Against replay in baseball

Major League Baseball has language in its new collective bargaining agreement that calls for the expansion of the use of video replay in adjudicating certain calls on the field. We know at least two possible scenarios for replay include fair and foul balls as well as helping umpires determine whether or not a ball was caught in the air.

A great many people are already welcoming this addition to baseball’s rules. But, for all the pleas to “just get the call right,” something just doesn’t feel right about increasing video replay in baseball.

The prevailing thought is that embracing video replay will ultimately eliminate costly umpiring errors, famous errors like those made by Jim Joyce and Don Denkinger, two men who are household names to baseball fans for blown calls.

Prevailing thought says expanded use of instant replay would make egregious errors like those a thing of the past. Some fans are in favor of eventually expanding replay to include anything from force outs to—as some have even called for—balls and strikes.

Embrace it, and replay could bring us into a new and wonderful age in baseball where there is no doubt the contest is settled fairly and accurately, on the field of play, with precise calls. Real baseball fans would be fools to oppose such an obvious benefit to the game they love.

Yet, something still seems off.

Some of those who favor replay believe all of those who oppose replay are either luddites or simpletons, fools who are falling for one of several logical fallacies. The list of fallacious arguments against replay is filled with terms you may remember from your Introductory Logic course.

One trap opponents of instant replay could fall in is what’s known as an “appeal to authority.” This would catch anyone who quotes players or managers who have spoken out against replay and uses those quotes as evidence against expanding it. That’s a bad argument, according to the textbooks.

At the same time, this thought process prohibits those in favor of replay from using quotes from Buck Showalter, who feels expanded use of replay would be so successful it would only make us wonder why we didn’t switch to it years ago. This article quotes Showalter’s prediction for a Utopian world of baseball under video surveillance. This is the poor argument Bud Selig used a couple of years ago.

Umpire Jim Joyce admittedly blew a call that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game back in June of 2010. Everyone remembers it, and everyone remembers that Commissioner Selig not only declined to reverse the call, but also used the controversial game to point out that he was against the expansion of replay.

The Commissioner said he had talked to luminaries in Major League Baseball, and from what they told him, “Most baseball people are really against instant replay.” Appealing to general managers and owners doesn’t make Selig wrong, but it’s an argument that sets itself up for criticism.

Another logical fallacy waiting to entrap opponents of instant replay is the dreaded “appeal to tradition.” This one makes those against replay look like crotchety old-timers who don’t want the game to change.

People can be against change because they feel it is bad for the game, but they need to be careful. They can be ridiculed by those who would note that we’d still have segregation in baseball had some traditionalists had their way. To be sure, it’s not right to oppose something because it means a change, even if changing something is wrong or undesirable. A 200-year history without replay does not mean replay is invalid.

Others against replay already have argued that the very first foray into implementing such technology, like what has already been used for home run boundaries, would open a “Pandora’s Box.” They fear replay is already leading us down a slippery slope that could end up with every call reviewed by laser sensors spanning the entirety of the field, perhaps even culminating in R2D2 calling balls and strikes.

Yes, that doomsday scenario of a “slippery slope” is yet another logical fallacy. This one involves a terrible outcome stemming from some new rule or law, for instance.

Bad consequences are possible after change, but it’s hard for that arguer to get his case heard when he makes leaps all the way to his dreadful scenario while skipping over several more likely points in between that could surface before we ever get to such a horrible state. The illogical argument as it pertains to replay in baseball goes something like this:

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

“If we expand replay, where will it stop? Eventually, every play at first will be replayed, and the game, which often takes too long already, will take even longer. This will drive people from the game. Revenue for Major League Baseball will fall. Young children will no longer have dreams of playing professional baseball. Little League enrollment will fall off dramatically. Eventually, no children will even play baseball, and the sport will be wiped off the face of the earth.”

Well, that obviously ends in hyperbole. There’s no way replay could spell the end of baseball. But even though that’s true and “getting the call right” doesn’t seem to carry any negative consequences, something still seems bad about it.

Given that the case against replay is fraught with the potential for so many perilously poor arguments, where in the world can I turn to express what is becoming a growing abhorrence for replay in any sport, let alone baseball?

Maybe this is where I should have a little faith. Maybe baseball won’t follow the path of the National Football League, where replay has become its own game within a game and where dozens of high-definition looks don’t always provide a definite answer, anyway.

