out what clear and convincing evidence is supposed to be,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “So it’s a work in progress. They have a lot of people looking at those videos in New York.”
Renteria said that after the game, of course, and if he didn’t seem very thrilled by the first day of the replay, it might be partially because his team was involved in a second replay, and, well:
Inning: Top 10th
Situation: 1 out, runner on 1st
Call: Bonifacio ruled safe on a pickoff from Bryan Morris
Time from end of play to decision: 02:35
Time from challenge to decision: 02:10
With the speedy Bonifacio on first and Junior Lake at the plate, Clint Hurdle came out to challenge a call that looked pretty clearly incorrect on the replay, and he won. In a scoreless 10th inning game, the difference between one out/one on and two outs/none on are pretty big, and what are you saving it for at that point anyway? Lake ended up striking out, depriving Starlin Castro of the chance to hit; Walker ended the game in the first plate appearance of the bottom of the tenth.
Though the play seemed clear on replay, it’s obviously not quite so easy to tell from the dugout, and Hurdle came out to discuss it before knowing for sure he’d want it looked at again:
Hurdle said he was on his way onto the field when the Pirates staffer tasked with advising the dugout whether or not to challenge a call passed word that Bonifacio was out.
“I do know that there’s no need to go busting out of the dugout right away,” he said. “You give it some time, your guy’s on it, working on it.”
That’s going to be an ongoing theme, I think, watching the manager come out to make small talk while waiting for the go-ahead from his video guys upstairs.
Inning: Bottom 6th
Situation: 0 out, bases empty
Call: Ryan Braun ruled safe on a 5-3 grounder
Time from end of play to decision: 01:50
Time from challenge to decision: 01:06
Fredi Gonzalez came out on the field to discuss it with the umpire, all the while waiting for bench coach Carlos Tosca to give him the signal.
So, Carlos, what’s it going to be?
Well, then. (Although as the Braves announcers noted, they weren’t sure at first if this meant “the call was bad,” or “don’t initiate the replay, Fredi.” I look forward to the first time a manager chooses not to challenge a clearly-winnable play because of a miscommunication from the bench.) This one was pretty straight-forward, really. Multiple replays showed that Braun was out, and since it was leading off an inning in a game where his team had the lead, this didn’t shift the WPA all that much, though it was an incorrect call that got set straight.
“I had a pretty good idea I was out,” Braun said. “For all of us, we just hope they get it right, and they did get it right. Whether we’re on the good end or bad end, I think as players all we can hope for is that they’re able to get it right.”
Inning: Top 10th
Situation: 2 out, bases empty
Call: Danny Espinosa ruled out on a 5-3 grounder
Time from end of play to decision: 02:25
Time from challenge to decision: 01:47
Here’s what we learn from this one: Not all replays are going to be exciting! Ian Desmond had already put the Nats ahead 6-5 with a sacrifice fly in the 10th, then after Adam LaRoche walked, Anthony Rendon crushed a John Lannan pitch into the stands to make it a 9-5 lead. Up by four, with no one on base, this play meant almost nothing to the outcome of the game, hence the .000 WPA. From an entertainment view, it wasn’t even a very clear replay, since it sure looked like Lucas Duda got the tag on, but not beyond a shadow of a doubt. This might have been confirmed because it was right; it might have been because they couldn’t prove conclusively that it wasn’t.
Reportedly, CitiField didn’t even inform the fans that there was a review going on, while the other parks all showed the replay, as they are now allowed to do. If there was anything notable about this one, it was Washington manager Matt Williams — in his managerial debut — introducing the x-factor of what instant replays mean to sportsmanship:
“We hadn’t used it until that point. It makes you feel a little funny because you don’t want to rub it in when you’ve just gone ahead. But we have to do that for our club in case we have another opportunity to get another guy to the plate.”
Just what everyone was hoping for: unwritten rules in instant replay.
Inning: Top 6th
Situation: 0 out, runners on 1st and 3rd
Call: Michael Brantley ruled out at the plate
Time from end of play to decision: 03:02
Time from challenge to decision: 01:10
After Asdrubal Cabrera lined a ball off of pitcher Sonny Gray, who then picked it up to throw home, this one got interesting. As you can see above, there’s absolutely no question that John Jaso got the tag down on Brantley, and it was called as such. But that’s not what Terry Francona was challenging; instead, he was going after this winter’s other big new rule, the one preventing catchers from blocking the plate.
In the meantime, Gray was throwing warm-up pitches to test his leg, while Francona was conferring with the umpires. In the end, it wasn’t Francona who called for the replay at all, since managers can’t challenge this type of play, but umpire Mike Winters:
“With the new rule,” Winters told a pool reporter, “I just wanted to confirm what I saw on the field that the catcher did not block the plate unnecessarily. … He was in fair territory. He gave the runner plenty of plate to go to, and so I just wanted to be sure.”
Jaso was in fair territory, but this is easily going to be a subjective rule that’s going to be a source of controversy. Did he really give Brantley a path to score? Did the slight movement of his left leg constitute an unfair placement? That’s getting away from one rule change and into another, but replay alone isn’t going to allow an umpire to judge intent.
Unsurprisingly, Brantley wasn’t pleased:
“I did not have a lane,” Brantley said. “As you could see, I slid into both of his legs with my shins. It’s a tough call. There’s a gray area in there, but at the same time, hopefully next time we’ll get that call.”
In a scoreless game, this ended up being a big play, because only three other events on the evening — two coming when the A’s loaded the bases with zero outs in the 8th — had a higher WPA, though the Indians would end up winning 2-0.
* * *
So what did we learn? Again, nothing conclusive, not on five plays from one day. The average from the initiation of the challenge to the umpire signaling one way or another was one minute and 35 seconds, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Of the five plays, two were reversed. That’s great in the sense that two mistakes were corrected, and about right with the numbers MLB released last week, saying that 377 calls in the 2013 season would have been reversed — over a 180-day season, that’s 2.09 per day. Three of these five came in extra innings, which makes a certain amount of sense, since those plays would seem to have a higher impact on the outcome of a game (though not always, as the Espinosa play showed), but likely a higher percentage than we’ll see over the full year.
It’s not going to be a perfect process, and it shouldn’t be expected to be. But on day one, it fixed two mistakes. Maybe the next fixed mistake is the one that doesn’t cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game, or doesn’t help give the Indians a win that may have cost Texas a playoff berth. For now, with what little we’ve seen of it, baseball is now two mistakes lighter. It’s hard to be unhappy with that.