Early Gaffes Highlight Must-Fix Gaps in MLB's Replay Review SystemApril 13, 2021
There are many good things about Major League Baseball's return, but it hasn't taken long for one of the lesser aspects of the sport to come to the forefront.
Yes, replay reviews are also back. And yes, they're still often frustrating.
Mind you, "frustrating" is putting it kindly regarding what happened in the ninth inning of the Philadelphia Phillies' 7-6 win over Atlanta on Sunday night. Upon review, replay officials ruled Alec Bohm safe at home with the go-ahead run even though it looked like he never touched home plate before he was tagged.
Before that, another controversial replay decided the New York Mets' 3-2 victory over the Miami Marlins on Thursday. Michael Conforto was confirmed to have been hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, but he had clearly leaned in to a pitch that ended up in the strike zone.
By the letter of the law, both rulings were correct. But rather than an excuse to shrug, they provided an excuse to consider ways in which MLB might change said letter of said law.
Let's Talk About the Alec Bohm Play
For anyone who missed it, here's what decided the Philadelphia-Atlanta game:
At first glance, Bohm slid around Travis d'Arnaud's tag even though Marcell Ozuna's throw from left field beat him to home plate. And as Phillies manager Joe Girardi saw it, the young third baseman just barely touched the plate.
"It was by the skin of his big toe, I think, that we scored," Girardi said, per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki. "It looked like his big toe kind of hit the corner of the plate, when we saw a lot of the angles."
Which is interesting, because none of the angles shown on ESPN's broadcast offered conclusive evidence that Bohm's toe touched home. Since Atlanta's players saw all those same angles, left-hander Drew Smyly, who started Sunday, can be forgiven for deeming it an "embarrassing" call.
Even Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout—who's not exactly known for wading into controversy—sounded off on the call via a two-word review on Twitter: "So bad."
The trouble, of course, is that every replay review is beholden to the call on the field. Since the call in this case was that Bohm was safe, officials in MLB's replay center had to find conclusive evidence that Bohm missed the plate before d'Arnaud applied the tag to overturn the call.
Therein lies the problem: As much as it looked like Bohm missed the plate, there wasn't a camera angle that clearly showed he did.
The flip side of this is that the lack of conclusive evidence would have also allowed an out call to stand if that had been the original ruling. So rather than one relating to the rules, the issue on display in the Bohm play might relate to what replay officials see.
In fairness, just last year MLB opened a new replay operations center while also dramatically improving its video coverage. There are now 4K cameras with views of home plate, plus twice as many isolated cameras. There's also a greater availability of high-frame-rate video.
Yet if the Bohm play is any indication, the available coverage still isn't good enough. The league should take note of any angles that aren't covered, perhaps including ground-level perspectives of home plate. And if there's a way to cover all angles exclusively with high-frame-rate cameras, even better.
In the meantime, a little more transparency wouldn't hurt. Even if it's not during the game in question, the league would do well to publicly release detailed reports—complete with relevant video—of how and why replay officials determined key rulings.
Let's Talk About the Michael Conforto Play
Moving right along, here's the hit-by-pitch that ended the Marlins-Mets game Thursday:
For starters, it wasn't just the televised strike zone that showed that slider from Anthony Bass as a strike. Courtesy of MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, Statcast also did:
Anthony DiComo @AnthonyDiComo
Statcast data does show irrefutably that the Conforto ball was in the strike zone. According to MLB Rule 5.05(b)(2), that means Conforto should have been ruled out regardless of whether the pitch hit him. So yes, the Mets got away with one. You're allowed to be happy about that! https://t.co/8FnHMTnGT8
Because strikes supersede hit-by-pitches by rule, home plate umpire Ron Kulpa could have called Conforto out. He almost did by beginning a strike-three call before switching to a hit-by-pitch signal, and he later said he was right the first time.
"It's one of those plays where it looked like the guy was hit," Kulpa told a pool reporter after the game. "The guy was hit by the pitch in the strike zone. I should have called him out."
The Marlins had the right to challenge the call but only insofar as whether Conforto was indeed hit by the pitch. Since he obviously was, that challenge didn't result in an overturn, and the game ended.
If nothing else, the fact that Kulpa nearly made two different calls on one play should have MLB thinking about giving replay officials jurisdiction over situations wherein the call on the field is uncertain.
More specifically, MLB should consider expanding the rules for reviews on hit-by-pitches to also include whether the pitch was a strike or if the batter made an effort to get out of the way. On both those fronts, Conforto could have rightfully been called out.
The catch here is that such things are judgment calls, which are generally exempt from the review process. But since replay officials are allowed to use judgment on certain baserunning plays—namely collisions at home plate and interference on double plays—it wouldn't be much of a stretch to also shift hit-by-pitches under that particular umbrella.
While We're At It, Let's Also Talk About the Whit Merrifield Play
Speaking of judgment calls that should be subject to replay review, let's not forget that "Did he come off the bag?" challenges are still annoyingly common.
For example, take the one that bit Whit Merrifield and the Kansas City Royals on Sunday:
Merrifield clearly had his hand on second base before Chicago White Sox shortstop Danny Mendick applied the tag. But since Mendick's tag was still on as Merrifield lost contact with the bag for a fraction of a second, what was a safe call turned into an out call upon review.
Technically speaking, that was the right decision. But practically? Come on.
When plays like that get overturned, it's not because the baserunner necessarily had bad form and deserved to be punished accordingly. His punishment is more like a rebuke for not playing baseball with machine-like efficiency at every possible moment.
This, of course, is malarkey. So if the league were to allow replay officials to use their judgment on these types of plays, there would surely be fewer complaints than there are under the current conditions.
Alternatively, the league could consider an exception that Dave Cameron proposed at FanGraphs back in 2016 and again in 2017. In this, runners would be granted "a vertical safe area" in which they're safe from being tagged out so long as they're still above the base after sliding in safely.
In any case, it should be acknowledged that MLB's replay review process has come a long away over the years and that the league is indeed better for it. Yet it's still a work in progress. And like any work in progress, there are all sorts of ways to push it toward perfection.