Breaking Down the Pros and Cons of Instant Replay in MLB

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 23, 2012

Instant replay could have changed the way we think of Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce; Photo Credit: MassLive.com
Instant replay could have changed the way we think of Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce; Photo Credit: MassLive.com

If Major League Baseball is going to expand its use of instant replay, it's going to do it in the near future.

It was reported in mid-March (see MLB.com) that the league is not planning on expanding instant replay this season, though it hopes to do so by 2013. When instant replay expansion does come, fair-or-foul calls, trapped balls and fan interference will all be subject to review. Right now, only home runs are fair game.

However, replay expansion could come a lot sooner than next season. Tracy Ringolsby of FoxSports.com reported in late March that MLB commissioner Bud Selig is optimistic that replay for foul balls and trapped balls could be instituted sometime this season.

Regardless of when instant replay is expanded, we invariably find ourselves coming back to the same question: 

Is instant replay really a good thing for Major League Baseball?

The answer is complicated. Bear with me while I discuss it.

Time Concerns

The most obvious argument, and indeed the most oft-made argument, against instant replay in baseball is that it would slow down a game that is already too slow.

And this is very much true. The average Major League Baseball game lasts right around three hours, and we're talking about a very slow three hours. Baseball is a sport that takes its time, going about its business in no real hurry. 

Commissioner Selig has said in numerous occasions that he wants to speed the game up, which will be very hard to do as more and more calls become subject to video review.

Bud Selig
Bud SeligPatrick McDermott/Getty Images

"I am really determined to continue to try and speed the game up," Selig said, according to Ringolsby. "We have gotten a little bit better. There are still things we can do to get the 2:51 average to 2:40."

Home run reviews tack a few extra minutes onto the length of a game when they happen. If trapped balls, fair-or-foul calls and the like also become subject to review, it stands to reason that a given game could contain multiple replay reviews, thus slowing things down dramatically.

And indeed, one shudders to think how long a typical Yankees vs. Red Sox game would last if umpires were to stop and review more than one play.

There's really no argument against the notion that expanded replay would slow the game down. It would, plain and simple.

However, I will say this: Who exactly is MLB worried about alienating by slowing the game down even more?

All baseball fans know the sport is slow-moving. The fact that a lot of them keep coming back throughout the course of a 162-game season signifies that baseball fans don't really care. This is because, well, baseball fans like baseball. They always have.

It's the ones who don't like baseball who think the game moves too slow. So by slowing the game down even further by expanding replay, MLB will be alienating an audience that it doesn't already have. If the league thinks that speeding the game up is going to attract this audience, it is sorely mistaken.

Some baseball fans will cry foul when MLB expands replay, but I think most will be fine with it. An awful lot of hardcore baseball fans out there realize that MLB needs to get with the times.

Getting the Call Right

The fact that expanded replay would slow down an already slow game is without a doubt the easiest and most sensible argument to make. The other argument those who aren't in favor of expanded replay love to make is the one that says that bad calls are a part of the game, and always have been.

I think Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Michael McKenry said it best last year when he put it this way to MLB.com:

"They're [meaning the umps] going to get some right. They're going to get some wrong. That's just part of it. Nobody is perfect at the end of the day."

Well said. To boot, McKendry said this right after he and the Pirates got hosed on a call at home plate that resulted in a 19th-inning loss. If that doesn't ring a bell, the above link has the video.

Michael McKenry's infamous non-tag of Julio Lugo.
Michael McKenry's infamous non-tag of Julio Lugo.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The argument that bad calls are a part of the game is essentially an attempt to perpetuate a longstanding tradition of umpires screwing up, thus screwing over one team and making themselves look bad in the process.

Let's face it, nobody wins when there are bad calls. Except the team that was lucky enough to benefit from the bad call, of course.

This is not fair. And fairness is something that baseball should be hoping to achieve. By accepting that bad calls are part of the game, baseball is effectively shunning absolute fairness.

It's worth it to slow the game down to make sure fair calls are made. The NFL figured that out a while ago, and the NBA and NHL have followed suit. MLB put itself on the right track by instituting replay for home runs in 2008, but there are still way too many unfair calls taking place in the game. The league needs to eliminate as many of those as possible.

Judgment Calls

The one problem with the notion that expanded replay will lead to fair calls is that instant replay does have its limits. 

Every NFL fan under the sun knows that football's instant replay system has not eliminated controversy from the sport. More often than not, replay reviews lead to the right call, and nobody is in a position to complain. But every once in a while, video replays create problems instead of solving them.

Take, for example, one of the most controversial plays in the history of the NFL. Football fans know it simply as "the Tuck Rule."

Here's the video:

The ruling on the field was that Tom Brady had fumbled the ball. After review, the ruling should have been upheld. It wasn't because the official made a judgment call, one that just happened to be very, very stupid.

Off the top of my head, I'd guess roughly 90 percent of the calls made in a baseball game are judgment calls. Strikes and balls count for a lot of those, but you also have things like check swings and whether or not an infielder lost control of a ball during the catch or the transfer.

Even when one of these plays is slowed down, it's oftentimes hard to tell what the right call is. Calls like these are open to interpretation.

Fair-or-foul calls are pretty straightforward, but trapped balls and fan interference calls are very much open to interpretation. So even if MLB does indeed move forward with its modest expansion plans, it will be setting itself up for controversial replays. If it expands replay even further, the league will be setting itself up for even more controversial replays.

There won't always be a definitive call to make, and that's a problem.

How Does It Work?

This is exactly what umpires want to know. 

As outlined by AP baseball writer Ben Walker, umpires have several major concerns about expanded replay:

Umpires were concerned the television feeds they received to review calls were not equal at every ballpark. The umps get fewer looks in Oakland, for example, than at Yankee Stadium.

