Over the years, there have been many arguments for instant replay and many arguments against instant replay. These arguments have been heightened over the past two days following the incident in which a questionable call by umpire Jim Joyce seemingly cost Detroit’s Armando Galarraga a perfect game.
But in all these arguments I’ve heard over the years, not once have I heard the real reason why Major League Baseball is not quick to expand replay to more aspects of the game.
It’s not because there exists a romance or excitement about the possibility of a bad call: if that was the case, why not flip a coin to determine every bang-bang play? It’s not because it unnecessarily lengthens the time of game: if baseball wanted to shorten the length of the games, there are other places to cut time. It’s not because the physical implementation of a replay system is too costly or too complicated: all ballparks have the cameras in position for instant replay already.
The fact of the matter is that, for better or for worse, the rules of baseball have evolved over time. Right now, we live in an era where these evolutions come as no surprise to those who are involved with baseball on a regular basis but can be confusing to the “casual fan” because they’re not written down anywhere. There are simply way too many of these rules for me to list them all (I’m sure that you can come up with one that I don’t mention), but I’ll go through two of the main ones.
The so-called “neighborhood play” is when the middle infielder fails to touch second base on the double play pivot but the runner is called out anyway. It happens so quickly that it’s tough to see but here are two possible examples: Tigers, Reds. This happens because runners are encouraged to slide hard into the defender in an effort to break up the double play like Lastings Milledge does here. The rulebook says that such action is technically illegal, but the rulebook also says that the runner has the right to slide into his base. So how can you prove that the runner’s intent: did he slide to try to reach his base? Or did he slide to take out the defender? Most of the time, you can not prove the runner’s intent and so the umpires let it go. Therefore, some amount of leeway is granted to the defenders too; umpires are willing to look the other way if infielders don’t exactly touch second base while attempting to avoid a sliding runner. (For the record, umpires are consistent with not looking the other way when the defender fails to hold the bag because of an errant throw.)
Take away the neighborhood play and this tasks the umpires with the impossibility of getting inside the runners’ heads to determine intent. Technically speaking, every runner that doesn’t peel out of the basepaths on an attempted double play could be called for interference. The best case scenario here is that umpires start arbitrarily calling runners for interference. The worst case scenario is that every runner is ruled to have interfered with the play.
Another example is the tag play on the bases. Too often, the ball beats the runner to the base and he is called out. In fact, you might be surprised to see how often umpires don’t care about exactly when the tag is applied because the runner looks so obviously out. In the next two examples, slow down the footage to notice that the runner isn’t as clearly out as he appears to be: Pierzynski, Helton.
The consequences of changing this can be drastic. Remember how easy it was to steal bases in little league? If umpires are forced to call safe and out on the bases exactly according to the rulebook, Major League Baseball could turn into a similar circus. The average baserunners would become great ones and the elite base stealers would be literally unstoppable — at least until people figure out what’s going on. So in this scenario, one of two things would happen: either baseball admits their dirty little secret to all of the teams and is upfront by saying “listen, we know we’ve been ignoring some rules but that’s not going to happen anymore” or games will be determined by which team has figured out the new pattern first, not by which team is the better team. The former seems unlikely and the latter doesn’t seem very fair.
The bottom line is that umpires today are so good that they get most of the calls right. In fact, almost all of the “mistakes” aren’t mistakes at all; they’re by design. Therefore, according to the way the game is played today, adding instant replay would actually increase — not decrease — the number of blown calls.
“Why don’t the umpires call the game as written in the rules, anyway?” you might ask. That’s a valid question and a reasonable discussion for perhaps a later time. But that’s not my reason for this post. I want people who are in favor of instant replay to have a proper understanding of how that could change the game.
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Written by Eddie Kim