How Do I Loathe Thee?

As they advanced, Joe ducked and fled into the dressing room; and although he knew his misery would be compounded now; although he knew he would be subjected to the rigors of hell without even the saving grace of youth and athletic prowess, even so the victory had been won, and he could not resist a glow of triumph. For this moment, at least, what did it matter that his personal punishment would be fearsome? Applegate, for once, had been foiled. The Senators had copped the pennant. The Yankees were finally a second-place team.

Nor could he resist a faint smile at the memory of Applegate’s enraged countenance as he confronted the umpire. For the afternoon had proved an axiom long known to baseball men, and known now even to Applegate.

And this was that not even the devil could force an umpire to change his decision.

“The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”
Douglass Wallop

I’ve been holding off writing this post until I was reasonably sure MLB wouldn’t make it obsolete. The abhorrent “transfer rule”* has been revoked, but no changes have been made to the replay rules. Now that we’re into May, it seems likely that replay will stay the unchanged through the end of the season.

* That could have been a whole month’s worth of blog posts by itself. In the interest of not crowding out the food and cat posts, I’ve withheld my vitriol. You’re welcome.

For you folks who follow football instead of baseball (I’m looking at you, E.Z.), the transfer rule was much like your infamous “tuck rule”, except that it applied to multiple plays in every game, rather than once or twice a season.

Moving on.

Replay was introduced in the 2008 season and was limited to home run calls. Although Commissioner Selig (ptooie!) said at the time that instant replay was appropriate on “a very limited basis,” most observers were sure that its use would be expanded. Sure enough, this year it was expanded, and how! Here’s the official list of plays subject to review, courtesy of MLB’s website:

Home run
Ground rule double
Fan interference
Stadium boundary calls (e.g., fielder into stands, ball into stands triggering dead ball)
Force play (except the fielder’s touching of second base on a double play)
Tag play (including steals and pickoffs)
Fair/foul in outfield only
Trap play in outfield only
Batter hit by pitch
Timing play (whether a runner scores before a third out)
Touching a base (requires appeal)
Passing runners
Record keeping (Ball-strike count to a batter, outs, score, and substitutions)

Nothing like keeping the expansion gradual, right?

Wait, it gets even better. Not content with throwing all of the new reviewable plays at us, Commissioner Selig (ptooie!) also changed the way in which a replay is triggered. Under the old rule, only the head of umpire crew could call for a replay. Now the call comes from the team managers. Sure, it was usually a manager’s request that led the crew chief to call for a replay, but it was still the umpire’s decision.

Better yet, the new rules only apply to the new reviewable plays. Home run calls are still under the old rules!

Think that’s weird? It gets worse! Each manager is allowed to challenge one play in each game. If the challenge results in the call being changed (and yes, announcers are referring to that as “winning” the challenge), the manager gets a second challenge. Use up your challenges? No problem. You can “request” the umpire to review a call, but he “is not obligated to invoke instant replay.” Nice, huh?

One more piece of idiocy. Commissioner Selig (ptooie!) can’t allow the umpires to review their own calls. After all, officials review their own calls in football and basketball. By definition, that means there must be something wrong with the concept. In baseball, there’s a dedicated crew of “Replay Officials” in a “Replay Command Center” in the “MLB Advanced Media headquarters” in New York. The replay officials review the play, make their call, and deliver their decision to the on-field umpires. And that decision, by the way, is absolutely final. Any objection to the replay decision is grounds for ejection from the game. Joy.

OK, so now you know how replay works. You can probably even make an accurate guess how I feel about replay. But we’re not going to allow guessing. This is a post about replay, which is supposed to be precise so we have to be equally precise. Right? Right.

Moving on.

Let’s start with the most important problem.

  • Replay undermines the authority of the umpire. Back in the Good Old Days, the word of the umpire was final. A manager could argue the call. Once in a blue moon, the umpire might admit the manager had a point. Even more rarely, he might even change the call. It gave everyone somebody to hate. Now, with calls subject to a unarguable override from New York, how can the fan hate an umpire? From absolute ruler of his little nation, he’s been demoted to the level of a poor schlub doing an impossible job with his boss looking over his shoulder. Where’s the fun in hating him for that?

