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MLB Analysis: Can Replay Really Improve Baseball?

Major League Baseball has language in its new collective bargaining agreement that calls for the expansion of the use of video replay in adjudicating certain calls on the field. We know at least two possible scenarios for replay include fair and foul balls as well as helping umpires determine whether or not a ball was caught in the air.

A great many people are already welcoming this addition to baseball's rules. But, for all the pleas to "just get the call right," something just doesn't feel right about increasing video replay in baseball.

The prevailing thought is that embracing video replay will ultimately eliminate costly umpiring errors, famous errors like those made by Jim Joyce and Don Denkinger, two men who are household names to baseball fans for blown calls.

Prevailing thought says expanded use of instant replay would make egregious errors like those a thing of the past. Some fans are in favor of eventually expanding replay to include anything from force outs to—as some have even called for—balls and strikes.

Embrace it, and replay could bring us into a new and wonderful age in baseball where there is no doubt the contest is settled fairly and accurately, on the field of play, with precise calls. Real baseball fans would be fools to oppose such an obvious benefit to the game they love.

Yet, something still seems off.

Some of those who favor replay believe all of those who oppose replay are either luddites or simpletons, fools who are falling for one of several logical fallacies. The list of fallacious arguments against replay is filled with terms you may remember from your Introductory Logic course.

One trap opponents of instant replay could fall in is what's known as an "appeal to authority." This would catch anyone who quotes players or managers who have spoken out against replay and uses those quotes as evidence against expanding it. That's a bad argument, according to the textbooks.

At the same time, this thought process prohibits those in favor of replay from using quotes from Buck Showalter, who feels expanded use of replay would be so successful it would only make us wonder why we didn't switch to it years ago. This article quotes Showalter's prediction for a Utopian world of baseball under video surveillance. This is the poor argument Bud Selig used a couple of years ago.

Umpire Jim Joyce admittedly blew a call that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game back in June of 2010. Everyone remembers it, and everyone remembers that Commissioner Selig not only declined to reverse the call, but also used the controversial game to point out that he was against the expansion of replay.

The Commissioner said he had talked to luminaries in Major League Baseball, and from what they told him, "Most baseball people are really against instant replay." Appealing to general managers and owners doesn't make Selig wrong, but it's an argument that sets itself up for criticism.

Another logical fallacy waiting to entrap opponents of instant replay is the dreaded "appeal to tradition." This one makes those against replay look like crotchety old-timers who don't want the game to change.

People can be against change because they feel it is bad for the game, but they need to be careful. They can be ridiculed by those who would note that we'd still have segregation in baseball had some traditionalists had their way. To be sure, it's not right to oppose something because it means a change, even if changing something is wrong or undesirable. A 200-year history without replay does not mean replay is invalid.

Others against replay already have argued that the very first foray into implementing such technology, like what has already been used for home run boundaries, would open a "Pandora's Box." They fear replay is already leading us down a slippery slope that could end up with every call reviewed by laser sensors spanning the entirety of the field, perhaps even culminating in R2D2 calling balls and strikes.

Yes, that doomsday scenario of a "slippery slope" is yet another logical fallacy. This one involves a terrible outcome stemming from some new rule or law, for instance.

Bad consequences are possible after change, but it's hard for that arguer to get his case heard when he makes leaps all the way to his dreadful scenario while skipping over several more likely points in between that could surface before we ever get to such a horrible state. The illogical argument as it pertains to replay in baseball goes something like this:

"If we expand replay, where will it stop? Eventually, every play at first will be replayed, and the game, which often takes too long already, will take even longer. This will drive people from the game. Revenue for Major League Baseball will fall. Young children will no longer have dreams of playing professional baseball. Little League enrollment will fall off dramatically. Eventually, no children will even play baseball, and the sport will be wiped off the face of the earth."

Well, that obviously ends in hyperbole. There's no way replay could spell the end of baseball. But even though that's true and "getting the call right" doesn't seem to carry any negative consequences, something still seems bad about it.

