Friday, October 8, 2010

How Instant Replay Can Work (Posey Edition)

The Braves dropped Game 1 of their NLDS match-up against the San Francisco Giants Thursday night by way of a 1-0 pitchers' duel. Another dominant performance by Atlanta hurlers wasted. As has already been talked about ad nauseum, the Giants’ lone run was scored by rookie Buster Posey following a controversial steal of second base. Replays clearly showed Brooks Conrad tagged Posey well before the Giant reached the bag. The now-necessary fourth out provided Cody Ross with the opportunity to drive in Posey with a groundball single that somehow got past Omar Infante at third.

To start, let me make my thoughts clear: the Braves offense lost this game, not the second base umpire. Atlanta hitters managed just two hits (both doubles) and one walk against Tim Lincecum while going 0-5 with RISP and striking out 14 times. You don’t win any baseball games when you score zero runs. Plain and simple. Yes, if Posey was correctly called out at second and everything else remained the same, the game would have gone to at least the bottom of the 9th (and possibly extra innings) tied 0-0. But what from Braves hitters made you think they were going to score at all? I felt as if the end result was a bit inevitable. Didn’t matter if it was Posey scoring the only run in the 4th or a walk-off home run in the 14th.

But what the game/call did do was push me enough to lay out my thoughts on instant replay. First, I’ve been for instant replay since it’s been seriously discussed for the past few years. Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski has a great article this morning about how ‘bad’ calls are now the main issue threatening the integrity of the game. From gambling, to race, to to blown calls. The debate has gotten louder over the past year with the numerous errors in last year’s playoffs, Jim Joyce’s blown call on Armando Galarraga’s should-be perfect game and now all the missed calls that we’ve already seen in the first few days of the 2010 postseason. There’s no easy solution to the issue. But when the 50,000 people in the stadium and the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people watching on TV around the world know that an important and decisive call was flat out wrong, then the status quo is simply no longer acceptable. It becomes difficult to believe in the game when millions of people can easily pin point umpiring errors that, in the end, had a significant impact on the outcome of the contest.

Obviously MLB does use umpire-initiated replay on home run/no home run calls. The impact is extremely limited as we see use of the replay maybe once or twice a week throughout the regular season. Comparatively, the NFL implemented a relatively in-depth coach’s challenge replay system more than 10 years ago, the NHL uses official-initiated review of a number of goal/no goal scenarios, the now-defunct USFL began use of replay in 1985(!) and even the Little League World Series began using instant replay in 2008 (and even expanding its use this year). Even though an entirely different game is played in the NFL (clock-use, penalties, etc.), I think their successful system can be used as a framework for Major League Baseball. Here are my thoughts for such a system:

  • 2 manager-initiated challenges (possibly a third if first two are ‘successful’)
  • Safe/out plays on catches and at the bases and fair/foul calls will be challengeable 
  • The play must be challenged before the next pitch is thrown
  • Strike/ball/check-swings will not be challengeable (technology needs to be better and I think more consistency/clearer defined rules can help address this)
  • Challenged plays will be reviewed by ‘booth’ umpires; there will be either 1 or 3 of such officials
  • Booth officials have a 60 or 90 second maximum to review the play
  • There must be irrefutable evidence to reverse a call
  • Possible auto-review of close/controversial would-be challengeable plays in the 9th inning

There are two main critiques of using instant replay. One, it hurts the traditional human element of the game, and two, it would slow down the game too much. The first argument is a bit of a weak and non-respondable argument. Fans are the sole ‘customers’ of the game. If the customers’ belief/trust in the ‘product’ declines, something must be done to ‘fix’ the product. I think the second issue can be addressed using this system. Using an average game of about 2hr 50min, the absolute most this system would lengthen a game is by about 5-10 minutes (or about 3%-6%). If not all the challenges are used, obviously that’s less of an extension. And it would reduce the time (already part of that 2:50 average) spent by managers/coaches arguing with umpires, because they now would have an actual ‘tool’ with which to express their disagreement. To go even further, umpires could be granted quicker ‘ejection’ authority to anyone who still comes out to argue (similar to the current zero–tolerance with balls and strikes).

I think this basic system has worked well for the NFL and, at least anecdotally, there seems to be less complaints, now, about officiating with football fans. And, importantly, there seems to be less pressure on the officials because they can be quickly corrected (or validated) by the instant replay system. It could make sense for something similar to this to be ‘tested’ first in the minors (perhaps both Triple A leagues) because the MLBPA would not have to be involved.

Whatever the decision is, something has to happen. When major league umpires are missing at least 14% (and possibly up to 34%) of calls, especially during the pressure-filled postseason, it’s the fans of America’s great pastime who are forced to deal with the consequences.

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