Adding More Instant Replay in Baseball

Instant Replay Booth
Image by Scott Ableman via Flickr

Rumors and anecdotes have persisted regarding the declining quality of umpiring at the Major League level.  The 2009 playoffs brought that discussion into sharp focus.  Starting with the one-game playoff between Minnesota and Detroit and continuing through the World Series, umpires missed a variety of calls that affected the outcome of the games.

Some of the missed calls were egregious, like Mauers ground-rule-double that was called foul in Game 2 of the ALDS.  Some were difficult calls that appeared to be missed, like the line drive trapped by Ryan Howard during Game 2 of the World Series. Some observers (and a lot of fans) have called for an expansion of instant replay in baseball as a way to correct these mistakes.  This has been met with resistance from the Commissioner’s office, supported by some national writers, on the grounds that it will impact the flow of the game, and that it’s too hard to figure out where base runners should end up if a call is reversed.  The first is a specious argument, in light of how long the games typically run when televised, especially during the playoffs.  The second is what I will address.

Currently baseball reviews home runs if a question exists on whether it cleared the wall on the fly, or whether it was fair or foul.  What else should be reviewed, and how should it be handled if the call is reversed? After some reflection, I believe replay should be expanded to include reviews of batters hit by a pitch, calling balls fair or foul down both baselines, tag plays on the bases, and whether a fielder caught a ball or trapped it.

Hit By Pitch

There was compelling evidence Brandon Inge was hit by a pitch during the one-game playoff that decided the AL Central title this season, however, the umpire ruled the ball did not hit him, and did not seek assistance from the rest of the crew.  The at bat continued, and Inge eventually grounded into a force play at home.  All this happened with the bases loaded in extra innings.

If challenged, the reviewing umpire simply decides if the batter was hit by the pitch.  If hit, he is awarded first base, and base runners advance as per the current rules.  If he wasn’t hit, then the at bat resumes.  Now, what happens if he was hit, but was judged to have ‘swung’ at the pitch while trying to get out of the way?  The swing should take precedence.

Balls fair or foul

Again, Joe Mauer’s hit in Game 2 of the ALDS is the most recent example of why these should be reviewable. That ball landed fair, then caromed into the stands. The LF umpire called it foul.

The result of the review would be to either confirm the initial call, or allow the hitter to reach base safely.  Should the ball land fair, and then carom out of play like Mauer’s did, it would be treated like a ground rule double, and any base runners would move up accordingly. If the ball landed fair and did not leave the field of play, then the hitter is awarded first base, and all runners advance one base.

Why only one base?  Why not two bases, since the overwhelming number of balls hit fair within 6 feet of the foul lines end up being for extra bases? More empirical evidence would be needed to support two bases for this review, to see what percentage of balls hit just fair ended up being extra base hits.  Someone like Baseball Info Solutions could review the game tape for every game played and build a database on where safe hits land and how many bases the hitter gets.  Then the number of bases awarded could be adjusted accordingly. But for initial implementation of the rule, one base is quite reasonable.

Tag plays on the bases

Remember Chuck Knoblach’s phantom tag on Jose Offerman during the 1999 ALCS? That’s the kind of play that should be reviewable. Unless the reviewable plays were restricted to tag plays occurring between the bases, the rule would probably need to be extended to any play where a runner is trying to advance (stolen bases, tagging up, stretching singles into doubles, trying to score from third on a ground ball, etc).

Review here looks at whether the runner was tagged or not, and whether he was tagged before reaching the base safely.  If the tag was missed, he’s safe, otherwise, he’s out.

Trapped/caught line drives

Howard’s play cited above, and Clint Barmes’ catch of a Ryan Ludwick pop fly that ended the Rockies/Cardinals game on 27 Sep 09, are great examples. The plays should be reviewed, and how to handle the results are straightforward.

If the catch was ruled a trap, but was actually caught:  the batter is out, but the ball is dead at that point, so whatever happened next is wiped clean. Runners return to their former bases.

If the catch was ruled an out, but was actually trapped: the ball is dead after the catch, and whatever happened after that is wiped out.  All runners advance one base.

This will cause the most controversy, because the play continues based on what was originally called – runners advance at their peril if it was called an out, and runners who thought it was trapped might have been subsequently doubled up if the umpire ruled it a catch.  That’s why the ball is dead immediately following the catch/trap, because it is impossible to predict what individual base runners would have done had the call been made correctly initially.

What about balls and strikes?

Balls and strikes should not be reviewable.  For better or worse, they stay within the judgment of the home plate umpire.  Also, the appeal process for checked swings will stay as it currently is.

Now, how does a manager request to have a play reviewed, and how many requests can he make?  Frankly I like the NFL system here, with some changes.  Each manager gets to challenge one play per game.  If his challenge is upheld, he gets another challenge, up to a maximum of 3 in any game.  If he loses the challenge, he’s done for the remainder of the game, regardless of how long it goes.

What if the manager challenges a call and is wrong? And what if his first challenge was upheld, but the next one wasn’t – should the consequences be the same? The NFL takes away a timeout, but that’s not an option for baseball.  My initial thoughts were to lower the number of visits to the mound before taking a pitcher out from 2 to one for the rest of the game, or for the team losing the challenge to start the next half-inning with one out, but those seemed silly.  The restriction on visits to the mound would have no impact on the game, and the loss of a hitter in the next half inning seems overly draconian.  So no punishment other than no more challenges in that game seems the best solution.

So where are the plays reviewed at?  Hockey uses a centralized room in Toronto, the NFL does the reviews in the individual stadiums.  It may be more practical at first to do the reviews in a centralized location in New York, but ultimately the reviews should be done in the stadiums where the call in question occurred.  Reviews will be overseen by an umpire not involved in the action on the field, but located in the stadium.  He can communicate with the crew chief via wireless radio.

You see, modifying the rules to support an expansion of instant replay isn’t that hard, and will not jeopardize the integrity of the game.  And it won’t take an extraordinary effort to put into place for the 2010 season.

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