Bill James' Take on Replay and MLB's 'Perfect' Game

Matthew HartiganContributor IMay 1, 2014

To Err Is Human Element
To Err Is Human ElementHunter Martin/Getty Images

This season, Major League Baseball constructed its new replay command center in order to bring its own outdated umpiring system into the 21st century, but there's a catch. In doing so, it redefined the on-field ruling for the game's simplest rule to include control during transfer for any subsequent throw. In its attempt to get the call right, it got it wrong.

In the wake of Thursday's blown call, baseball is scrambling to cover its bases and recommitting itself to a phenomenon replay was supposed to eliminate: umpires' interpretation. 

"There is no requirement that the fielder successfully remove the ball from his glove in order for it to be ruled a catch," said MLB on Friday. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, league sources confessed that, once upon a time, the call was made differently between the American and National Leagues, undermining consistency across baseball in one of the game's most notorious constants.

Inconsistency in the way the game's fundamental rules are called should be a thing of the past. Umpiring conformity is critical to competitive balance.

Or is it?

Baseball's famed "neighborhood" rulings on double and triple plays, or a player's timing leaving the bag on a caught fly ball aren't even reviewable under the new rules. Now the league has acknowledged that everything from a catch to balls and strikes is subject to the interpretation of the game's on-field umpiring staff.

I caught up with noted baseball historian Bill James, who provided his own take on refereeing America's "perfect" game.

"From the beginning of baseball, until the 1960s, we took constant steps to improve umpiring. We started with one umpire, a volunteer. and then we had one umpire who was paid, and then one umpire who was a professional, and then two umpires and then three and then four. We started with no foul lines, and then we painted in the foul lines, so people would know if the ball was fair or foul. We started with no foul pole and then we added the foul pole so you could tell the same about a home run. All of these things were done to get more decisions right.

"And then the 1950s came and we decided this was the perfect game and innovation in umpiring came to an end. We’re finally moving forward again. Finally reaching the point again where we’re saying, 'You know, we can improve this game.'

"I don’t think it’s a good thing, that it’s ever been a good thing when the guy sitting home watching his TV knows more about whether a runner was out or safe than the umpire does. It’s stupid, frankly. I’m not saying it’s gonna work the first time or that it will ever work perfectly, but you gotta try. You gotta make sure that the guys making the calls have the best information and not just the guys watching."

And baseball tried. They spent 32,178 man hours and laid 172.14 miles of video cable to institute their new, off-site replay command center. The center is equipped to handle as many as 12 (and a minimum of seven) live camera feeds from every major league ballpark on a system of 37 high-definition video screens.

They also developed—in conjunction with in-house startup MLBAM—a new player tracking system that should address a number of these issues. But the system's relative unavailability (currently operational in only three major league parks) and its unproven track record leave the league in pretty much the same place it started: at the mercy of its umpires.