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MLB’s video review is broken, and here’s how to fix it

Stop the madness when it comes to instant replay checking for players coming off the base.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I used to be on Team Just Stay On The Base, Morons. It didn’t seem too hard. The rules were simple and unambiguous. In baseball, there is a white square anchored to the ground (“base”), and when a player wasn’t touching it, he was liable to be touched with a baseball (“tagged”), which would remove him from play (“out”). Stay on the base, or risk being out. It’s not complicated.

As a staunch instant replay advocate, I’m not going to pretend that I loved it when replay was used to scrutinize slides frame-by-frame, but it was worth it in the big picture. Replay is good. Joe Mauer’s double was fair. We live in the future. And if a player comes off the white square (“base”), he should be out.

And then this play happened:

Did that prevent the Nationals from winning the 2017 World Series? I don’t know! I would like to know. We will never know. There was a rally going, and then there wasn’t, and it’s all because a late tag became something we had to study. Willson Contreras threw the baseball to the base just a second too late, and he was rewarded for it. Jose Lobaton got back just in time, and he was punished. This seems off.

I’m watching baseball to see if runners can reach base before the tag is applied. I’m not watching baseball to see if the runners can stay on the base while the tag is held.

The rules are technically sound. The application is aesthetically harmful. Baseball is worse when it stops to check if you can slide a piece of binder paper under a runner’s thigh, and it’s hard to find someone who disagrees. I was a stay-on-the-base hardliner. It took a crucial elimination game in the postseason to see the error of my ways, and I’m so very sorry. So what are the options?

Give the review umpires the ability to use their judgment

Nope. So much nope. I don’t want faceless umpires in New York to have the power to say, “Ehhhhh, that was within the spirit of the law, I guess” in different games, with their varied decisions hinging on how much caffeine or sleep they’ve had. That would be an absolute mess.

I can’t imagine the arbitrarily applied ehhhhhs. And what if an ehhhhh should be applied, but it isn’t given? Umpiring should never include ehhhhhs. There are rules, people.

Well, actually, I guess the strike zone is a mess of ehhhhhhs. So baseball does have some of that baked in.

Imagine, then, Angel Hernandez being able to say, “Ehhhhh, he didn’t come off the bag that much” while calling a game featuring your favorite team. You are now a part of the nope army. We cannot abide by this.

Make the top of the base an invisible safe zone

It’s better than the current system, but I’m still not sold. Dave Cameron makes a good argument here:

On slides or dives into a base, a player who makes contact with the bag before the tag is applied should be granted a vertical safe zone above the base so that he is still safe even if he is tagged while not physically touching the base so long as it is clear that he is still directly above the bag.

This would be much, much better than the Zaprudering of slide replays. Except, what about crappy pop-up slides, where the goal of the runner is to put himself in a better position to advance on the play if needed, but a lack of body control makes him sproing up into the air? Those should be punished. Those have always been punished, even before replay. It’s a rare occurrence, but I don’t want runners to have an invisible force field above the base.

What about runners who should slide but don’t, and their momentum takes them off the bag, but they’re able to contort and gyrate and keep a teeny tiny tippy toe over the base? Are they in the force field? And if not, is that a judgment call? Death to judgment calls.

Video reviews are not allowed for this particular infraction

Bingo. This is it, the only possible solution. Either an umpire sees it, or he doesn’t. If the runner comes off the white square (“base”) and everyone can see it? Ohhhh, buddy, you’re out. Check the rules: You have to touch the white square.

But if an umpire can’t see it while it’s happening? It couldn’t have been that big of a deal. There will be blown calls, but they’ll still err on the side of players reaching the base before the tag is applied. And let’s go back to our mantra:

I’m watching baseball to see if runners can reach base before the tag is applied. I’m not watching baseball to see if the runners can stay on the base while the tag is held.

It’s important to stay on the base. That’s why the men in pajamas run around and touch the white squares in the first place. If an umpire doesn’t think the runner came off the bag, though, then he didn’t come off the bag. This removes the problem of an umpire or review official getting minutes and minutes to decide if they’re going to give us an ehhhhhh.

This is a split-second, unimpeachable decision. No, the tag was late. Yes, the runner stayed on the base. And if the other team wants to see if the tag was not late? That’s still reviewable. But if the umpire didn’t see that split-second separation from the white square, then neither did we.

In other words, coming off the base incidentally is the same thing as a ball or a strike — something we can argue about but not stop the game to check. The upside is that baseball will be more enjoyable. The downside will be that it will upset pedants, which is also an upside. Baseball needs to fix video review, and the way to do it is have less of it.

I’ll expect your vote when we decide to challenge Rob Manfred in the next primary, unless that’s not how that works. Thank you.