Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Game That Changed Baseball History

I don't have to tell you what happened last night. Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game--according to the rules of baseball--but umpire Jim Joyce's failure to apply Rule 6.05(j) [a batter is out if "after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base"] on the 27th out cost Galarraga his rightful place in the record books. In a way, it was cosmically just; after a mere 18 perfect games in 139 seasons, it was ridiculous to have three in the space of one month. So Joyce's call literally changed history, turning immortality into just another one-hitter. Too bad he didn't rule that Galarraga juggled the throw or didn't touch the base, in which case an error could have been charged and a no-hitter preserved. But no--Galarraga got totally screwed.

In a larger sense, I believe this game will change baseball history by providing the impetus for implementing a more thorough instant-replay system than the one hastily introduced late in 2008 after a flurry of blown home-run calls. Everyone--including umpires--believes that the replay system, used only to decide home runs has worked well. The overriding concern is to get the calls right, and instant replay has achieved that goal when applied.

But Commissioner Selig's credo has been that limiting instant replay to home runs is sufficient because it keeps "the human element" in the game by allowing umpires to blow other calls. This is a popular view amongst journalists and fans. I happen to think that's hogwash. Look at the Galarraga game. Allowing "the human element" to prevail but drawing the line at home runs would yield this situation: Jim Joyce makes a bad call at first base in the ninth inning of a 3-0 game. Nobody has the power to change it. On the next batter, Joyce blows another call, and a second runner gets on base. Sorry about that, boys, just keep playing. The next batter blasts a ball that either hits the top of the fence (a double) or hits the railing just above that yellow line at the top of the fence (a home run). Now it's a matter worthy of spending the two or three minutes it will take for the umpires to look at the instant replay. NOW?!? The issue should have been settled ten minutes ago when Joyce blew the first call. No, that wasn't important enough. Let's put a couple of runners on base, make it a possible home run which will tie the game, and now we can go ahead and take a little break to make sure the umpires get one out of three calls correct.

As I said--hogwash.

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, that ideal world no longer existed. To me, the current version of instant replay is 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. Here's my rationale in a nutshell: any wrong call in any game during the season can materially affect a team's ultimate chance for a championship, therefore every call is important enough to get right.

It is short-sighted to pretend that only a disputed home run is important enough to warrant using instant replay to get it right. 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. Or who, like Jim Joyce last night, simply gets it wrong.

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 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'm convinced that a similar system could work in baseball. I'd say there's about a two-thirds chance that the call will 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 watching 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 a 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.

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. 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 bench 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 there's a horrible call in the 14th inning, 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 goes 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 can't have the Billy Martins of the world bullying umpires into double-checking calls just for sport. In fact, I 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 short: 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, especially check swings), 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, just as Galarraga clearly possessed the ball and the bag while the runner was nearly a full stride away. This would be an easy call for the replay official to make. Others are not so clear-cut. Replays of bang-bang plays where stop-action often show 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? In this case, 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. It's true that camera angles don't always reveal the truth. Fine. 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 very tough one because most second basemen 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 his 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 believes 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 contact the base with his foot when catching the ball. He does 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 making 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 99% 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 play," 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 2008 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. fair/foul ball: This happens on home runs that wrap around the foul pole, a play so difficult to call that it 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. Sometimes it isn't even close to the line, as with the play in the 2009 playoffs where the left-field umpire simply experienced a brain cramp and called a ball foul that bounced a foot or two inside the line. 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. Protocols would have to be worked out and the system refined. 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 sooner, why not right away, soon enough to put a system in place for the 2011 season? Bud Selig & Company seem to think that just because many things in baseball history have evolved over a period of years or decades, it must always be so. Get it right now!

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. But we do have instant replay in baseball now, so we may as well be realistic about it. 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, or figuring out whether the fielder's foot or the runner's foot touched first base first? I think they're all objective calls, both potentially confirmed or contradicted by 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.


Chris Wertz said...

Look on the bright side. Galarraga entered more rarified air becoming only the 11th pitcher to lose a perfect game on the final out! Take that Jim Joyce. Or, was that your plan all along?

