Tuesday, November 4, 2008

How Instant Replay Should Work

I have always considered myself a mass of contradictions. I'm both generous and selfish, sentimental and dismissive, thoughtful and tactless. I'm a sloppy perfectionist, a reclusive extrovert, and a courteous smart-ass. I'm devoutly agnostic and staunchly apolitical (though I'll be voting today), and I have an overwhelming conviction that all opinions are useless.

I'm also a pragmatic idealist. I've gotten several responses to what I posted last week about expanding instant replay in baseball, and the gist of those responses is "let the umpires do their job -- human error has always been part of the game." I felt the same way until a few months ago. I had some experience as an umpire in the 1980s and learned a lot about the game and the job, most of all acquiring an awed respect for how well umpires perform in an extremely difficult job. I have always been opposed to instant replay in baseball; as an idealist, I have always advocated letting human beings rather than machines decide the course of a game.

In an ideal world, it would be perfectly fine with me if we continued to let the umpires work on their own, getting more than 99% of the calls right and taking our chances that the mistaken 1% wouldn't come at the worst times. But once MLB installed instant replay in August, that ideal world no longer existed, and I have become a pragmatist. The gist of what I wrote last week was: "now that we've opened the door and let instant replay in, let's at least do it in a way that makes the most sense." To me, the current version of instant replay is what I called "half-assed" because it applies to plays that occur about once a week, while ignoring other plays that occur at least a few times a day in a full schedule. Since any wrong call in any game during the season can materially affect a team's ultimate chance for a championship, every call is important enough to get right.

I believe it is short-sighted to pretend that only a disputed home run is important enough to warrant using instant replay to get it right. That's the point, to make the right call, to let the empirical facts of what truly happened determine the outcome of each game rather than the fleeting impression of an umpire who might either be out of position or in position but momentarily blocked or distracted from seeing the key part of the play. A few decades ago, each umpire was on his own, adhering to the Bill Klem principle that the umpire is always right. That premise has been abandoned over the years, and it is a common sight to see the entire umpiring crew gathered around to discuss a play. This happens when a manager sincerely convinces the umpire who made the original call that one of his comrades might have had a better angle. The umpire, who is supposed to be unfailingly honest if nothing else, admits to himself that he might not have been 100% sure about the play, and accedes to the request. The umpires huddle, sometimes for several minutes, and issue their final group decision, which to this observer is much more likely to be the correct call than the original umpire's lone view. This is not instant replay per se, but it is based on the same principle: the first guy might have gotten it wrong, so let's do what we can to try to get it right. Sometimes the call is changed, sometimes not, but the managers and fans cannot complain that the umpires stubbornly refused to admit the possibility of needing more than one set of eyes to do the right thing.

I don't watch a lot of pro football, but when I do I pay a lot of attention to the calls which are challenged and go to instant replay, and I think the same system could work in baseball. I'd say there's about a two-thirds chance that the call is going to be reversed, basically because the challenging coach's cohorts up in the booth have already seen a replay and tell him that the call was probably wrong. As I outline my proposal for how instant replay should work in baseball, keep this principle in mind. While the manager is out there arguing the call in the first place, people in both teams' clubhouses are going to look at the replays, and someone will signal the manager that he's right or wrong to be protesting. The football principle would hold: whatever call is made on the field, the replay official would have to see incontrovertible evidence on the film to overturn that call. Borderline calls would remain just that; if the person in the booth can't say with certitude that it happened one way or another, the umpire's call would stand. An example of this might be fastball that tails into a batter trying to bunt. The ball hits either the bat or the batter's hand on the bat. Did it hit all hand? Did it hit the bat and just nick a nail? It's a tough call, and one where cameras might have as much trouble as the umpire in detecting the fraction of an inch which might make the difference in the call. So the instant replay official would be mandated to back up the umpire, whichever way he ruled it.

One of my correspondents wrote: "We don't ask for do-overs when an infielder kicks an easy ground ball. . .Why should we tamper with umpires' mistakes if we don't do the same with the players?" That's how I felt--a few months ago. But now that the umpires union has acceded to a system of instant replay, now that umpires officially accept that there are circumstances under which they might need and will accept help from above, let's be pragmatic about it. Here's how I see instant replay working--in an ideal world in which the umpires get 99% of the calls right the first time and we help them out with the other 1%.

