Instant Replay Has Changed The Game(s)

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Umpires make frequent errors in calling balls and strikes. Why not use technology to fix the problem. Photo credit: armandoone.
Umpires make frequent errors in calling balls and strikes. Why not use technology to fix the problem? Image by armandoone.

If we’d had instant replay in the past, Armando Galarraga would be one of 24 pitchers who pitched perfect games in 135 years of major league baseball. But we didn’t, and he isn’t.

Instead, he’s just one of 801 pitchers who have tossed one-hitters, including 24 who did it at least four times, and two, Nolan Ryan and Bob Feller, who accomplished the feat twelve times each.

Instant replay has changed all three major sports in the US, and not, in many respects, for the better. A play in the recent baseball playoffs revealed a flaw that’s intrinsic to instant replay and cannot be overcome. Football recognized the flaw long ago and it affects the officiating as well as the outcomes.

Baseball hasn’t yet grasped the implications of a play with an absurd conclusion. You can’t hold back progress, it’s true, but you can make sure that the progress is real. Major sports have done a haphazard job of utilizing the vast resources of the modern age.

The Best of Replay

There’s no doubting what instant replay can do to make the game fairer. Incorrect calls can be reversed. On replay, it is apparent that Jim Joyce got the call at first base wrong and it should have been the final out of¬†Galarraga’s perfect game.

In that instance, I would have applauded instant replay. Many calls are straightforward. The runner was safe or out (baseball); the shooter got off his winning three-pointer before the time expired or the dribbler stepped on the sideline (basketball); the passer was beyond scrimmage (football). And then there are the times when it’s not so clear. Sometimes one camera angle seems to show the runner is out and another shows he’s safe.

Sometimes the camera’s view is blocked by a player or a referee. And sometimes it’s just too close to make a decision. In the latter case, the call on the field stands. Does this make any sense? Aren’t we just conceding that officials make mistakes and the result is not always fair? But there’s more, much more, wrong with instant replay. There is a shortcoming that cannot be overcome no matter how precise or clear the image.

A Call That Stops Play

After a few headscratching incidents, football caught on to the fact that there is an occasion on which it makes no sense to consult instant replay: When the call on the field stops play, but reversal would have let it continue (which it didn’t because the players thought the play was over).

On a close call between fumble and down-by-contact, the referee will be biased towards fumble, which is reviewable. Image by: GaborfromHungary.
On a close call between fumble and down-by-contact, the referee will be biased towards fumble, which is reviewable. Image by GaborfromHungary.

In football, when a player fumbles the ball as he’s about to — or just has — hit the ground, if the referee calls down-by-contact and he’s wrong, there is no remedy. The players stop playing when they hear the whistle, so nobody tries to recover the fumble. In football, there can be no replay of a down-by-contact ruling.

Now let’s see what happened in the recent baseball playoffs. In the second game of the Division Series between the Dodgers and the Mets, Chase Utley of the Dodgers slid into second base and slammed into the shortstop who was trying to complete a double play.

The fact that Utley was not trying to get to the base — in fact he never did touch the base — is a matter for another editorial. But he broke shortstop Ruben Tejada’s leg. Tejeda had tried to tag the base to get the force play, and the umpire called Utley out, but in fact Tejeda never touched the base either. Utley, seeing the out call, ran off the field. Time was called as Tejeda lay on the ground. What to do?

The replay was consulted and it was clear that neither player had touched second base. The umpires then made the absurd call that the runner was safe. How can a runner be safe if he doesn’t touch the base? In any event, Utley was allowed to take second base and the game went on.

Baseball needs to recognize that this situation is analogous to the down-by-contact call in football. Since the out call ends the play at second base, no player expects to have to go back and tag the base. The call simply cannot be reviewable, because if the right call were made, the players would react completely differently — and nobody can foresee the result.

In the actual case, the umpires were, in effect, saying that if the right call had been made, Utley would have gotten to the base safely. This is not something the umpires should decide. This play is not completely analogous to the football play. In football, the whistle stops all play, while in the Utley incident, the out call only stops the players from worrying about any play at second base. Other plays could continue — the ball is live — but the problem is the same.

How do you fix the problem of the incorrect call? A call that alters the behavior of the players in such a way that if the right call were made nobody knows the outcome cannot be reviewable. In fact, if the umpire had made the correct call, which is to say no call at all, the players would have realized that nobody had touched the base and would have responded accordingly. I believe it is just as likely that the second baseman would have gotten the ball from the incapacitated Tejeda and tagged the base or Utley for the out.

The Effect of Non-reviewable Calls on Officiating

In football, the officials know that a down-by-contact call cannot be reviewed. They therefore are biased towards allowing play to continue when there’s a fumble — which can be reviewable. This skews the fumble calls when the replay evidence is inconclusive.

The Worst Thing About Replay — The Delay

I find it impossible to believe that replays have to take so long. I have seen plays ¬†on which the call is clearly either right or wrong, and the announcers are in total agreement — but still it takes five minutes for the officials to make the call. Furthermore, the delay can actually affect the game.

In last year’s NBA playoffs between Chicago and Cleveland, one game came down to the last few seconds. Cleveland probably was going to get the ball (that was why there was a replay) and would need a basket in a couple of seconds. They had no timeouts left, so in ordinary circumstances they would have no time to draw up a play. As it was, the replay took a couple of minutes, Cleveland planned a play, scored a basket, and won the game.

Technology Could Be Used So Much Better

The era of the use of technology to assist officiating has just begun. One day soon, the moguls of major league baseball will figure out that they can eliminate the greatest source of error in the game — incorrect ball and strike calls. What is so difficult about setting up sensors that will tell you if the ball passed through the strike zone? Think about it, Commissioner Manfred.

© Copyright 2015 Jon Plotkin, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Sports
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