    Worse, the fact that the umpire can be overruled means that players and managers are going to be less willing to trust his judgement. If the ump can’t be trusted to call a tag correctly, why should a batter trust him to call balls and strikes correctly? The players are going to become more willing to complain, and more likely to be thrown out of the game for arguing.

  • Replay is arbitrary. We see that in several ways. Why only one challenge? Why can’t the umpires call for a review before the seventh inning? Why is the ball-strike count reviewable, but not individual pitches? Why isn’t the fielder touching second base on a double play reviewable when the runner touching second base on a steal is? Why are trap plays not reviewable on infield line drives? I could go on and on here, but you get the point. If we have to have review at all, make everything reviewable and do away with the “one challenge” rule.

    According to the Official Rules of Major League Baseball, umpires already have the ability to eject managers for “objecting to decisions or for unsportsmanlike conduct.” If any manager abuses the right to request reviews, give him a warning or toss him out of the game. A warning, followed by an ejection works well when pitchers persist in throwing at batters; it should work just as well to keep managers from abusing instant replay.

  • Replay introduces opportunities for bias. The rulebook states, “But remember! The first requisite is to get decisions correctly.” (emphasis in the original) But be realistic. If there’s a close call on the last out of a potential perfect game, how much are the participants going to be tempted to forgo the challenge to be part of history? Not much, I would hope, but still… More to the point, those replay officials aren’t as invested in the game as the officials on the spot. The early evidence suggests that they’re going to be reluctant to overturn the call on the field. In the first not-quite-three weeks of the season, two-thirds of the challenged calls were upheld. For comparison, in football, where officials review their own calls, they reverse themselves just about half the time.
  • Replay slows down the game. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not complaining about the strain on pitchers waiting through a three-to-five minute review. I’m not even complaining about managers gaming the review system to give a reliever a few more warm-up throws. I’m talking about the encouragement it gives to idiotic proposals to “speed up the game” by shortening games to seven innings. Yes, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, that’s a real proposal made by an anonymous MLB executive. The reason? A “younger audience might be more attracted to a shorter, more intense product.”

    Leaving aside the “damn kids with their eye phones and ex-boxies” attitude that quote betrays, this proposal would destroy every entry in the record book. Maybe that’s the idea. If you throw out the entire record book, you can start fresh and set a new record every day. That’ll attract those kiddies with their “badges” and “game achievements”, right? A word of warning to MLB: that line of thinking didn’t work for football. Remember the XFL? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

    Shortening games is unnecessary anyway. People with short attention spans are already doing it on their own. Those of you who know me have heard me complain endlessly about a couple who showed up for a game in the bottom of the third inning and left in the top of the sixth. No sick kids, no emergency phone calls; they just arrived late and left early. I guess if something historic had happened, they would be able to say they were at the game…

    Let me put this another way: If MLB reduces games to seven innings, I will not only fly to Cooperstown and burn my glove in protest, but I will never watch another game. I realize my $500/year in tickets, concessions, and streaming fees isn’t going to influence MLB much, but at least my honor would be intact.

Take a look back up at the quote I started this piece with. How moving would that scene be with replay? Joe’s triumph over the forces of evil (both the Yankees and the Devil!) is interrupted by a manager’s challenge. Joe scrambles for cover (for reasons of backstory I won’t go into here) as thirty thousand fans watch the umpires, who are standing quietly, listening to the phone. The officials watching the video in the Replay Command Center a few blocks away hear the Devil whispering in their ears to change the call and give the Yankees the pennant “for the good of baseball”. The reversal comes in, and thirty thousand cheer the destruction of one of the classic works of baseball literature. A triumph of human will and decades of tradition destroyed by one man (ptooie!) and his insatiable need to tinker with the rulebook. Yeah, OK, maybe there’s a book there, but it’s not one I want to read. Or write.

OK, enough downers. Let’s go out on a cheerier note. Going back to MLB’s page about the new replay rules, we do find one positive note. “Clubs will now have the right to show replays of all close plays on its ballpark scoreboard, regardless of whether the play is reviewed.” Yes! Now everyone in the park can see how badly the replay officials botch the review!