Commentary

In defense of expanded replay

MLB's new system is getting more calls right than ever, so what's wrong with that?

Updated: April 18, 2014, 1:01 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We're two and a half weeks into baseball's beloved new replay era, and here's my advice to those of you who are shouting about replay at the top of your lungs:

Settle down. Please.

We may not know yet where replay is going, but I'll tell you what it's not:

It's not a "disaster." It's not "a complete mess." It's not "ludicrous." It's not "a complete failure." It's not impossible "to have any faith in the system."

I've seen all those characterizations streaking across the Internet sky over the past week. I disagree with every one of them.

There's really only one thing that this replay system is not, at this point:

It's not perfect.

What a shock.

[+] EnlargeJohn Farrell
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsRed Sox manager John Farrell was ejected Sunday and later fined for arguing about an overturned call against the Yankees.

I'm not saying there haven't been decisions emanating out of those replay headphones that made me scream, "What the heck" (or something like that). And I'm definitely not going to claim that last weekend is going to rank real high on anybody's list of replay's finest moments.

But it's the overreaction to those calls that has been ludicrous. Not the system that produced them.

When exactly did anyone ever promise us that once those handy dandy replay machines came into our lives, there would never be a missed call in any major league baseball game for the rest of our lives? C'mon, kids. That was never the idea here.

Rewind the debate to last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. To that nutty era when we used to argue constantly that it was time for baseball to lurch into the 21st century already and start looking at a video screen.

Did we say back then that we wanted this sport, or needed this sport, or expected this sport, to get every single call right? Nobody ever said that. All we said was this:

There's this newfangled technology that would allow MLB to get a lot more calls correct than it's getting via the sacred "human element." So use it already. Please.

So what do you know. They actually listened. And now, two and a half weeks in, there have still been a couple of missed calls. So it's a disaster? Really?

Tony La Russa said something to me this week that I'd like to think would put all this in better perspective for managers like Boston's John Farrell, who had a game last Saturday decided by a missed call by the replay poobahs and had every right to be ticked off about it.

"Before this system," La Russa said, "all you could do as a manager, if a mistake was made [by the umpires], was go in, watch the replay [after the game] and say, 'Well, that call was blown, and hopefully it'll even out later on.' But now you have a chance to correct that blown call. And the ability to do that has already had a direct impact on what the final score was a number of times."

La Russa estimated there have been "five or six games" already in which, basically, the right team won -- because of replay. In other words, justice was served because replay fixed a missed call that, in the bad old days, would have changed the outcome.

We've done our best to fact-check that pronouncement, and to try to determine if that estimate is high, low or right on target. In truth, it's almost impossible to come up with a definitive number, because we're not psychic enough to know what might have happened in these games without replay. But it's more than zero. That's a fact.

ESPN Stats & Information researcher Doug Kern has found four games in which we can pretty much absolutely, positively say that the outcome was changed -- correctly -- because replay came to the rescue and reversed a play that was originally called wrong. (See accompanying chart.)

There are undoubtedly others. A study by MLB's analytics group says there have been 11 games where the winning team drew a direct "benefit" from a review. In truth, there are too many what-ifs attached for anyone to say for sure. But either way, that's somewhere between four and 11 more games that turned out right, which would have allowed the wrong team to win in the archaic, pre-replay era.

So who misses those bad old days? I don't. A vote for the bad old days is a vote for getting many more calls wrong -- and you prefer that. You understand that, right? Doesn't seem like a real logical position to me. But whatever.

Even those of us who are onboard this replay train need to admit, though, that some of what we've seen so far ranges from "unacceptable" to "in obvious need of repair." So what are the big issues that need work? Here are some:

The manager shuffle

Please. Make this stop. Close call at first. Might have been right. Might have been wrong. So now here comes the manager, ambling slowly toward the infield.

Shuffles his feet. Asks the umpires: "How's the family? How's the weather? Where'd you go to lunch? What's that in your teeth?" All in the name of killing time until his video expert phones the bench and lets him know whether to challenge the call or not.

(A) It's torture. (B) It's actually slowing up the replay process, not speeding it up. The solution seems obvious -- to the managers who are caught in the middle of this uncomfortable process, anyhow: "They need to take us out of this," one manager said, "and just review the calls."