Not to mention the fact that replay has the side effect of sucking the joy out of nearly every big play, since nearly every big play could potentially be overturned and has to endure the deepest of analysis before we know if a play even will stand. Furthermore, replay causes a break in the action and makes the game longer than necessary, something that’s already a concern in baseball.

In the NFL, there is football strategy—Xs and Os, as they like to say. But there’s also the strategy of dealing with replay. A coach has to decide when to throw the challenge flag, and when that flag is thrown, we are no longer watching a football game.

Now we are watching officials examine a play with incredible scrutiny, scrutiny that sometimes leads to announcers disagreeing with each other on what the call should be. In fact, several broadcasts now bring in an official to serve as the “replay expert” in the booth, and even the expert has predicted a different conclusion from what was eventually called on the field. Is that “getting the call right?”

Consider this quote about replay in football:

“When instant replay began, everybody thought we were going to get a piece of film that’s absolutely going to nail it down,” said Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials. “Guess what? You can look at a clip and I can look at a clip and we can see two different things.”

Maybe that wouldn’t happen in baseball. Maybe MLB will implement something that doesn’t put an arbitrary number on how many challenges a manager could use. Maybe they will only choose certain plays to review and have an umpire watching in the booth, taking the onus off the managers. Maybe we won’t have to examine every single double-play ball to make sure the middle infielder doesn’t use the “neighborhood play” at second. Maybe.

However, even the best implementation of replay can’t keep some calls from still carrying a certain degree of uncertainty. And, if that’s the case, how do we ever get to a point where we know, absolutely, that the right call is made?

Maybe the majority of players, coaches, and fans still will embrace replay. Maybe calls will increase for expansion until we see Pitch-f/x systems in place to call balls and strikes. Bill James has even argued that we should put sensors on the bases and boundaries so calls can be made electronically and negate even the need for video evidence. Maybe that’s the only way to guarantee we absolutely get the call right.

Hopefully that type of change would make the game better and not just impose too much technology on a ball and stick game. But for that type of dramatic change to take place, baseball will have to take a look at its defined rules.

As it stands, baseball is played “under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.” For those umpires to yield their jurisdiction to electronic sensors would seem to deviate from one of the main commandments of the game. Of course, in many ways the game would still be under the jurisdiction of umpires, even if they relied on video replay to help on a call. In fact, the umpires’ jurisdiction might reach unanticipated levels should video evidence rule a caught ball as trapped.

Video replay may be able to rectify an out into a safe call, but something would have to be done for any potential baserunners, and an umpire, who already had the right to place runners as he sees fit on calls such as fan interference, may also have to place baserunners on an overturned diving attempt at a catch on a fly ball to the gap with runners on.

But again, such calls might be worth it if gross errors are eliminated. Arguing against this may just be a silly attempt to hold on to something that’s not attainable anymore. Not when the technology is there to settle disputes as easily and finally as what is seen in professional tennis, which, other than a rogue call or two, is widely accepted by its players and fans.

So, in the end, maybe all there is to offer against instant replay is a gut feeling, a feeling without concrete evidence that the game doesn’t need replay to take it into the coming years any more than it needed steroids to save it in the 1990s.

It’s just a game, yet it has somehow always been more than a game. As cold, calculating, and valuable as all the statistical analysis in the world may be, it doesn’t mean the players aren’t playing a game. Baseball didn’t need a rash of homers to keep its true base watching, and it won’t need replay to validate it.

Isn’t all we really need from umpires is impartiality and a strong desire to get their calls right? They already use technology to grade their performance. Maybe that’s as far as it really needs to go in a game that so often is a metaphor for life. And in life, you go with the calls you’re given, whether right or wrong. You deal with the bad breaks, and they can even define you.