When a manager disputes a call, his first recourse is to discuss it with the umpire and request that he ask the other umpires for help. The umpire will either grant or refuse that request. The umpires should always have the first chance to make the right call. I suspect that the request will be granted more often than it is now, because the umpire would rather be overruled by his teammates than by the "eye in the sky". In either case, once the final call has been made, by one umpire or four, the manager can request an instant-replay decision. As I noted earlier, by this time the manager will have input from the clubhouse on whether he has a case or not. It won't always be the case, but my point is that we don't want to give a manager the right to pop out of the dugout after every call he doesn't like and point upstairs, demanding an instant overview. There will be a protocol on the field, and as in football there will be a penalty for overstepping the privilege of requesting instant replay. I do not advocate putting a limit on the number of times a manager can request a replay call. If it happens that a call in the 14th inning looks horrible to him, he shouldn't be prevented from getting the right call just because he already caught a couple of mistakes earlier in the game. However, I would put a strict limit on the number of times the manager can be wrong. Give him one protest and request for a replay call that doesn't go his way. If the replay official rules against him twice, he's ejected. Each team gets one failed protest. If the manager has been ejected and the acting manager's request for an instant replay results in the call going against him, he's ejected, too. And so on. We don't want either side abusing the other. Both sides will have an incentive to be right.

What sorts of calls should or should not be subject to instant replay? I believe that any call that can be objectively judged (i.e. empirically verified beyond any doubt) should be subject to change, but subjective calls shouldn't be. The latter list is much shorter: balls and strikes, balks, and check swings. Those are true judgment calls, and even though there seems to be a lot of discrepancy between how various umpires view them (partly because the rules are written nebulously and therefore open to interpretation), the camera cannot see through the veil of judgment. However, here is why I believe the following calls can be decided definitively one way or another.

1. safe/out at first base: The Don Denkinger call from the 1985 World Series is the best example. Multiple cameras angles showed that Jack Clark held the ball with his foot on the bag at least a half-step before Jorge Orta arrived. This would be an easy call for the replay official to make. Others are not so clear-cut. I've seen a lot of replays of bang-bang plays where stop-action shows the ball entering the glove a hair before or after the runner's foot is making its initial contact with the bag. But is the ball in the glove? Is the foot on the bag? If I'm up in the booth, I'd be less inclined to overturn whatever call the umpire made. The principle of having to be 100% certain in order to reverse a call is paramount. A comment on last week's post, made by umpire Perry Barber, notes that "camera angles don't always reveal the truth." That's true. If the camera angle isn't definitive, don't change the call. But I find it hard to imagine a case in which the runner is clearly out or safe and the available camera angles all make it look the other way. Likewise with the following situations:

2. caught or trapped ball: An outfielder is in hot pursuit of a line drive or a bloop fly ball, makes a last-second stab or dive, and the ball ends up in his glove. Did he catch it or trap it? I know from my brief umpiring experience that this is one of the toughest plays to call. I've seen it called wrong both ways. The intersection of ball, glove, and ground lasts only a fraction of a second, and the ball looks pretty much the same in the glove whether it has been caught or trapped. Sometimes the fielder even gets the glove underneath the ball but face-up on top of the ground. It looks like the ball bounced, but actually the glove possessed it the whole time. Complicating things, the umpire is on the move, usually starting from his position near second base, and is subject to the same problem that outfielders have, namely that his head is bobbing from his running motion, making it tougher to pick up the precise movement of the ball. An umpire might make the most admirable dash into the outfield to get the best view, only to have a diving fielder's body or arm block his view of the ball contacting glove and ground. If there's a better, definitive angle on a camera, use it!

3. double play pivot: This is another really tough one because most second baseman have lightning-quick hands. It's a prerequisite for the job. So we have a grounder to third base and a throw to second, with the runner barreling down from first base trying to break up the double play. The second baseman's job is to "turn" the ball from catch to throw so quickly that their motion is no more than a blur. In the old days, umpires required the fielder to demonstrate a clear catch before transfering the ball to his throwing hand. Over the years, it has become more customary to give the call to the fielder when he so much as reaches into his glove to pull the ball out for the transfer. How many times have you seen the ball go flying or pop loose when the fielder grabs at it the instant it touches his glove, with the umpire giving him credit for the catch because he was "in the act of throwing"? My impression is that the fielder gets this call almost all the time, but I've seen a lot of replays which clearly show that the fielder never caught the ball, that in his haste to grab the ball he moved the glove toward his throwing hand just enough to allow the ball to clank off it. It's an optical illusion: the ball bounces off the glove, but because the throwing hand is moving to grab it and throw, the umpire believe he has caught it. The replay catches and reveals the illusion for what it is, namely an error, not an out.

