Instant replay is here to stay.
Most of the reaction I saw when it was first announced that MLB would be implementing an instant replay system were overwhelmingly positive, but after just a few weeks of regular season play the doubters have some fuel for their position.
It needs some fixing and fine-tuning as most new systems do, but it is still better than the alternative.
For an excellent counterpoint to the ones I'm about to make, read Chris Chrisman's brief article on the subject. He writes:
"By the end of Saturday's game, the 2014 season has amassed over 13,000 plate appearances, over 2,800 hits, over 9,100 put outs, and over 4,500 total bases, many of which contain at least one element that is now reviewable. Out of this assortment of plays, throws, catches, and batted balls, only 23 umpire calls have been overturned, a microbe in the cosmos of a season only two weeks old."
That might sound like a minuscule number when put in such a clever perspective, but 23 baseball plays that had to be overturned means that already this season there have been 23 plays that were called correctly that would have been called incorrectly in all seasons prior with zero chance of them being overturned.
To me, that is worth it already. I was watching the Chicago Cubs take on the St. Louis Cardinals during one of those 23, which was a runner called safe initially at first with two outs that allowed a run to score.
If the play had stood the Cardinals would have gotten a run in a close game (at the time) that they did not earn. This is exactly the kind of call that I had in mind when advocating for instant replay before its implementation.
It was a bad, struggling team on the road against a paragon of National League baseball and one of the game's best pitchers (Adam Wainright) who was cooking. Caught up in the momentum and the exceptional defensive effort (compared with the lackluster play of the Cubs all day) the umpire assumed the close play went to the better team.
I have seen this burn the Rockies so many times it hurts and as soon as the umpire signaled "out," I leaped to my feet and yelled "this is getting overturned, that run is coming off the board, and this inning is over!"
Having that feeling instead of the cold resignation that my team just got hosed and there is literally nothing anyone can do about it is worth all the wait time in the world.
It's completely secondary that the Cubs went on to lose that game in blowout fashion. Every team and every player deserves the best proximity of fairness possible; otherwise sports lose their soul, the box score is the great equalizer.
A lot has been said about the time factor. I admit it's not operating at optimal levels yet, but I would be interested to know what price of time detractors of replay would find reasonable to making sure that calls are made correctly.
Games (and perfect games) often hinge on plays like the one I saw go against -- and then for -- the Cubs. The kind of replay that exists now could have given the Rockies a close game or maybe even two in the 2009 NLDS against the Philadelphia Phillies.
I can't remember which TBS announcer made the comment that Jim Tracy had argued for the cycle in that series; a bad missed call at each base, all of which would have been overturned easily under the new system and taken way less time. The arguments go on even longer in playoff games.
Let's not be blind of the new systems weaknesses, however. We have already seen that it does not eliminate arguments altogether. It can definitely create an even more flammable situation when replay is used and the call is still missed.
And also balls and strikes are still being called (at an alarmingly poor rate) by human beings and that is bound to lead to some yelling here and there.
There are additionally unintended consequences due to the way the rules have been written and are being interpreted early on. As Matt discussed in this video -- which became immediately very relevant that night when Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso dropped a ball on purpose trying to take advantage of this oddity -- MLB has perhaps accidentally created a whole new age of how baseball works.
The same way no one had ever heard the term "through the process" before NFL replay -- and the same way certain catches in the NFL that almost certainly would have been ruled catches before replay are now being overturned (Calvin Johnson) -- the nature of "call on the field," "inconclusive evidence," and now baseball's own version of "through the process" are muddying the discourse a bit.
The only way to justify the way the Alonso play was called is in a new baseball world where the call on the field holds way more weight than any potential overturn. The umpire determined (correctly) in real time that Alonso intended to drop the ball to create a double-play and immediately ruled a catch.
Because his intention would also be clear on replay, it doesn't really matter that other calls have been overturned in the opposite direction (transfers originally ruled catches and overturned to drops) because in those scenarios it was not the intention of the fielder to drop the ball on purpose making the gray area between a catch and a drop a bit wider.
This still needs to be shored up with some specific language on what does or does not constitute a completed catch when it comes to transfers.
It is also at issue with Chris' statistics above. I have already seen a number of calls that weren't overturned because camera angles were bad and/or because MLB and the umpires (and their uber-powerful union) purposefully want as few overturned calls as humanly possible.
But, of course, for some this will always come back to the time delay issue. Chrisman again:
Alas, the "instant" nature of instant replay also has proven aspirational. According to Nick Groke in this morning's Denver Post, the 71 replays so far have taken an average of 2 minutes 15 seconds. That's 159 minutes. Carry that out over the course of the season, and that makes for 33 hours of waiting on umpires, with no assurance that they'll correct wrong calls. And as anyone who watched Friday night's Rockies game knows, the 2:15 average is over-conservative, since it doesn't include the time it takes for managers to slow-walk out to the field, stalling until they get word from the dugout over whether or not to challenge a play.
He is absolutely right that these measurements are underselling the delays and that there is no guarantee the right call will be made. But so far I'm unconvinced the delays are any more extensive than the screaming fits they have (mostly) replaced that we weren't measuring with stopwatches before.
Furthermore, all of these issues can be solved with some minor adjustments and over the natural course of time. The ultimate purpose of these rules is to prevent a kind of baseball "tragedy" where an important game is swung on a pivotal missed call. We are still in the very small sample size stage of instant replay in baseball and a 2:30 second delay -- hell a 5:00 delay -- won't mean anything for the no-hitter that is preserved or the team that deserves to advances in the playoffs.
I have made my opinions on the "problem" of overlong baseball games known. I would also like to offer Al Leiter's solution to solving it: calling the high strike. This is something I've always had issue with, but never considered in this context.
If umpires just called the bottom-of-the-letters strike all the time, games would speed up quite a bit. I found it fascinating when former Rockies pitcher Jason Hirsh told the Purple Dino Podcast guys that his biggest adjustment from the minor leagues to the big leagues was getting used to the much lower strike zone.
Or we could impose a one-foot-in-the-box-at-all-times rule.
My point is that we shouldn't create a false dichotomy between getting more calls right (no matter how many, we are getting more calls right) and having non-excruciatingly long baseball games. There are other ways to solve the issue of long games without sacrificing a vital aspect of instilling fairness.
So I ask the detractors again, to what extent should we prioritize brevity and convenience? When will instant replay have proven itself? Is it really that difficult to fix and refine the system?
If I've taken one non-Rockies specific thing away from the most recent road trip, it's that umpiring needs the aide of more technology not less. The inconsistent strike zones in San Francisco and San Diego were, quite frankly, embarrassing for MLB. Or at least they should be.
We can review you. We have the technology! And we can't go back now. We have already entered into the world where we admit that umpires make mistakes that can, and should, be overruled by technology. Is it imperfect? Of course. But now is the time for making it more perfect now that we have finally broken down the most important barrier.
We should not run scared at the first sign of a few glitches and anomalies.
We should debate what needs to be fixed and how. The time for debating whether or not instant replay is good for baseball has come and gone. We won. And the next Armando Galarraga will go into the history books as a triumph and not a tragedy.
Isn't that worth waiting for?