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Rich O
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Rich O
With home run, no home run type replays, if the umpire rules “ball in play” and is overruled by instant replay, it is easy to correct the result.  All outs are nullified and all runners score. Foul/fair calls are the same.  If the umpire calls fair, but the ball is foul (assuming it is not a caught fly ball, in which case fair/foul is irrelevant) just send people back to their original bases.  But, if the umpire rules foul (or home run), but the ball should be in play, we have a lot of judgment calls on what to do… Read more »
aweb
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aweb
The idea that one camera angle gives a different conclusionthan another in football, or people can reasonably disagree about what has been seen,  is typically driven by the idiotic conversation that goes something like this: announcer #1 – “That camera angle doesn’t show us whether the knee was down or not before the ball came out” New replay shows it definitely – ball was out. announcer #2 -“That replay looks like the ball came out, but the last one we couldn’t be sure, so is it indisputable?” #1 – “yeah, the call must stand, we can’t be sure. “ I… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
Isn’t there a Murphy’s Law corollary that says something like “No available technology will go unused”? Something like that. Replay will only expand, eventually to cover everything. Because it’s there, and there will always be someone to say, well, if we use it to get calls at second base right, why not first base? And if we use it at first base, why not balls and strikes? And then there will be some crucial pitch in a World Series that is clearly six inches outside and gets called a strike … Creeping incrementalism. I sit on the fence here. I… Read more »
Mike Fast
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Mike Fast
Bucdaddy, you might be thinking of John Walsh’s article from the early days of the PITCHf/x system, where the data showed 5-6 percent of pitches down the middle called balls. http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/strike-zone-fact-vs-fiction/ It turns out that the vast majority of those were errors by the stringers in assigning the ball/strike labels to the proper pitch.  Sometimes a pitch in the sequence was missed, for example.  The MLBAM stringers and auditors have gotten much better at producing clean data in the intervening years. There are still a few cases I’ve seen where the umpire blows a call on a pitch right down… Read more »
Mat Kovach
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Mat Kovach
As I wrote an article on this subject, I got a bit philosophical about instant replay. http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/on-instant-replay/ I addressed the issue of determing when instant replay should be used and what criteria should be taking into account when expanding it. Once can read the article for my reasoning, but the bullet points where: – Provide better visual information using technology to help witness descriptions. Basically, technology must be sufficient and be better than the umpires. – Move the human element from one witness to another, not add any additional areas of the human element. This is hard to get without… Read more »
Mat Kovach
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Mat Kovach

@Mike Fast

I would be interested to see the times when an umpired missed one right down the center. Mainly because I tend to believe the umpires have specific heuristics and they tend to get calls wrong when they think something else is going to happen.

For example: Pitcher has been throwing his first 0-2 pitch low and away for much of the game. Ump thinks he’ll do it again and unconciously says, ‘That can’t be right’ he just can’t make the correct call.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

Mike Fast,

That looks like it, thanks.

I’m glad to know this turned out to be somewhat incorrect, because for a year or two after I went around telling other fans the 5/6% thing was the most amazing baseball stat I had ever seen.

Restores my faith a little. Just a little.

Will H.
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Will H.
It hardly ever takes a lot of time. We see the mistake on replays very often in just a second. Managers bitching takes way longer than that. For example, it would have taken a few seconds to see that Gallaraga should have a perfect game. Now I agree that isn’t the case for strike zone, but in the field it is really so often something immediately obvious on tv but not something umps could catch. And as for actually enforcing rules about time between pitches, well, they are the friggin rules so they should hurry the hell up. If both… Read more »
Will H.
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Will H.
I have to say that I wrote the above in response to commenters. Now that I’ve actually read the article, I want to first commend the author for covering all the arguments against him without snark. I teach argument writing and one of the best things you can do is acknowledge the other side. Still, I have to say that I don’t think most MLB reviews would take anywhere near the time/subjective judgement of such things as whether a receiver had control. There are just so many cases where a bang-bang play is easily seen as having the wrong call… Read more »
Al Gellin
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Al Gellin
I disagree. The umpires are so pompous they rarely even confer with each other on controversial calls.  It pains me to say this but football has got it right when it comes to instant replay. They take it so seriously that they review every scoring play in the final two minutes of the game. And you know what, it doesn’t harm the game in any way. In fact, it adds to the integrity of the game. I’m all for the human element in baseball and to maintain that, there would be not instant replay on calls and strikes. Other than… Read more »
Stan M
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Stan M
I don’t believe that our beloved commissioner is being completely altruistic in his desire for more instant replay. Now when there is a controversial call, the manager confronts one or more umpires and the TV cameras follow the episode. With replay, as in football, the announcers will now be able to say, “We’ll be right back after this message with the umpires decision” and another obnoxious commercial will be able to be inserted. It’s bad enough that they add time between innings for extra commercials, then complain about the extra time a game takes. Now the powers that be want… Read more »
David Wade
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David Wade
Is it implicit in that last post that those who are against replay are not true fans of baseball, or did I make that leap myself? Something that bothers me about the laser guided strike zone is that we would have a pitcher throwing to a zone that does not have visible and physical markings defining its boundaries. In tennis, the lines are marked on the court.  They can be hit by the ball.  I guess for that reason I’m more willing to accept their replay system, although as I watch tennis now I don’t see where their replay has… Read more »
David Wade
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David Wade
Will H.- thanks for the kind words.  This was a tough argument to make in written form.  I think it may be better done verbally, perhaps somewhere with adult beverages. The hard part is that there really are several rational reasons to increase replay and that’s why I tried to meet them head on.  Commenters have easily added reasons or downplayed what I fear will be drawbacks. I wish I could have emphasized it like bucdaddy did when he talked about wanting to know a hit is a hit RIGHT NOW- instead of the “needle meeting the balloon”.  You’re right… Read more »
Anna McDonald
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Anna McDonald
What a great article! You wrote this beautifully. I’ve interviewed Todd Worrell (caught in one of the worst calls in MLB history) and he believes instant replay should not be expanded. At first I thought he was crazy but after hearing what he said (which was really, really insightful) my mind was changed. He made the point that the umpires in certain positions on the field are trained to be in the wrong spot. He made a few other points but also said (which I loved) that part of baseball, part of being the best at what you do, is… Read more »
hopbitters
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hopbitters
To build on what David said about the strike zone, baseball is unique in that the playing field is not consistent for every location. Field dimensions, ground rules, and even the surface itself can vary from stadium to stadium. That inconsistency makes standardized implementation of technology difficult and subject to a greater degree of human interpretation. Boundary calls are pretty simple (and I don’t oppose using technology for that particular application), but other situations are usually going to require an official to make a judgement that is going to take time and not necessarily result in a definitive ruling. There… Read more »
Al Gellin
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Al Gellin

