Cardinals vs. Braves Controversy: Would Instant Replay Have Made the Difference?

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Cardinals vs. Braves Controversy: Would Instant Replay Have Made the Difference?
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Matt Holliday and Pete Kozma let a fly ball drop between them in the eighth inning of the NL wild-card playoff.

How abysmal was the infield-fly call from left field umpire Sam Holbrook in the eighth inning of the NL Wild Card Game between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals

It was such a terrible call—one that cost the Braves one run and perhaps even two—that there's no way to redeem it. Even if MLB had an expanded instant-replay system, the call very likely could not have been changed. 

Let's look at the explanation of what constitutes an infield fly from MLB's official rules—something you'll see quite a few times over the next 12 to 24 hours—and see if there's anything that could potentially be reviewed with wider instant replay.

"An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive or an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out."

So what exactly would instant replay review in this scenario? Did Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma make an "ordinary effort" by drifting back into shallow left field on a fly ball from the Braves' Andrelton Simmons? 

Would a replay allow for interpretation of whether or not Kozma was making an extraordinary effort by running into shallow left field while looking over his shoulder in an attempt to make the play? That's a judgment call. 

Kozma appeared to be ready to make the catch, holding out his right arm to call off left fielder Matt Holliday. He drifted under the ball, until abruptly peeling back, causing the ball to seemingly drop in for a hit. 

But Holbrook raised his right arm to signal for an infield-fly call, presumably believing that Kozma would make the catch.

Would replay review Holbrook's perception of the play? Was he incorrect to believe that Kozma would catch the ball? Would an expanded instant-replay system also incorporate mind-reading technology? 

One of the initial reactions after the play occurred was "Shouldn't an infield fly be in the infield?" As mentioned, Kozma was in shallow left field as he went back on the fly ball. When the ball dropped onto the grass, it was practically between the cut of the infield grass and the outfield warning track. 

That seems like a pretty generous definition of "infield." But is that something else that could fall under the purview of instant replay? Again, this was a judgment call on Holbrook's part. Is there some point over which a ball crosses when it goes from infield to outfield? Would instant replay make that imaginary point clearer? 

The intent of the infield-fly rule is to prevent an infielder from intentionally dropping a fly ball with runners on second and third to create a double play.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Even if Fredi Gonzalez could call for an instant replay, what would it review?

But was there any such possibility on the fly ball to Kozma? If you watch the video of the play, Dan Uggla stayed close enough to second base that he would not have been thrown out had Kozma deliberately dropped the ball. The same goes for David Ross at first base. 

Yet again, we venture into judgment territory that instant replay could not have overturned. Would replay show that Uggla and Ross had not ventured far from their bases and thus couldn't have been thrown out, therefore no infield-fly call?  

[UPDATE: A few readers have rightly pointed out that Uggla and Ross would have been thrown out at the next base had Kozma intentionally dropped the ball. I should have gotten that detail right. Nonetheless, instant replay still wouldn't clear this up. After reviewing the play, would umpires be able to determine whether Uggla should be allowed to score? Or would all the runners just get one base?]

Here is another excerpt from MLB's official rules that makes it clear why instant replay couldn't have remedied this situation by overturning Holbrook's call. 

"The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder," the rule further explains.

"The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire’s judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately."

If the infield fly is not a play that can be appealed, where would instant replay come in? This call comes down to the judgment of the umpire making the ruling. Judgment calls can't—or shouldn't—fall under the sort of plays that are subject to review.

There is definitely a place for wider instant replay in MLB. Baseball saw plenty of terrible calls this season, which almost always ignites the argument that the current system has to be expanded immediately.

But that can be applied to safe-or-out, fair-or-foul and home run calls. A wider system wouldn't allow for a play like this infield-fly call to be overturned. 

As it turns out, according to USA Today's Paul White, Holbrook may have made the right call. So perhaps the lead of this article should be reviewed under instant replay. Or is that a judgment call?

 

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