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August 16, 2013

Overthinking It

Learning to Love the Replay Proposal (Almost Unreservedly)

by Ben Lindbergh

On Thursday, Major League Baseball ended a five-year wait for the expansion of instant replay review. You’ve already read about the details, but the proposal cooked up by Bud Selig’s replay committee comes down to this: managers will be allowed one challenge of a reviewable play from the first inning through the sixth, and two more from the seventh inning on (challenges that prove successful won’t subtract from those totals). We don’t know exactly which plays are part of the plan, but we do know that reviewable plays will cover 89 percent of past incorrect calls, excluding balls and strikes. When a challenge is issued, an on-field umpire will contact a fifth umpire at MLBAM headquarters in New York, who’ll have access to every available video feed and who’ll quickly confirm or overturn the original ruling.

It’s not a perfect plan, and the internet was quick to focus on the flaws. But there’s a lot here to be happy about, and amidst all the fault-finding, I’m not sure the real significance of the proposed system has sunk in. So I’m going to give you the glass-half-full perspective, as opposed to the glass-half-shattered, shards-embedded-in-eyeballs perspective that seemed to take over Twitter when the news was announced.

Consider this: from the moment you became a baseball fan—and this goes for every fan before you—you’ve watched each game with the knowledge that its outcome could hinge on something that didn’t actually happen. Great plays, pennant chases, and perfect games can all be wiped away by a call that you, on your couch, can tell was the incorrect one. After every close call that goes the other team’s way, managers argue, umpires posture, and viewers complain about how long games take today. And almost always, the incorrect calls stand. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball has been slow to embrace a proven technology that could end most arguments before they begin and help ensure umpires’ accuracy.

We’re almost at the end of that era, and within reach of an almost unimaginable Baseball Without Bad Calls. The new proposal has its problems; Sam Miller and I discussed some of them on our podcast today. But this is still a step forward, and we might be underestimating its size.

According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, MLB studies have shown that a blown call occurs, on average, once every five games, or roughly three times per day (assuming a full schedule). He doesn’t specify what kind of blown call, so let’s assume that refers only to the ones that will be reviewable. That means that the odds of three blown calls occurring in any one game are one in 125, and the odds of four blown calls occurring in any one game are one in 625. There are 2430 games in a regular season, which means that there might be roughly four games in all of 2014 in which the number of blown calls—most of which don’t matter—exceeds the minimum number of challenges allowed to one team. And since both teams get three challenges, it would usually take more than four blown calls in a given game to pose a problem. Compare that to the almost 500 games per season with a permanently incorrect call under the replay system baseball has employed (with one change) for the last century and a half or so.

Now, keep in mind that most of the preceding paragraph is wrong, because oh man the math is hard. For one thing, there are extra innings. For another, blown calls aren’t completely independent, because certain umpiring crews must be more prone to making them. That means the probability of multiple misses in a game is higher for some matchups than others. Then there’s the fact that blown calls are presumably distributed evenly across innings, whereas challenges won’t be, thanks to the odd inning split in the proposed system. But there’s also the fact that successful challenges are retained, which means that in practice many more than three might be allowed. And the fact that home run reviews won’t require a challenge. Plus plenty of other caveats too complicated (for me) to account for.

The point is, mistakes—especially the costly kind—are mostly going to be gone. Every once in a while, we’ll get a game where one team wishes for one more challenge, and we’ll wonder why the system doesn’t work another way. But only once in a while, as opposed to weekly, or worse. Whoa.

It’s only natural, initially, to be disappointed by the specifics. We wanted replay to be perfect. Heck, we waited long enough for a plan with fewer kinks to be conceived. The challenge system is philosophically strange, since the point of relying on replay is to make the most correct calls possible. Why put a ceiling on how correct we can be, however high that ceiling is in practice? Why not add a fifth umpire in the same MLBAM bunker who functions less like a genie and relays correct calls without being asked?

But come on, folks: forest for the trees. Our long national no-replay nightmare is over, and reality-based baseball is here. We can’t undo Don Denkinger, but we can prevent future infamous calls. That’s something to celebrate, even if the implementation isn't ideal.

(If you need to vent about something, you can still be mad about bad balls and strikes. Maybe even more mad about bad balls and strikes, now that we’ll have fewer other calls to complain about.)

This plan still has to be approved by the owners and both the Players and the Umpires Associations, so there could be considerable tweaking before it’s put in place. Even if it were instituted as is, it’s not as if this proposal is destined to be baseball’s official replay policy for as long as the sport was without one. It will evolve, and if challenges prove to be a pain, they’ll be replaced by something more sensible. But the new commitment toward replay won’t waver.

Animosity toward umps is as old as the game, but the human element is so ingrained that some people have actually learned to like it, Stockholm-style. That’s just the tradition talking. Our kids won’t understand why anyone would have wanted to cling to the way replay works now. In fact, now that a new system is almost in place, the absence of a current one seems stranger already.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Instant Replay,  Replay Review,  Replay

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