While baseball is a game, it’s also big business, so the argument to not have instant replay so that umpires can “bounce back from mistakes” to be “the best at what they do” doesn’t address the fact that there are too many mistakes already being made and these mistakes have not made umpires any better. These mistakes are affecting the outcomes of games on many levels, including financial implications. That being said, I’d love to hear more about the interview with Todd Worrell. Is there a transcript or an article that we can be directed to?

David Wade
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David Wade

hopebitters-

to steal a Bill Simmons line- I’m nodding

Anna- thanks!

Al Gellin
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Al Gellin

I agree 100% with hopbitters…If we can only get umpires to confer with each other on close plays, there would be no need to have instant replay. Why they don’t confer with each other on all close calls is a mystery, at least to me.

Anna McDonald
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Anna McDonald

Al: here’s the article on Worrell. Again, David did such a great job with this article. I really enjoyed it.

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=mcdonald/110315_worrell_denkinger_call&sportCat=mlb

Harry T.
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Harry T.
It seems to me that every true fan of baseball would like to see the calls made correctly 99.9% of the time. Adding a lead offical in the scoring booth would be a simple change.  Make sure the booth umpire is trained to use the replay technology quickly and efficeintly. I would even be in favor of a lazer guided system that makes the calls on balls and strikes.  You simply leave the umpire behind the plate he is given a signal from an ear-piece that informs him of the proper call then he signals.  This would speed the game… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

Don’t know why a batter’s stance would be a problem for the laser zone. You’d lock it into the computer after two or three at-bats and unless the hitter dramatically changes his stance it’ll stay that way in the course of his season/career.

Mike Schryver
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Mike Schryver

David made the point that is most important to me, and has been ignored by the previous commenters, who are mired in the question of will-it-or-won’t-it improve the accuracy of calls.  I don’t care about that.

Replay will ruin every big play, by introducing an element of doubt into each one.  Was that a big play or wasn’t it?  We’ll find out in a minute.

A blown call every now and then is a small price to pay for that excitement.

Al Gellin
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Al Gellin

Thanks for the article, Anna, which was great! Two other key points that Worrell made were having umpires confer with each other, as discussed here, and training umpires in proper positioning to make the correct call.

Will H.
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Will H.

Thanks, David, nice response, and for all a nice discussion (which on the interwebs isn’t always the case). Just to make clear, I don’t think lasers would work for balls/strikes (though I don’t think the current analysis of umps works either, insofar as zones are so off from the rules) especially because height of the batter—when he crouches to hit—defines the zone as opposed to static lines in tennis. I just think that there are an awful lot of cases where quick corrections can, and should, be made. But good arguments all around.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

has been ignored by the previous commenters,
—-
See 02/08 11:56 AM

Last two graphs.

