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Friday, October 30, 2009

The Mad Rush to Replay

Game 2 of the World Series featured two more controversial calls, one "against" each team. As things turned out, the score prior to the botched calls was the score when the game ended, which doesn't necessarily mean the outcome of the game wasn't influenced, but does dull the pain a little. No Phillies fan should argue that umpiring was the reason why they lost. A. J. Burnett was masterful. Mariano Rivera was himself. And, perhaps, Charlie Manuel left Pedro in the game just a shade too long.

Like most baseball fans, I've been dissatisfied with the umpiring this postseason and tempted to endorse increased use of instant replay. But I want to point out that instituting replay would not be as simple as some proponents suggest.

Exhibit A:

In an press release this morning, the umpires admitted that Chase Utley had been safe on the double-play in the top of the eighth (the second controversy of the evening); however, they declared that the double-play in the bottom of the seventh, begun when Ryan Howard backhanded a line drive, remained inconclusive. I concur. Although Buck and McCarver acted as though Howard had clearly grabbed the ball on a short hop, the replay was not all that obvious.

Even had it been, what would the ruling have been?

The replay showed clearly that Howard (probably assuming he had caught the ball on a hop) made a couple steps toward first. He only turned to throw (wildly) to second once he heard the umpire declare his catch an out. I'll point out, first of all, that, regardless, he should've continued on to first, as tagging the bag would've forced Posada and given the Phillies the third out. In the heat of the moment - perhaps a little shocked by the call - he made the split-second decision to throw to second, to force the lead runner instead, who was still in the process of advancing to third on the play.

Let's say that a replay revealed, conclusively, that Howard caught the ball on the short hop. That doesn't change the fact that the umpire's ruling on the field altered Howard's course of action. What should the umpires do? Rule the batter out? The runner out? Everybody safe? Whatever the were to choose, the post facto decision would seem to portray an advantage to one team or the other. The Yankees would argue that everybody should be safe because Howard's throw pulled Rollins off the bag, while the Phillies would argue that there should be at least one out because Howard would've touched first base had he not heard the umpire yell "out."

In a scenario like this, the on-the-field ruling, mistaken or not, can, at least, be defended as unbiased.

Exhibit B:

Let's imagine a scenario similar to the one made infamous in the ALDS between the Yankees and Twins, when Phil Cossi ruled a Joe Mauer hit to the opposite field foul, when it proved clearly to be fair. The ruling in this particular case might've been easy. Since there was nobody on and the ball ricocheted into the stands, the umps could've just put Mauer on second base. However, the ball could've just as easily remained in play. What if there had been men on first and second? Fast guys, for arguments sake, like Denard Span and Orlando Cabrera. What would the ruling be then?

Because there was less than two outs and Melky Cabrera had a legitimate shot at making a catch, the runners would not have taken off on contact, nor would they have advanced after the ball landed, because Cossi immediately gestured for a foul ball. Similarly, Cabrera would not have attempted to track the ball down, nor made a throw into the infield. Therefore, though replay might reveal that Mauer deserved a hit, there would be no clear way for the umpires to determine where the runners, including Mauer, would've ended up, or where the Yankees might've had a play.

The Yankees would argue, clearly, that it wasn't hit that deep, Melky was perfectly positioned to play the ball off the wall, and he would've made a strong throw to the cut-off man, forcing Span to hold at third (after all, he wasn't running until after the ball landed and would have to be conservative with nobody out). The Twins would argue that the ball was destined to bounce over Cabrera and rattle around in the corner, thus allowing O.C. to score from first.

What's the right call?

Do they split the difference, putting Mauer on second, Cabrera on third, and giving Span a run? Neither team would be quite satisfied. Nor would we, as fans. Suddenly we'd be facing something that baseball (unlike football) has never condoned, a situation in which presumed outcomes, instead of actual plays, could dictate the result of a game, or even a playoff series. What might have been among the most exciting moments of the ALDS would instead be reduced to a prolonged review process and a slow-motion walkthrough, Span touching the plate at a leisurely jog rather than with a sprint and a slide.

I could go on, no doubt. (What happens if the umpire's decide to reward a run after a disputed play which had originally resulted in the third out? Do they make a player come back onto the field just to touch the plate?)

I don't blame people for wanting the umpires to "get it right," but I can also understand why Bud Selig views increased replay with skepticism. No matter what adjustments or limitations are given to instant replay, there will always be plays which come down to somebody's subjective opinion of what "right" is. I, personally, would prefer that that person were not sitting in a temperature-controlled luxury suite in front of a bank of High Definition televisions with a cup of hot coffee, a headset, and a joystick.

Baseball isn't perfect. Such is life.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Hippeaux, the "mad rush toward replay" has begun afresh following Galarraga's perfect game. What do you think? Has your position changed? What kinds of limitations would you put on replay?