MLB Wants to Expand Instant Replay: A Comprehensive Look at the Proposed Deal

Gil ImberAnalyst IIDecember 14, 2011

MLB Wants to Expand Instant Replay: A Comprehensive Look at the Proposed Deal

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    Major League Baseball's newest proposed labor deal has been ratified by the players' union and is currently pending approval from the owners, executives and—most importantly—umpires.

    According to reports, the proposed deal calls for an expansion of video replay review. Per the new deal, instant replay will be expanded to include fair/foul calls, catch/trap calls and non-HR fan interference calls.

    Current instant replay guidelines already allow for video review of all potential home run calls. Fan interference boundary calls are accordingly reviewable as long as the possibility of a home run exists.

    Read on to discover how MLB, umpires and fans feel about expanded instant replay, for specific examples of what will and will not be reviewable under MLB's proposed deal and several reasons why the umpires should approve this deal.

Instant Replay and Baseball Philosophy: Purists and Progressives

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    When it comes to instant replay and baseball, there are generally two extremes.

    Baseball purists are resistant to the expansion of instant replay, worried that instant replay review jeopardizes baseball's human element. Those of the purist mindset also believe replay takes too long and interrupts the flow of a game that already borders on the realm of inordinate with an average duration of three hours.

    Baseball progressives welcome instant replay with open arms, unabated by the possibility of interjecting technology and taking away the unadulterated emotion of the sport. Progressives aren't worried about the game taking longer, the flow being disrupted or the bizarre charm of an umpire's missed call.

    At the end of the day—or "at the end of the replay"—progressives just want to get the call right.

    Progressives loathe incidents like umpire Richie Garcia's incorrect Jeffrey Maier call or ump Jim Joyce's June 2010 blown call that deprived Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game.

    On the other hand, purists defend the Maier incident as a case of the New York Yankees benefitting from the human element while pointing to the great sportsmanship demonstrated by Joyce and Galarraga in the aftermath of the near-perfecto.

    Purists point to the Joyce-Galarraga incident as a wonderful lesson in humanity and humility that came out of the game—a lesson only made possible thanks to the absence of instant replay.

    Progressives simply point to the fact that the call could have been corrected and Galarraga could have had his deserved perfect game.

    To each his own.

Fantasy Poll: Majority Support Instant Replay but Not Its Unbridled Expansion

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    A 2011 Umpire Ejection Fantasy League poll of 221 minor league, collegiate and amateur umpires and several fans of the game found 67-percent support for MLB's allowance of home-run boundary call reviews.

    As for MLB's current expansion proposals, that same poll found 36 percent support for including fair/foul calls, 30 percent support for adding catch/trap calls and 68 percent support for including all issues of fan interference.

    Nineteen percent of respondents indicated an outright disdain for replay. Accordingly, one-fifth of voters were baseball purists and would support the elimination of instant replay review entirely.

    Meanwhile, former umpire Don Denkinger—whose blown call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series is perhaps known as one of the biggest incorrect calls of all time—supports instant replay: "There are so many areas you can use instant replay...I didn't feel that way in '85, but I feel that way now."

Calls Currently Reviewable: Potential Home Runs

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    Currently Reviewable: Potential HR Boundary Calls

    When MLB was set to introduce limited instant replay review in 2008, they issued the following press release:

    Instant replay will apply only to home run calls—whether they are fair or foul, whether they have left the playing field, or whether they have been subject to fan interference. The decision to use instant replay will be made by the umpire crew chief, who also will make the determination as to whether or not a call should be reversed.

    Simple enough, right?

    Not quite.

    As Philadelphia Phillies fans will tell you, a Sept. 4, 2011 contest against the Florida Marlins (of Miami?) demonstrated that instant replay is more complicated than just the simple home run call.

    In the top of the sixth inning of that contest, Philadelphia's Hunter Pence hit a drive to deep right field. After an attempted play at the wall by Marlins right fielder Bryan Petersen, in which some fans foolishly reached over the fence in an attempt to catch the fly ball, the umpires elected to use instant replay to determine exactly what happened.

    Because the play involved a potential fair-ball boundary call, the umpires were authorized to employ replay under the terms in MLB's 2008 directive.

    Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was ejected by umpire Joe West for arguing the call of interference and his protest of the game was subsequently denied by MLB executive vice president for baseball operations Joe Torre.

