The challenge of baseball’s instant replay system

Atlanta Braves third baseman Chris Johnson makes a throw to first for an out against Washington Nationals' Ian Desmond during the first inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park, Sunday, April 6, 2014, in Washington. The play was reviewed and the out was confirmed. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Chris Johnson’s strong throw led to Matt Williams’s challenge Sunday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Major League Baseball deemed the replay review ruling on Ian Desmond’s infamous “inside-the-park double” during Friday’s home opener “appropriate,” a league spokesman said.

Many within the Nationals’ organization remained puzzled by the overturned call, which gave Desmond a double after umpires on the field awarded him a home run. In particular, they questioned the judgment of left fielder Justin Upton’s actions, arguing that the ball became irreversibly live once Upton grabbed it from under the pad on the left field fence.

MLB disagreed, saying officials can overturn a call if a ball is determined to be lodged.

“We considered [Friday's] play a stadium boundary call, which is fine for review purposes,” the MLB spokesman said Saturday night via email. “The ball was initially left in play but in the review, we determined that the ball was lodged and thus the initial call was overturned.  It was an unusual set of circumstances, given that it was perceived differently on the field, but we felt the ground-rule double result was appropriate.”

In follow-up, the spokesman added, “There is a section in the replay regulations that provides for review of non-home run boundary calls. That is what this play was. It specifically calls out situations where the ball leaves the playing field and is or is not ruled dead.”

The semantics are notable. The rule in question – 7.05(f) – never uses the word “lodged,” only “stuck.” By strict definition, the ball could not have been lodged. It could have been stuck, though.

In any event, MLB’s statement closes the book – if not the debate – on a play that showed the limitations of replay’s ability to provide black-and-white answers.

Sunday afternoon, a different play revealed another issue with the system. With runners on first and second, Desmond hit dribbler to third base. Chris Johnson’s throw and Desmond reached first base at almost the same moment. Desmond was called out. Williams thought that Desmond was safe. Bench coach Randy Knorr got word from the Nationals’ video coordinators, and he gave Williams the thumbs up. Williams challenged.

The play was “confirmed,” which means the replay umpire agreed with the call on the field. (If the play “stood,” that would mean evidence was inconclusive.) Still, Williams made an intelligent challenge.

With runners on second and third and two outs, based on expected run tables, the Nationals were expected to score .57 runs in the inning. With the bases loaded and one out, the Nationals would have been expected to score 1.53 runs.

If an umpire could have feasibly watched the replay and flipped the call, a manager would be wrong not to risk the challenge. How else could a manager, in an instant, make a full run difference for his team?

“That’s a potentially huge inning for us,” Williams said. “It didn’t go our way, but at that point, you have to. … I went out there before on a safe-out, bang-bang call and decided not to. You say, ‘What does it mean for our club?’ This can turn into a big inning with one swing. That was the determining factor.”

Williams’s sentiment illustrates the problem with letting managers decide when to employ the replay review system. MLB implemented replay in order to overturn bad calls. Managers, incentivized to leverage their challenges, are not trying simply to fix egregious judgments. They’re hunting for edges, challenging the close play in a key spot.

On opening day, Williams used a challenge in the 10th inning on a close play that had little-to-no chance of being overturned. It was the smart play – the challenge otherwise would have gone to waste. But those extra minutes added to the game is not what baseball had in mind. In the hands of managers, the system isn’t a system. It’s a game. Is that what the league wants?

More Nats reading:

Matt Williams does impressions, including a pretty great Babe Ruth

Concession prices from 1966 might make you cry

Boz says it’s time for the Zimmerman-to-first experiment to begin

 Why the Nats’ clock as no hands

 

Also on Nationals Journal

Takeaways from the first Nationals-Braves series