Instant replay review has been around ever since the NFL instituted it in 1986, but it wasn’t until 2008 that baseball got on board and allowed teams to request a video review of controversial calls. Now virtually every major sport has some sort of video replay system to review controversial calls, but that has not eliminated the controversies, as evidenced by the ending of Sunday’s Royals/White Sox game.
In the bottom of the ninth of a tied game, a Wade Davis wild pitch allowed Jose Abreu to make a break for home. Cam Gallagher grabbed the ball and lunged towards home to tag Abreu, but home plate umpire Edwin Moscoso ruled he was safe. A video replay showed that Gallagher may have tagged Abreu before the runner touched home, but nothing was conclusive, and the video review in New York allowed the call to stand.
After the game, Royals manager Mike Matheny was furious.
“There’s a lot that happened in that game, and I just have to make a point that if we’re going to use video replay, there needs to be some accountability,” a heated Matheny said. “I just walked in here and had two different camera angles with this guy out, tagged before he ever even touched the plate — and very obvious.
“I don’t know what they’re doing, if they’re backing each other up. Whatever it is, it’s wrong. A game that hard-played, that well-fought all the way to the end. And they’ve got the opportunity to take that much time. From appearances, it looks like they don’t want to bring them back on the field while they’re here with this crowd. It’s just wrong. Something needs to be done about it.”
The controversial play was just the latest in a string of controversial calls by umpires this season. A Marlins/Mets game ended when a Mets player was hit by a pitch in the strike zone, a call home plate umpire Ron Kulpa later admitted he got wrong. Umpires have been lambasted for odd calls of fielder interference, running out of the baseline, and “basically guessing” at whether a fielder caught a ball or not, not to mention the usual criticisms of their management of the strike zone and calls for robo-umps.
As long as we have human umpires though, there will always be some errors, but the instant replay system is meant to correct those errors. In some of the more high-profile cases this year, that has not happened, either because the review was unwilling to overturn the call, or in many cases, because the call was not reviewable.
If so many controversial calls are still leaving fans irate at the call, the entire rationale for the review system must be called into question, something our old friend Craig Brown has been advocating for years. But in my opinion, tossing replay because a few calls aren’t resolved satisfactorily is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. According to data provided by MLB to Ken Rosenthal, there were 1,368 reviews in 2019, the last full season, and 43 percent of them were overturned calls. Most of these we forget, because they were obviously needed to overturn a wrong call on the field.
But that doesn’t mean the system is as good as it can be. If we have to deal with the inconvenience of stopping play to review a play, it can be better than it is. Here are a few of my suggestions to get instant replay right.
You may or may not agree with Matheny’s opinion on Sunday’s call, but one thing he is right about is the lack of accountability with the instant replay system. Calls are reviewed by “New York”, away from the cameras at the game. In some ways, being separated from the field may make the review more impartial. But it may also have the opposite effect. Reviewers may be reluctant to make umpires look bad by overturning calls. In basketball, the review is made by the on-site officials, with crews working together to get the play right. Perhaps asking umpires to review their own plays and get it right, rather than subjecting them to the embarrassing ordeal of having a play overturned would lead to more correct outcomes. Or perhaps there could be a fifth member of the crew on-site specifically for review plays.
There is also the matter of accountability with fans and the press. MLB has made the names of those review officials available in recent years, and in some cases the official will issue a statement explaining the call. But getting more explanation would help fans understand why a call was made. In the NFL, referees are mic’d up and give detailed explanations on the ruling on the field. In baseball, we just have to guess. Did the review show Cam Gallagher missed Jose Abreu? Did they consider the evidence that Gallagher tagged Abreu on the jersey? Was it all just too inconclusive? We don’t know what they thought, leaving us frustrated that perhaps the review booth didn’t take all the evidence in question.
No more deference to the call on the field
For the Abreu play, the biggest reason it was ruled safe was because Moscoso called him safe. It is hard to say the replay was conclusive in either direction, although in my opinion the evidence tends to suggest Gallagher tagged him. But why do we defer to the call on the field? We have the ability to slow the play down, look at it from different angles, and take our time in making a judgment, and we’re going to give deference to a snap judgment made in real time?
If instant replay is all about getting the call right, then give the reviewer the tools to get the call right. If the evidence has to be “clear and convincing” to overturn the call, you’re going to get a lot of calls that are probably wrong, but stand because there was not enough evidence to overturn. Why is this done? It is ostensibly done to give umpires some cover, to make it so they can make calls without looking over their shoulder. But the goal should be getting the call right.
If this was the NFL, there would be about a dozen different camera angles (including a home plate cam!) on the Abreu play. Instead, we got three camera angles. One was from behind home plate that showed Gallagher’s glove beat Abreu to the plate, but leaving it unclear if Gallagher tagged him or not. Another was from left field and it looked like maybe Gallagher brushed Abreu’s back with the glove, but we can’t be certain from that angle. A third was from the first-base side dugout and was virtually worthless in showing anything. An overhead camera may have provided more evidence, but alas, there was none.
MLB rules state there should be at least seven or eight cameras at each game with a “high home” camera”, but that didn’t seem to be case at the Royals/White Sox game (or maybe there was and New York reviewed that angle and based their decision on that! We just don’t know!) Baseball is a $10 billion industry, if they’re going to do replay, at least do it right. Get the number of cameras necessary to judge a play from all angles.
Review judgment calls
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about replay is the fact that many plays are simply not reviewable. Take the Marlins/Mets game for instance. Kulpa ruled the ball hit Michael Conforto, but he was clearly in the strike zone, and Kulpa thought he was in the strike zone because he flinched as if to call a strike for a split-second. But he incorrectly ruled it was a hit batter, despite the fact the rule is a batter hit in the strike zone will not be awarded first base (plus Conforto made no effort to get out of the way). Kulpa ruled incorrectly, he knew he ruled incorrectly, and yet, there was no recourse to correct the call. Why? Because “judgment calls” are not reviewable.
Of course, we don’t want every ball or strike call to be subject to review, but if a manager wants to challenge a very important strike call, why not? Why do we say “these plays are important enough to be reviewed so we get it right, but these plays are subject only to an umpire’s judgment”? If we all agree the strike zone is an objective box that theoretically exists, and not some subjective idea left to the whims of Angel Hernandez, why can’t we review some ball/strike calls?
What do you think about instant replay in baseball? Can it be tweaked or should we ditch it entirely?