Calls Reviewable Under the New Deal: Fair or Foul

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    Proposed as Reviewable: Fair/Foul (Field of Play) 

    In Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS between the Yankees and Minnesota Twins, left field umpire Phil Cuzzi called a line drive by Minnesota's Joe Mauer a foul ball although replays indicated the ball landed in fair territory.

    Though the creator of the above video believes this missed call to be the work of a vast MLB conspiracy, the fact of the matter is that Cuzzi simply missed the call.

    MLB umpires only work the outfield positions during MLB special events—All-Star and playoff games—and are not used to working so close to the line in deep left or right field.

    Cuzzi's proximity to the play (being too close) combined with the awkward angle he was forced to contend with were factors the umpire cited as potential reasons he missed that fairly obvious call.

    Had MLB's proposed replay expansion been on the books in 2009, Cuzzi's awkward angle wouldn't have played a part in negating an extra base hit.

    Mauer would have been credited with a leadoff double to begin the top of the 11th inning, setting the table for a possible game-winning RBI.

    Also reviewable would be this Alexei Ramirez ground out, ruled a fair ball by home plate umpire James Hoye and resulting in the ejection of White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.

    Had replay been used for the Ramirez play, Hoye's call would have been confirmed as correct.

Calls Reviewable Under the New Deal: Catch or No Catch (Trap)

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    Proposed as Reviewable: Catch/Trap (Catch or No Catch)

    In Game 3 of the 2011 NLDS between the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, right field umpire Jerry Meals ruled that Cardinals outfielder Skip Schumaker was unable to catch a sinking line drive in the top of the ninth inning.

    Replays indicate the liner was indeed caught and should have been ruled a catch. The umpires did confer and elected to overturn the call, resulting in a correctly-awarded out.

    MLB's proposal for 2012 would allow umpires to visit the video monitor to confirm or overturn that call.

    For those left wondering, Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp did manage to catch the liner pictured above.

Calls Reviewable Under the New Deal: Fan Interference (All)

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    Proposed as Reviewable: Fan Interference (Anywhere)

    Fan interference is a uniquely baseball phenomenon and is a real concern.

    Football fans are seated far out of the line of fire, basketball scoring occurs so often that even the rare event of a spectator having a Larry David moment seldom affects live gameplay and hockey shields their fans from the rink with sheets of glass and plastic. 

    Though the Jeffrey Maier and Steve Bartman plays come to mind most often in talks about spectator interference in baseball, the most common type of fan interference in MLB is accidental—a fan reaching over a short wall to field a fair ground ball they thought was foul.

    This is exactly what happened to a fan dubbed "Ichiro Suzuki's clone" during a Seattle Mariners game last season and is precisely what MLB has decided to target with this expansion of reviewable fan interference situations.

    Keep watching to the above video to see why.

    Just as home run-related instant replay allows umpires to use replay to award runners bases based on where the runners would have ended up had the interference not occurred, expanded replay would also permit umpires to use the technology to determine where to place the runners in a situation just like the Ichiro-clone play.

    Runner placement is a huge issue—Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was ejected on May 30, 2011 for arguing a runner-placement call.

    Umpires have enough to worry about in determining whether spectator interference has or has not occurred. Expanding replay would allow umpires to go back and take their time in correctly awarding bases based on what the video shows.

    Expanding replay to these situations would hopefully prevent these types of ejections from occurring.

Calls Not Reviewable Under the New Deal: Safe or out (Time or Tag)

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    Not Reviewable: Safe or Out (Force Outs, Time Plays and Tag Outs)

    Had Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce combined to replicate the events of June 2, 2010 in MLB's proposed era of limited instant replay expansion next season, the story would have stayed the same.

    Under the proposed deal, safe/out time plays—like the one featured above—will not be reviewable.

    Safe/out tag plays—such as a 19th-inning game-ending call made by home plate umpire Jerry Meals on July 26, 2011—will also not be reviewable if limited replay expansion comes to pass in 2012.

    In the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League poll, only 25 percent of respondents supported instant replay in both time and tag play situations.

Calls Not Reviewable Under the New Deal: Interference vs. Obstruction

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    Not Reviewable: Non-Spectator Interference and Obstruction

    The difference between interference and obstruction is fairly straightforward.

    Interference is generally an illegal act by the offense that impedes the defense's opportunity to make a play.