That works for me. It might not work for the powers that be. But based on the feedback we've heard, there's a 100 percent probability this part of the replay system will be addressed after the season -- somehow or other.

Challenge those challenges

What do you make of these numbers? Through Thursday, there had been 105 replay reviews -- and only 38 calls overturned. What does that tell us?

Well, here's what it tells La Russa loud and clear: We've seen too many instances of managers challenging just for the heck of it, because they found that toy in their toy chest and wanted to play with it.

"We've had a lot of guys going out there much more than they would have before," La Russa said. "Like the play at first base, two outs, nobody on. And guys are challenging that. We need to correct that. ...

"One of the ways the game would benefit, and would keep the flow of the game going, is [if managers would stick to] the classic challenge play -- that big call that they would have come out and argued in the past."

For weeks now, we've heard managers say there's no reason they should ever get a challenge wrong, not when their video guys can see the play before they ever challenge it. So if we're seeing this many futile challenges, it's because many are unnecessary.

The human element lives

No one has clearly explained what happened last Saturday at Yankee Stadium, when the infamous Dean Anna call was clearly missed -- both on the field and in the replay room. But all indications are that this was more a failure of human judgment than it was a failure of technology.

And that's a reminder. Umpires are still human, whether they're working a game on the field or sitting in that replay command center. So they're going to make mistakes.

That one happened to be particularly embarrassing. And whatever caused that human error, it needs to be addressed. But there's also something all of us need to keep in mind:

When those umpires sit in front of those replay machines, it's the first time in their lives they've ever done that. This is on-the-job training. In real time. With real consequences.

I think often of something that much-respected umpire Fieldin Culbreth said to me in spring training: "I've umpired 25 years out there [on the field]. I've got as many minutes in the replay booth as you do."

So we're going to need to grade these umpires on a curve -- at least for a while, until every crew has rotated through New York and done time in the replay booth at least once. That will have happened, from what we understand, by mid-June. After that, we might not be so tolerant.

Make up for lost time

Baseball still needs to figure out what its ultimate end game is on replay. Is it more important to get the calls right, no matter how long it takes? Or should those replay umps be feeling pressure to keep the game moving and only overturn obvious mistakes?

Well, here's the data, through Wednesday:

  • Average time of all reviews: 2 minutes, 3 seconds.

  • Longest review: 5 minutes, 12 seconds (on an upheld fair/foul call in an April 2 Cubs-Pirates game).

  • Shortest review: 30 seconds (on an overturned play at second in Saturday's Tigers-Padres game).

  • Just 11 of 105 reviews took longer than 3 minutes.

  • 34 reviews took under 90 seconds -- and 20 took no more than 1:15.

So most of these reviews are being accomplished in a manageable period of time. And most of the long ones are being delayed by the use of multiple angles or the more complicated "X-Mo" technology, which isn't available instantly.

"Normally," La Russa said, "we can get it in a minute. If we had the super slow-mo available to us right away, we'd have most of them by the time the umpire puts his headset on. But some of these calls are really tough. And you need that super slow-mo to really get a good look at these calls."

MLB is hopeful that process can be sped up as everyone gets more familiar with the technology. But if not, I hope they all keep in mind that what really matters is calling the play right, not calling the play fast.

Now these aren't the only issues, obviously. The change in the interpretation of the transfer rule is a big topic unto itself, and only complicated by the use of replay. Placing runners after overturned calls will always be tricky. And the use of replay to review whether the catcher is blocking the plate hasn't resulted in a single overturned call, according to MLB's replay log -- which we find odd, or at least interesting.

But in the big picture, where's the evidence this has been "a complete mess"? I can't find it.

"My job is to see that big picture," said Braves president John Schuerholz, one of the key replay architects. "And I'm not going to try to claim that we have a perfect system. But it's better than we had before. And I believe we're greatly reducing the number of incorrect calls that were left standing in the past. So all in all, I think we're far better off than we were when the World Series ended last fall, because now we have the ability to get those calls right."

And you know what? Upon further review, he's 100 percent correct -- even if all the calls coming from his favorite replay room haven't been.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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