On instant replay

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement between Major League Baseball and its players includes provisions to increase the use of instant replay in games. Pending umpires’ approval, fair/foul and trapped calls will be added to verifying home run calls.

A number of recent cases have led people to call for expanding instant reply. I have started using two calls from 2010 as baselines for instant replay.

Tigers fans use June 2, 2010, as proof that baseball needs additional instant reply. After 26 up and 26 down, the 27th Indian made it to first base, and Armando Galarraga‘s perfect game was no more. Even after umpire, Jim Joyce, apologized for getting the call wrong, the outcome of the game was not changed. But despite the controversy, I never thought this play should be part of instant replay.

Sept. 15, 2010, was a much better example of why instant replay needs to be expanded. When Derek Jeter acted his way to a hit-by-pitch, I thought it was clear that this type of call needs to be reviewed.

Both calls bring up interesting points about the role of the umpire of the game, which can help us determine a specific way to decide what criteria should be used for using instant replay.

The umpires have a unique role in baseball, which is that, as the saying goes, “they call them as they see them.” History has shown that those calls stand. Gallaraga will not have a perfect game on his record, but he will have a nice one-hit shutout. Even when Joyce admitted to, and apologized for, getting the call wrong, the outcome of the game was not changed.

Even though a fan may disagree with an umpire’s call, not many fans or people in baseball question the integrity of the umpires. After the initial spontaneous anger toward Joyce died down, there was a strong level of support. Nobody accused him of being biased. The general agreement was that he simply missed the call. As Leo Durocher said: “”I’ve never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes.”

As the infamous “non-perfect perfect game” demonstrated, Joyce’s incorrect call created history. It wasn’t changed. This is pretty significant and shows the importance of the concept of a call in baseball.

Getting a bit conceptual, an umpire creates a “performance utterance” based on the act he has witnessed. His call is neither true or false. It simple states a fact. When an umpire witnesses a batter swing and miss at a ball when the count has two strikes and the catcher catches the ball, the umpire creates the fact that the batter is out by saying so. In baseball, only the umpire has the power to make that call and thus define the history of that particular game.*

* I have actually done quite a bit of research on this subject. Near the end of my research, I found a great paper written by Professor J.S. Russell, Department of Philosophy, Langara College, in Vancouver, Canada. In the Journal of Philosophy of Sport, Vol. 24, Issue 1, he wrote The Concept of a Call in Baseball , which was almost exactly what I had started researching. I would refer anybody who wants a better understanding to his paper.

By making the call, the umpire defines a fact. This is how baseball has worked since the start. The umpire’s ruling is final. Well, until we got instant replay. Given the finality of the umpire’s witness description, it is reasonable to see why MLB has been so cautious moving toward instant replay. This truly is a fundamental change to the game.

The concept of a call as a witnessed performance utterance follows along the line of thinking that MLB has demonstrated in the past. Even if review shows that an umpire was in error, the call is not changed. The concept can then be used in developing a set of criteria for instant replay.

The main objective should be to compensate for plays that an umpire may have difficulty seeing.

Instant replay for home runs is helping enhance the vision of the umpire. Given the distance involved, it can be difficult for the umpire to see with enough precision to give a good witness account. This removes some of the human element from the field of the game, but only by one jump of separation.

The call will be reviewed on video technology that has evolved to a point where we can provide better visual accounts by zooming in on the ball and slowing it down. We move the human element from the on-field umpire to video reviewers, but it still may happen that the incorrect fact is generated from visual evidence.

We are helping the umpire’s witness account without adding any additional spots for human mistakes—the valued “human element” of baseball.

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Here is an additional requirement for instant replay: not adding additional human error elements that may affect the witnessing of the play and continuing to use only visual evidence. We have to make sure the technology is advanced enough. Video is a well-advanced and proven technology. We have developed cameras to a point that they record nearly perfectly. We can trust that a human viewing a video replay is going to have all the correct visual information to make a decision.

The most common complaint about umpires is ball and strike calls. Can we apply the above criteria of instant replay to those types of calls? Numerous articles and research show that given the position of the umpire and the location of the pitch, an umpire may not be in the best position to witness the pitch. This is a possible reason to use instant replay.

(Here, I am not worried about the time aspects in using instant replay, just attempting to justify using it in possible situations.)

But we have a problem. We don’t have reliable technology to locate the ball in a 3D plane visually.

Using video, we would have the problem of attempting to locate the path of the ball on vertical and horizontal planes and attempting to plot its position in the volume of space that makes up the strike zone. That space is not constant, as it is based on the player who is batting. Here the umpire is in the better position to get the correct call. Moving to video technology may move the human error element to new technology without providing improved visual information.

