When instant replay fails

Ralph Freso

Looking forward to the human element going away? It's standing behind you with a mallet.

It was exciting during the offseason to think about the Baseball Instant Replay Command Center. A bunch of umpires watching every game, waiting to make things right. They were going to use technology to improve our lives.


Artist's conception


Everything wasn't going to be perfect, and there would still be enough human element to human-element a game straight down the toilet, but the frustration of a blown call was supposed to be a rare thing. The reviews were going to take a little extra time and interrupt the flow of the game, but the calls were going to be right. The games were going to be determined by the play on the field.

That was the thought, anyway. The Law of Unintended Consequences is a bully, though, and never underestimate the potential for Major League Baseball to jimmy things up. Here's a quick primer on how to make baseball even more frustrating than it was without replay, using Tuesday night's Giants-Diamondbacks game as an example.

Frustration #1: The too-close-to-call play

If you're a football fan, you already know this one. You think you know the correct call. You see the replay two dozen times, and you're pretty sure. But the voice in the back of your head tells you the sad truth. That's not indisputable evidence. This isn't getting overturned. Everything is awful. Even though you're mostly convinced the call was blown, and even though you're mostly convinced the referees are mostly convinced the call was blown, the call stands.

Which is how it has to be, of course. It's like Blackstone's formulation: It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. Swap in "missed calls" for "guilty persons," and you get the idea. There would be no worse crime against baseball than to have a correct call overturned by people making a guess 3,000 miles away. There has to be inconvertible proof.

Here's the first play in question:


Close. Too close to call as it happened, and too close to overturn. But probably out. There were three different angles, and A.J. Pollock was probably out.

The Giants have a designated replay coach, whose job is to look at the replays in the clubhouse and tell manager Bruce Bochy whether or not to challenge. Shawon Dunston is the Giants' coach, and he was probably distracted because he swung at the pickoff throw. But he saw something that was, in his opinion, indisputable evidence. He should get better at this. So should everyone else.

Frustration #2: The delay

There was a three- or four-minute delay as the New York City umpires hemmed and hawed. If it's not clear after three replays, it's probably not going to be indisputably clear after 12 replays. They should get better at this, too.

Frustration #3: The challenges

Because you don't want a jackaninny manager challenging every possible play because there's no risk, all reward to doing it -- looking at you, Joe Maddon -- there has to be some sort of deterrence against the frivolous challenges. That's where the limits come in; challenge a call that's upheld, and you lose your chance to challenge another one. After the sixth inning, the umpires can call for challenges on their own.

What the Giants learned, and what the rest of the league will learn soon enough, is that the risk isn't worth the potential reward on the early close calls. If the coach in the clubhouse doesn't see obvious proof the call was blown on the very first replay, it's not going to be worth a challenge. The Giants, having lost their challenge, got burned with the very next batter. It's as if baseball was sending a message of defiance to the baseball-loving world.

The play in question:


There you go. Indisputable evidence. A call that would have been overturned, ending the inning, and taking a run off the board in a game that was decided by a single run. Except the Giants couldn't challenge because of the pickoff challenge, which was probably a blown call, just not the kind of blown call that gets overturned in any sport.

Now tell me: What's the easy fix for all of these problems?

The delay probably has an easy fix. Take less time. If the answer isn't obvious within the first few viewings, it's not going to be obvious for the next few.

The other problems don't have an elegant fix, though. Having a category of too-close-to-call plays is necessary. Frustrating, but necessary. There will be too-close-to-call plays that you're sure are blown calls, and one of them will eventually decide a World Series. But you can't have umpires guessing from the Command Center.

There needs to be a deterrent against frivolous challenges, too. You can't have play stopping every half-inning to look at every bang-bang play at first. Maybe the answer is an extra challenge before the sixth inning, which is still a deterrent to managers. But that will never prevent situations like the above. There will always be a manager sitting in the dugout with a slack-jawed, shoulda-kept-a-challenge face after an obvious blown call.

Over the next seven months, we'll get to see just how much replay improves baseball, and my guess is that it'll improve baseball quite a bit. But it took exactly two games for us to see how pobody's nerfect. The human element wins. The human element will always win. Damn you, human element.

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