Robin said...

Gabe, as a researcher at the HoF, how would the hall view this game if Selig did decide to right the wrong and issue a perfect game? Would it need an asterisk? Would it sour any of the other 20 perfect games due to the fact that it was not immediately a perfecto? Would it immediately become the largest impact a commissioner has had on one play/game/person?

cheeseblab said...

No sane person would argue with the title of your blog. On the other hand, no sane person would suggest that there is Never Too Much Football. There is, in fact, Usually Too Much Football. So why in the name of Cal Hubbard would you want to bring God's Game more closely into line with Beelzebub's Blunder? Good god, just the intricacy of your delineation of the process you advocate should tell you that this is not a plan that should be cluttering up the rules of baseball.

Everybody wishes Joyce had gotten the call right, but I would suggest that more good has come into our world, and Galarraga's--the class all the participants have shown, the outpouring of sympathy (which seems likely to last a lot longer than the acclaim would have), the Corvette--than a mere dime-a-quarter-of-a-dozen PG would have yielded.

A colleague was speculating about how deeply Joyce must wish he had that fraction of a second back for a do-over. Well, yeah. But so does that guy who reached down to adjust his GPS and killed the kid who ran out in front of his car. I'm thinking Joyce can probably live with his mistake. And apparently Galarraga can, and I know damn sure I can. I suggest that we all try to get a little perspective here.

Cliff Blau said...

Galarraga did not pitch a perfect game according to the rules of baseball; see rule 9.02(a).

Mad Guru said...

Jim Joyce is a popular topic for you in the last few weeks. Maybe he blew the call to try and get a higher scoring contest at the last second.

My own view on replay aligns with that of Keith Law. Umpire accountability needs to be in place before replay. If the quality of umpiring is better, it makes for fewer reviewable calls. Needing to do a quality job of umping to preserve their employment should theoretically improve the quality of umpiring and reduce the need for replay altogether.

Gabriel Schechter said...

Thank you all for posting these comments. I'd like to respond:

1) Chris: It's even rarer than that. When I said to my boss that the fans at the ballpark had been deprived of witnessing one of baseball's rarest events, he replied, "actually they witnessed the rarest event of all -- a pitcher getting screwed out of a perfect game."

2) Robin: The response of the HOF would be the same in either case. We record history, good or bad. So if MLB declared it a perfect game, we'd include it without an asterisk. What would happen (and might happen now) is that if we display an artifact from the game in the museum (I've heard that we might be asking for the first-base bag, but who knows), the label will tell the story behind the artifact. So if the call had been changed, that would be part of the story we tell. You might well be right about it being a commissioner's largest impact on an individual game. The only other major one I can think of offhand is Kenesaw Landis ejecting Joe Medwick from Game 7 of the 1934 because the Detroit fans were throwing so much garbage at him that it was delaying resumption of the game.

3) Dan, you know too much about my degree of sanity to be questioning it here. I see my plan as taking the single-most useful thing about NFL replay (namely the high probability of getting the call right) and adapting it to the realities of baseball. In practical terms, I think the manager would go out to dispute/discuss a call, and very quickly he'd get a signal from the bench that he was right or wrong. If right, he'd lodge the protest, and the correct call would be made. If wrong, he'd shut up or the umpire (who would also see that signal) would get him the hell out of there.

4) Cliff: yes, in retrospect you are correct. But you know what I was getting at. According to the various subsections of Rule 6.05, Galarraga did retire 27 straight hitters. If Joyce had applied 6.05, then 9.02 wouldn't have come into play. I'd say the same thing if Donald had beaten the throw but Joyce had called him out. I would say that Galarraga did not succeed in retiring 27 straight hitters, but again Joyce would've failed to apply 6.05 correctly. Again, 6.05 was applied at the moment the play occurred; 9.02 is retroactive.

5)Mad Guru: You're right (and I agree with Keith Law). Apropos of my other column about Joyce, it is worth noting that a night after the Galarraga call, Joyce was behind the plate. Final score: 12-6. Maybe it's time for me to get back in action.