PitchF/X may help with instant replay of ball/strike calls. We would be using the collection of video images that feed into a computer program that plots the location of the pitch. PitchF/X currently does not show the entire path of the ball. One can, however, plot the path of the ball based on PitchF/X informaiton.

We are basing the data on visual information but are computing additional info. Using PitchF/X data means we need to be able to ensure the consistency of the setup of the PitchF/X cameras, their calibration, and the ability of the computer program. Here we are moving the single human error element to a different group of people (those responsible for the equipment to collect data and those responsible for computing the data).

We are adding additional areas for the human element along with derived data, not the actual visual data. I am not dismissing PitchF/X; it is an excellent tool for research. However, it offers too many issues at this time to be used for instant replay. With that, instant replay for balls and strikes is not viable at this time.

Changing gears, let’s apply the current criteria to the plays mentioned in the new CBA, fair/foul and trapped catches. In each case, the decision for instant replay meets our criteria. These are cases where the umpire can have difficulties witnessing the event and getting a good visual on it. The call will be reviewed using video technology.

In changing the game and taking a bit of the finality of a play away from the on-field umpire to an acting umpire watching video is a good idea given the advancement in video technology. One could also argue that recent studies have shown that eyewitness descriptions are not as reliable as once thought and creating a process to enhance an umpire’s visual information is long overdue.

We don’t want to get too crazy with with instant replay. Replay could be used for a number of other plays, but now we have to worry about the time element. Even if MLB developed a streamlined method of reviewing plays and perhaps limited the time to two minutes, we can’t have two minutes between plays. That would disturb the flow of the game, so we’ll want to make sure the distortion is kept in check.

We should apply instant replay only to plays that are, by their nature, often called by an umpire who will be out of “place.” When I say out of place, I mean that even if the umpire is on the correct spot on the field, the dimensions of baseball still make it difficult to be in the right place to “witness” the call.

We also will focus on situations that are not common occurrences during a game and, therefore, should not add additional time burdens. Once again, fair/foul balls, traps, and home run calls meet this criterion.

So let’s look at Jim Joyce’s miscalled call.

Here is a play that happens quickly enough that it can be difficult to witness. It can be reviewed with an instant replay. But Joyce was in the right position; he just missed the call. I don’t think we can put this call into the instant replay area. This call does not meet the “out of place” criterion.

Now, if an umpire, because of the play, is not in the best position, he should be able to call for instant replay. Close calls on the basepaths are too common to include in instant replay at this time. If baseball can develop a way to get an answer via video replay in 15 seconds, it might be viable without adding additional time burdens to the game.

What about the Jeter call?

The umpire was blocked by the catcher and, when the ball hit, slightly by Jeter, too. The umpire had to rely on other information, sound and after-the-fact behavior by Jeter, to determine if Jeter was hit by the pitch. A hit by pitch is not a common occurrence, at least in this age of baseball, and this particular type of hit-by-pitch is even less common. Given that Jeter spent time getting examined for an injury, there is little reason why this would not have been reviewed.

There might have been some embarrassment for Jeter if, while standing with the trainer, he was informed that he was not hit by a pitch. But that gets into the area of the responsibility of players on the field, not on instant replay.

There is a final element to instant replay that needs to be examined. This is the evenness with which it is applied. Before a new situation is added to be reviewable, every stadium needs to be able to provide the same technology at all times. This means the same setup in every stadium for every game, including playoffs and the World Series.

Yes, an April, 2011 game between the Pirates and Padres would need the same instant replay equipment as Game Seven of the World Series, and a play that is reviewed or not in April should be treated the same way in October.

So, the criteria for instant replay should be:

{exp:list_maker}Provide better visual information using technology to help witness descriptions.
Move the human element from one witness to another, not add any additional areas of the human element.
Apply only to plays which, by their nature, have the umpire out of place to get the best visual information.
Apply to uncommon occurrences to reduce time burdens. Obviously, this rule can be changed as technology advances.
Apply standards equally across stadiums and games. No provisions for additional instant replay during playoff games.{/exp:list_maker}
So far, MLB is staying on the right path. Let’s hope baseball officials keep a reasonable idea of instant replay in mind if they choose the change the game any more.

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Jim C.
Jim C.

IMO, the Joyce call reveals a problem with our scoring system, not our umpiring system.  If the official scorer had the option to score the play “blown call”, then Galarraga would have his no-hitter.  That simple tweak in the scoring system would, IMO, be far less disruptive (and certainly less expensive) than instant replay.

John C. Fain
John C. Fain

The object of instant replay is “to get it right”.  I think the current home run or not is done this way.  The NFL replay rulings are too dependent on how it is called on the field.  Thus the call is not ultimately “right” just satisfying the evidence part of the rule.