Thursday, May 22, 2008

Baseball Replay Would Be Great But The MLB Is Right To Tread Cautiously

Opening the door for replay review of home runs could neuter the entire roll of the umpire.

I am in favor of using all available technology to improve the outcome of sporting events. With the advent of HD television and the amount of cameras at gamesm, the proper outcome of any controversial situation can be determined in less than a minute via video replay. Add that to the explosion of multilayered media "reporting" on such games, and it's not as though the missed call will go unreported or uncommented on. In this day and age, a bad call is learned of on TV a minute after it happens and opinions as to the impact of the call will be read by thousands within an hour. Before the players are off the field, the controversy will be in full bloom. So it seems absurd that with such an easy fix available and so much unnecessary criticism avoidable, why the fuck doesn't the MLB simply fix the problem and allow video review of home runs and foul balls? The answers are several.

The first point here is that this situation is different than football. Way different. In football, review is ONLY available for "non-discretionary" calls like out of bounds and fumbles and whatnot. Review is NOT available for plays where refs determine if a player impeded the progress of another player so much as to constitute holding or made contact sufficient for a pass interference call.

With baseball, NONE OF THE CALLS ARE DISCRETIONARY (except maybe a balk or check swing). If you hand over the ability to call home runs and foul balls to video replay, there is very little rational way to justify not handing over every decision to replay (major argument against being "tradition").

Here's the slippery slope trajectory: let's say we give replay the ability decide whether controverial home runs are actually home runs. This means determining whether or not they went over the wall, were interfereed with, or hit or went behind the foul poul. That's great. But what do we do about balls down the line that clearly land on or inside the line but are called foul (or vice versa). If we are going to change calls on home runs, why can't we change the call on fair and foul balls? The answer the MLB will give is that determining fair and foul balls on routine hits doesn't generally have as drastic an impact on the games as getting right the home run call. But that distinction is completely arbitrary. The correct call on a double down the line in a bases loaded situation could have much greater ramifications and importance than either Delgado or A-Rod's missed home runs, neither of which had any impact on the outcome of the game. The same rationale for getting right the home run call should and would apply to fair and foul balls. It would take 10 seconds to figure out and would be conslusively determined through the aid of video replay. This makes sense. If we can get it right with ease, why not?

So what then about a catch versus a trap? Or a tag versus missed tag? How about a base runner beating out a play at first? Or a base runner leaving early on a tag play. All of these calls are NON-DISCRETIONARY. The rule definitions are clear and the umps have no discretion to subjectively decide whether the play should go one way or the other. The ball is either caught or it's not and the player is either tagged or he is not.

In all of these situations the outcome of a game could (and has) come down to the improper call (think Don Denkinger. Why not allow the play be correctly called? It would probably come up at most once or twice a game and could be reviewed as quickly as a tennis replay. It would not impact the game's flow other than to allow the correct call to be made and thus to quell the pending outrage. If you can justify allowing home runs and foul balls to be corrected via replay because they can be conclusively determined and the affect on the game is meaningful, why can't you do the same for these other correctible calls (see where we're going here)?

But what everyone is really trying to avoid is allowing an automatic or computerized strike zone. It has become obligatory that when commenting about replay you must also say "well of course we don't want replay of balls and strikes." Well, why the fuck not? The same justification for replaying a home run via video replay applies for accurate determination of balls and strikes via computer. The decision of whether the pitch is a ball or strike is NOT TO THE DISCRETION of the the ump. There's a rule (a clear one at that): "The strike zone is a three dimensional right angle pentagonal. The bottom starts at the hollow of the batter's knees and the top is at a midpoint between the batter's belt and shoulders. If any part of a pitched ball intersects any portion of this zone, the ball is in the strike zone and should be ruled as a strike (unless hit.)" If the ball travels through that plane, it's a fucking strike no matter if you're Greg Maddux, Greg Smith or Gheorghe Muresan. If the technology is not available at present to accurately determine a strike for different heights and body types, eventually it will be available. So at that point, why not use it? The question isn't worth asking because at least in my lifetime that change will never happen.

The reason, I guess, is that for the same reason that parks are different sizes and there's a DH in one league and not in the other is that baseball is great for a lot of reasons and some of that is due to a tradition of "unwritten rules" and human error (for lack of a better phrase) that makes baseball beautifully imperfect. Baseball rewards great players in a way that other players are not rewarded in other sports.

Tom Brady is not going to get a non-discretionary call called his way because he is Tom Brady (unless you count the tuck rule, though that was correctly called and he wasn't really Tom Brady at the time) in the way that Mo Rivera will get an outside corner or Tony Gwynn never struck out looking because no umpire in their right mind would call a close pitch a third strike on Tony Gwynn; he's Tony Fuckin Gwynn for fuck's sake and his eye is better than theirs!

While the game would develop a level of consistency unmet in the current scheme--a scheme that can be unbearably frustrating when assholes like Rick Reed or Hunter Wendelstedt are behind the plate--that consistency wouldn't make the game any better. In my opinion, it would actually make the game worse (much worse) because the game is in part built on that tradition of "earning" the outside corners are earning a close walk through years of proving yourself as a player. There's a certain frustrating beauty to a tight/wide strike zone and seeing how professional players react to it. It's not perfect in terms of "getting it right" but it's a perfectly enjoyable part of the game.

I think where I was intending to go with this was merely to point out how easily the simple position of approving replay for home runs could quickly turn into an all-robot umpiring team. I'm not 100% sure where I stand on this because I am very uncomfortable with allowing the introduction of replay due to the "slippery slope" effect of its implementation. It's just as easy to make the argument for review of home runs as it is to make the argument for review of almost ANY call in the majors. So while the idiot public (myself included) and the MORE idiotic hysterical opinion media (Mike & Mike, Michael Kay & dozens of others) are screaming to the high hills for replay to be used because of recent issues, the MLB is right to be cautious. Though it may seem absurd today, reviewing home runs is a hop and skip up the slippery slope from putting Johnny 5* behind the plate. And clearly we don't want that.

*I'd highly recommend checking out that link. I won't ruin it, but if you haven't listened to the "Short Circuit" soundtrack in awhile or you weren't around for the phenomenon that was "El DeBarge," this will provide a refresher course.

1 comment:

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