Also at issue is how calls would be made under expanded replay and who would ask for a challenge. Would umpires still make the final decision, as they do now? Or would there be an NHL-style conference room with an MLB executive making the ruling?

First off, there's not a whole lot MLB can do about the different camera setups at different ballparks. Baseball stadiums aren't like football stadiums or hockey and basketball arenas. Each baseball stadium is unique, so not all baseball stadiums can have the same camera arrangements.

This scene needs a challenge flag.
This scene needs a challenge flag.David Banks/Getty Images

Secondly, MLB would have to think of something a little more formal in terms of when umpires go to look at replays. Right now, umpires only go check out home runs if a manager comes out and complains. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for MLB to just start using challenge flags, though I, for one, would miss the lost arguments.

Having umpires leave the field of play to go check out the replay definitely slows the game down, so MLB would be wise to consider the possibility of having league officials determine the correct call for a given replay and then relay that call to the umpires out on the field in some way. As long as the umpires stay on the field, time is being saved.

However, I can understand why umpires would have reservations about this idea. If I were an umpire, I wouldn't feel too good about some guy in a suit telling me I'm wrong without getting a look at the play myself.

There's no clear solution to this problem, which is one of the reasons MLB hasn't expanded replay yet.

Effect on Historical Moments

Despite the fact I sympathize with umpires being on the fence about expanded replay, even I realize that it shouldn't be about them. 

It's all about the players who play the game and the teams they play for. If umpires occasionally need to look foolish so the best interests of players and teams are served, so be it. 

I'm particularly concerned about major moments in the history of the game. When these moments happen, umpires should have nothing to do with them. Unfortunately, umpires all too often have everything to do with major moments in the history of the game.

You probably know which moment I'm going to bring up as an example. Think back, if you will, to June 2, 2010. That was the day then-Detroit Tigers hurler Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians.

Photo Credit: Fox Sports Detroit, via ClevelandLeader.com
Photo Credit: Fox Sports Detroit, via ClevelandLeader.com

Veteran umpire Jim Joyce took Galaragga's perfect game away from him with an awful call at first base, ruling Indians shortstop Jason Donald safe on a play where he was clearly out. You can relive the moment on MLB.com if you dare.

MLB doesn't have any plans to incorporate out-or-safe calls into expanded replay, but that was a case where such a thing definitely would have come in handy. No doubt Joyce would agree, as he became a goat at the precise moment Galarraga should have become a hero.

We saw a similar situation unfold this weekend when Chicago White Sox hurler Philip Humber secured a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners thanks to a strikeout of Brendan Ryan, who was unable to check his swing on a breaking ball that was well outside on a 3-2 count. 

But did Ryan really go around? Home plate umpire Brian Runge said he did on his own instead of checking with the first-base umpire. It has been speculated that Runge didn't want to be the next Jim Joyce.

Philip Humber was all smiles after his perfect game.
Philip Humber was all smiles after his perfect game.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Check swings are yet another thing that don't fall into MLB's plans for expanded replay. But on Saturday, I think everyone would have been a little more at ease if Runge and the rest of the crew had gotten another look at the play.

However, this is where we stray into a problem area. If the umpires had gotten the chance to review Ryan's check swing, they would have had to make a judgment call. If the ruling that Ryan had swung had been upheld, controversy would remain. If the ruling had been changed, Ryan would have gone to first base on a walk and there'd be even more controversy.

Worse, Humber would have to come back out and continue pitching after a lengthy delay in which he was under the impression that he had pitched a perfect game.

Galarraga and Humber represent two extreme examples, but you can see how instant replay is a double-edged sword as it pertains to special moments in history. It's something that could giveth and taketh away.

Where Will It Stop?

When Major League Baseball implemented instant replay to cover home runs, it was unclear whether the league or the players truly wanted to expand the replay system.

Here we are four years later, and it's just a matter of time before MLB expands its instant replay system. Whether this year or next year, trapped balls, fair-or-foul calls and fan interference are going to be subject for review.

After those things are subject for review, how long will it be before MLB expands its instant replay system again?

No matter what happens with replay, arguments like these will never go away.
No matter what happens with replay, arguments like these will never go away.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Ideally, MLB will not expand replay any further. After trapped balls, fair-or-foul calls and fan interference, you get into balls-and-strikes and out-or-safe territory. That's when things have the potential to get truly messy, as then baseball will be dealing with more and more judgment calls.

Unfortunately, I'm not positive that further expansion is something that MLB will be able to avoid moving forward. When the decision was made to implement instant replay for home runs, the question immediately became how MLB could improve its replay system. When it expands it to take care of trapped balls and the like, people are going to be asking that question once again. 

The problem is that the system will never be perfect. There will always be more tweaks to make, not to mention more things to review. Further expansion will always be a possibility.

So as much as I hate to paint a picture of a slippery slope, that's exactly what MLB is dealing with.


So does Major League Baseball need to expand its instant replay system beyond looking at just home runs?

Yes it does. Bad calls may be part of the game, but this is the 21st century. The technology we have at our disposal will help eliminate a lot of bad calls, and Major League Baseball needs to take advantage of that technology. Just because it's America's pastime doesn't mean baseball has an excuse to remain stuck in the past.

I'm not worried about slowing the game down. I love baseball, so I'll watch it even if replay leads to four-hour games. My hope is that true baseball fans will agree with me.

My concern is over the previously discussed slippery slope. There's only one way around that, and that's to know when to leave good enough alone. Thankfully, nobody seems to be in any real hurry to implement instant replay for balls and strikes and calls on the basepaths.

Further expansion will always be a possibility. But right now, further expansion is needed.

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