4. the "neighborhood" play: While we're talking about double plays, let's use instant replay to clean up the "neighborhood" play on both sides. This is the one where the second base or shortstop making the double-play pivot fails to keep his foot on the base when catching the ball. They do it to make the pivot faster and/or avoid the runner crashing into him. Umpires call this one sometimes, especially in postseason games that matter more, but more often than not they allow the fielder that leeway in order to protect him from the runner. They also let the runners make a beeline for the fielder rather than the bag. This is a liberal rule, stating that as long as the runner can touch the bag with some part of his body, it's okay for the rest of him to ram into the fielder and hinder the double-play turn. Again, more often than not, umpires let runners get away with veering into the fielder, especially if he's also letting the fielder hop away from the base early to avoid the collision. As with most things in life, it's unfortunate that the people in charge are subjectively selective in choosing the occasional occasion to make the correct call (either the runner out on interference for veering away from the bag and into the fielder, or the runner safe because the fielder caught the ball off the bag), letting something go 90% of the time and suddenly feeling the urge to call it. Ask Marlon Anderson, called out for veering into the fielder for the final out of a game late in 2007, on a play where there was no chance to get the batter running to first, negating the tying run crossing the plate, and costing the Mets a crucial loss that may have kept them out of the playoffs. If the camera clearly reveals a violation of the "neighborhood watch," make the call!

5. hit by pitch or not: This one is straightforward. The call is seldom missed, but it was missed on Jimmy Rollins in the World Series, and would come up once in awhile.

6. caught foul tip or not: This is another one where the home plate umpire can almost always make the right call, and can easily get help from a base ump if he needs it. But the camera would often provide a decisive view of whether that two-strike foul tip hit the dirt or the glove first.

7. tag/no tag: This is a tricky one, and if I were the replay official I would want at least two angles showing a decisive view, not just one. The Longoria/Rollins play from Game 4 is a good example. The replay from the 3rd-base stands appears to show Longoria's glove touching Rollins' backside, but it's possible that the glove is really in front of or over Rollins. So I'd want to verify it by looking at the view from down the left-field line. In general, the more views the better, and if two views flat-out contradict each other, I would consider that enough to warrant not reversing the call made on the field.

8. fair/foul ball: This happens on home runs that wrap around the foul pole, a play so difficult to call that is one of those covered by the present system for instant replays. I always think about Ron Luciano's tale of calling such a ball at Yankee Stadium, jumping in the air to make one of his showboat calls, pointing fair and starting to scream "fair!" when the rest of his consciousness kicked in and he realized that the ball was really foul. He was a mid-air and couldn't take anything back, but don't you think he would have been the first person to say, "yeah, let's look at that replay" when the inevitable protest occurred? There's also an occasional dispute when a curving drive down one of the foul lines kicks up a little bit of chalk. It is assumed that if chalk pops up, it must be because the ball hit the line, therefore it must be a fair ball. But sometimes a player's cleats have already kicked some of the chalk out of place, and the ball nails a clump lying in foul territory. Let's get it right. Only in "Macbeth" is fair foul and foul fair.

There are undoubtedly other situations I haven't covered here (such as appeal plays and interference/obstruction which would fall on one side or the other of my proposed system. Let me clear up a few matters of protocol here. Players would not be able to ask for replays, only managers. MLB and the umpires union would have to work out some of the procedures, as they did this summer to get instant replay accepted in the first place. Some issues would include: mandating a consultation by the umpires on the field before issuing a call that might subsequently be challenged; having a time limit for that consultation and/or the ensuing review by the replay official; how to fill the job of replay official (ex-umpires, league officials, independent contractors for each city/team as is done with official scorers, etc.); where to station that official; whether to permit or even require that the replay official and the crew chief consult during the review of a play; whether that replay official could initiate the review of a play even without an official protest; who would announce the final decision and how much information would be provided to the fans and/or the media; and so on. Do you think that the details of such a system could be worked out over the next 20 years? The next 50 years? Why not the next five months, so it could be in place for the 2009 season?

Let me finish where I began. I've spent my whole baseball life believing that instant replay would be a Bad Thing, that human error is part of baseball and something we just have to accept. I've had a couple of people this week tell me that "you can't open that door" and allow judgment plays to be appealed. My answer is this: Is calling a ball over or under a home-run line on the outfield wall more or less of a judgment call than determining whether a sliding outfielder caught or trapped a ball? I think they're both judgment calls, both potentially confirmed or contradicted by potentially convincing camera views. If those views are convincing, we should be willing to face the truth of what actually happened on this or that play, and make the right call. I did not open that door. The umpires have already allowed that door to be opened. Now that it is open, I think we're morally obligated to see everything that is inside, not merely to take a furtive peek through the crack, looking for only what we wish to see.

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