Al Gellin
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Al Gellin
Mike Schryver’s comment reminds me of big plays in football when you wait a fews seconds to see if the play will be called back due to a penalty. But I welcome instant replay in football where they review every scoring play in the playoffs because of the magnitude of each game. I’m not saying that should be done in baseball but to me it’s not about the excitement but rather fairness in the spirit of competition. I want to know that a team is winning “fair and square” and with fairness, comes an increased integrity for the game. Unfortunately,… Read more »
Adam Powell
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Adam Powell
Perhaps someone could take the time to explain why we are expecting perfection from a game. I understand and can appriciate that sports are a big business but are they really so big that perfection is a prerequisite. I’m against instant replay because I’m not interested in perfection. I’m interested in how people react to and overcome adversity, including the adversity that should have never happened or was doled out incorrectly. That’s what’s important, not determining whether a ball is caught or if a baserunner beats out a close play. The most important result of Jim Joyce’s blown call wasn’t… Read more »
Al Gellin
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Al Gellin
Adam Powell, I’m not suggesting perfection. I don’t think balls and strikes should be subjected to instant replay but IMO, once the ball is in play every effort should be made to make the correct call. The first level is umpires conferring with one another. The second level is instant replay. Your comment suggests to me that your only interest in watching a baseball game is to see how players react to bad calls and if that’s the case, fine, everyone has the right to enjoy the game in their own way. However, the goal of major leaguers is to… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Late to the party here, but here’s a thought. When the sport was invented, umpires basically were “the best available technology to promote accuracy.” I think it’s worth asking ourselves whether the game’s architects would have called for the use instant replay and other technology to ensure correct rulings had such technology been available. The use of umpires wasn’t an attempt to lend another variable to game, or the acknowledge the existentially imperfect nature of human endeavor, but to try to get calls correct. This is the true heart of the anti traditionalist argument. By falling in love with the… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
There’s one play that would get reversed a lot, and I’d kind of hate to see it go. I call it the “out on general principles” play. Let’s say you’re on first base and you do something completely boneheaded, like try to take third on a sharp, one-hop single in front of the left fielder, who guns the ball to third where, by some miracle, you beat the throw. 99 times out of 100 the umpire is going to call you out anyway unless you beat the tag by 10 feet or something. Anything remotely close is gonna get you… Read more »
Tom Suarez
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Tom Suarez
I read the article and just wonder what the statistics were? How many MLB games are decided by an umpire’s call? Do the numbers justify the emotions of “Getting the call correct”? With well over 5000 MLB games played each year, is the ‘replay’ decision really needed to address less than 1% of the games calls? Time delay to an already long game and additional expenses for each ball park for extra cameras and operators. Don’t get me wrong, I think the replay in the NFL has only verified the accuracy of the official’s calls. I feel the same would… Read more »
Al Gellin
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Al Gellin

Suarez asks a good question regarding the stats. I think it’s way more than 1% but using his numbers and a conservative .5%, we’re talking about roughly 25 plays being reviewed each year (there were probably 25 plays that could’ve been reviewed during last year’s playoffs!). Often, playoff races are very close and last year, for example, the two wild cards races were each decided by one game. It’s certainly possible that within even 25 plays being reviewed during the season, one call may affect the outcome of a game that impacts a pennant race.

hopbitters
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hopbitters
From some ESPN research (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=5464015), umpires outright miss roughly 20% of reviewable calls (some calls couldn’t be determined conclusively even upon review). From their numbers (sampled from 184 games), that amounts to one call every four games. There’s no mention of the total number of calls made in a game, but if it’s at least 25, then 1 every four games would be 1%. I think the question would be to find the number of calls that are a) reviewable; b) would render a conclusive decision based on review; c) have a significant impact on the game’s result; and d)… Read more »
Mickey named after Mickey
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Mickey named after Mickey

Why do we have umpires? Why do we even have players? With Video, Lasers and computers we don’t need any. MLB could just have us pay to get a box Score of a simulated game based on Cybermetrics. No need to build stadiums or pay players. Every game would be perfect. Of course it will also be boring with absolutley no human drama. No arguements by half crazed coaches about calls. No razzing of umpires or players over calls. No Bartmen’s to cause a contrversy. Yes, Utopia is actually a very boring place.

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