    This can be a baserunner colliding with a second baseman who is charging a batted ball, a batter stepping across the plate and getting in the way of a catcher trying to throw out a base stealer or a runner executing a flagrant take-out slide with the intent of breaking up a double play.

    Non-spectator interference can also occur as catcher interference—when a batter's swing makes contact with a catcher's glove—base coach interference or umpire interference, which is when an umpire prevents an immediate play from being made.

    Obstruction is an illegal act by the defense that interferes with or otherwise prevents the offense's opportunity to advance.

    Obstruction may occur when a fielder not making a play on a batted ball hinders a runner from advancing or returning to a base (as pictured above).

    These blooper-type plays are also not reviewable under the proposed plan.

    Just 16 percent of those surveyed by the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League chose interference/obstruction as something that should be reviewable.

Calls Not Reviewable Under the New Deal: Check Swings

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    Not Reviewable: Check Swing Calls

    The ejection in the above video of Moises Alou is one of many MLB ejections that occur every year due to check swing calls.

    The check swing is perhaps the most subjective part of the MLB rules book.

    The rules do not explicitly state what constitutes a swing, only that a strike is a legal pitch that "is struck at by the batter and is missed."

    Contrary to popular baseball mythology, whether a bat crosses the front or back edge of home plate or whether a batter breaks his wrist has no bearing on whether a check swing shall be ruled a ball or a swinging strike.

    Not surprisingly, these subjective calls will continue to be not reviewable in 2012.

    Just six percent of those surveyed by the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League indicated a desire for including check swings under expanded instant replay.

Calls Not Reviewable Under the New Deal: Balls and Strikes

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    Not Reviewable: Balls and Strikes (Pitch Location)

    Though check swings technically also fall under the greater heading of balls and strikes, this slide refers solely to a called ball and a called strike by pitch location.

    According to the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League, over half of all ejections in 2011 were for arguments concerning ball vs. strike calls.

    The UEFL also discovered that umpires call balls and strikes with an accuracy greater than 93 percent, while their accuracy rate concerning plays that result in ejection dips to only 73.9 percent.

    This means that umpires are right almost all the time—and still are right almost three-fourths of the time when a player or coach feels so strongly that a call has been blown that he gets ejected for arguing it.

    After umpire Jerry Layne appeared to miss multiple key ball/strike calls in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, many fans (Texas Rangers fans in particular) were calling for an immediate computerized strike zone.

    Yet with around 200 callable pitches a game, instant replay for balls and strikes would not just be unfeasible, it would be downright disruptive.

    Not surprisingly, only two percent of those polled indicated a desire to incorporate a computerized strike zone as part of expanded instant replay.

In the End: Expanded Instant Replay Review Good for Baseball

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    In an attempt to further integrate instant replay into baseball, MLB is taking the right baby steps.

    The items which received the highest percentage of votes in the UEFL Aug. 2011 poll are the same items currently being proposed as the newest phase of instant replay in baseball—fair or foul, catch or trap, fan interference or no interference.

    As a result, this deal contains proposals most likely to be accepted by the owners, executives and most importantly, the umpires.

    With a similar UEFL poll (n=251) finding that the three least difficult calls for an umpire to make are home run/no home run (one percent), fair/foul (two percent) and catch/no catch (four percent), proposing that baseball introduce replay in these and the spectator interference arena is a no-brainer.

    No umpire wants to get a call wrong, especially when the type of call missed is considered one of the easiest to make.

    Instant replay solves this problem by making sure the umpires have the tools they need to get the calls right.

    Undoubtedly, the largest complication expanded instant replay will raise is the issue of runner placement following an overturned call.

    With a chance to consult the video, however, the umpires should be able to consult enough replay angles to properly place any runners displaced by an overturned call.

    The only remaining thorn in the umpires' side is the issue of a runner who, having believed a ball has been trapped instead of caught—or vice versa—advances to his next base after relying on an umpire's incorrect call instead of retreating to tag up on the actual caught ball.

    This peculiar scenario would penalize a team either by taking away a double play or by punishing a runner for trusting an umpire's incorrect on-field call.

    Still, the good of this deal far outweighs the slim opportunity for that kind of a complex situation.

    In the end, this is why MLB's proposed deal is a good one and why the umpires should ratify the new agreement in advance of the 2012 season.