Given that the case against replay is fraught with the potential for so many perilously poor arguments, where in the world can I turn to express what is becoming a growing abhorrence for replay in any sport, let alone baseball?

Maybe this is where I should have a little faith. Maybe baseball won't follow the path of the National Football League, where replay has become its own game within a game and where dozens of high-definition looks don't always provide a definite answer, anyway.

Not to mention the fact that replay has the side effect of sucking the joy out of nearly every big play, since nearly every big play could potentially be overturned and has to endure the deepest of analysis before we know if a play even will stand. Furthermore, replay causes a break in the action and makes the game longer than necessary, something that's already a concern in baseball.

In the NFL, there is football strategy—Xs and Os, as they like to say. But there's also the strategy of dealing with replay. A coach has to decide when to throw the challenge flag, and when that flag is thrown, we are no longer watching a football game.

Now we are watching officials examine a play with incredible scrutiny, scrutiny that sometimes leads to announcers disagreeing with each other on what the call should be. In fact, several broadcasts now bring in an official to serve as the "replay expert" in the booth, and even the expert has predicted a different conclusion from what was eventually called on the field. Is that "getting the call right?"

Consider this quote about replay in football:

"When instant replay began, everybody thought we were going to get a piece of film that's absolutely going to nail it down," said Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials. "Guess what? You can look at a clip and I can look at a clip and we can see two different things."

Maybe that wouldn't happen in baseball. Maybe MLB will implement something that doesn't put an arbitrary number on how many challenges a manager could use. Maybe they will only choose certain plays to review and have an umpire watching in the booth, taking the onus off the managers. Maybe we won't have to examine every single double-play ball to make sure the middle infielder doesn't use the "neighborhood play" at second. Maybe.

However, even the best implementation of replay can't keep some calls from still carrying a certain degree of uncertainty. And, if that's the case, how do we ever get to a point where we know, absolutely, that the right call is made?

Maybe the majority of players, coaches, and fans still will embrace replay. Maybe calls will increase for expansion until we see Pitch-f/x systems in place to call balls and strikes. Bill James has even argued that we should put sensors on the bases and boundaries so calls can be made electronically and negate even the need for video evidence. Maybe that's the only way to guarantee we absolutely get the call right.

Hopefully that type of change would make the game better and not just impose too much technology on a ball and stick game. But for that type of dramatic change to take place, baseball will have to take a look at its defined rules.

As it stands, baseball is played "under jurisdiction of one or more umpires." For those umpires to yield their jurisdiction to electronic sensors would seem to deviate from one of the main commandments of the game. Of course, in many ways the game would still be under the jurisdiction of umpires, even if they relied on video replay to help on a call. In fact, the umpires' jurisdiction might reach unanticipated levels should video evidence rule a caught ball as trapped.

Video replay may be able to rectify an out into a safe call, but something would have to be done for any potential baserunners, and an umpire, who already had the right to place runners as he sees fit on calls such as fan interference, may also have to place baserunners on an overturned diving attempt at a catch on a fly ball to the gap with runners on.

But again, such calls might be worth it if gross errors are eliminated. Arguing against this may just be a silly attempt to hold on to something that's not attainable anymore. Not when the technology is there to settle disputes as easily and finally as what is seen in professional tennis, which, other than a rogue call or two, is widely accepted by its players and fans.

So, in the end, maybe all there is to offer against instant replay is a gut feeling, a feeling without concrete evidence that the game doesn't need replay to take it into the coming years any more than it needed steroids to save it in the 1990s.

It's just a game, yet it has somehow always been more than a game. As cold, calculating, and valuable as all the statistical analysis in the world may be, it doesn't mean the players aren't playing a game. Baseball didn't need a rash of homers to keep its true base watching, and it won't need replay to validate it.

Isn't all we really need from umpires is impartiality and a strong desire to get their calls right? They already use technology to grade their performance. Maybe that's as far as it really needs to go in a game that so often is a metaphor for life. And in life, you go with the calls you're given, whether right or wrong. You deal with the bad breaks, and they can even define you.

David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.

Get more great baseball stuff over at The Hardball Times.


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