In the first inning at Nationals Park on Sunday, both the Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals challenged different aspects of the same play. There was a simultaneous “double instant replay review.” Neither team knew where to stand or whether to be on the field. Nobody knew whether it was an MLB “first.” You would think — or I would have — that the result would be a mess, an illustration of everything about instant replay that kills time, interrupts the continuity of the game and makes tempers rise. But I would have been wrong.
In 2 minutes 45 seconds, the replay command Fortress of Solitude in New York ruled that Alex Rios of Texas slid inches past second base on a steal and was tagged out by the Nats’ Danny Espinosa and that the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus (loafing) had not crossed home plate before the tag for the third out of the inning had been made. The Rangers, challenging whether Rios was really out, lost, while the Nats, claiming a Rangers run should be taken off the board, got the incorrect call changed.
As the game became a scoreless pitchers’ duel into the seventh inning, that solitary run — erased from existence — impacted both the strategy and the feeling of the whole game. And that call was correct.
A third of the way into the season, baseball’s new replay challenge system is coming into focus. For weeks, I’ve caught myself muttering, both in front of the TV and in the park, “This hurts the flow of the game. It isn’t baseball.” I was in the camp of the Nats’ Adam LaRoche, who says, “I’m not a fan of it. If it stops here, maybe it’s okay. But what if they add to it?” (Replay’s not coming for your bow and arrow, Adam.)
But as the facts arrive, I’m changing my mind. According to records kept by BaseballSavant.com, as well as MLB data reported this weekend in Baseball Prospectus, the broadest patterns, which are probably also the most important, now seem clear.
Here are the three main facts: First, baseball has averaged only one challenge per two games. So you’re not likely to see a game besmirched with several delays with umps in headphones waiting for a decision from New York on their decision. Second, those challenges average 2 minutes 9 seconds. Finally, and maybe most important, the average game is only delayed 1:06 by challenges.
“I don’t think anybody likes a break in the action. But it’s a necessary evil,” Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard said Sunday after a 2-0 Texas win. “Early in the season, you heard players saying, ‘This is stupid. It’s terrible.’ But as the season has gone on, we’ve all gotten more acclimated.
“If it only costs the game a couple of minutes for a challenge every other game and we end up with the only pro sport where almost every call is correct, you can’t hate on that too much,” Clippard added. “Look at the NFL and the NBA. What’s a block or a charge foul in basketball? Is it pass interference or not in the NFL? Or holding. That’s why I like baseball so much. Everything is cut and dried.”
Baseball still has one imprecision: Umpires call balls and strikes. Will home plate umps ever be automated out of existence? Maybe that’s what LaRoche fears. But new technology has done umps a favor in that area. Current pitch tracking systems show how seldom they miss a pitch by very much.
“I’ll complain about a pitch, then go back and watch ‘pitch track’ after the inning,” Clippard said. “Usually it’s a half-inch one way or the other. I have to admit, ‘Pretty good call.’ ”
Baseball has always been full of pretty symmetries. For example, how often does a hitter drive in a run from third base with fewer than two outs? What percentage of games are quality starts? Year after year, the answer to both questions is almost exactly 50 percent. We may soon have new examples.
About half of all challenged calls get overturned (196 of 419 through Saturday’s games, or 46.8 percent). Of the umpire calls that are upheld, about half (46 percent) are actually “confirmed” with clear visual evidence, while the rest merely “stand,” meaning that even with multiple replay angles the play is too close to call. So how bad a mistake could it have been?
Every fan will form an opinion over time. Mine’s still coalescing. There eventually will be a consensus but never uniformity. This issue is going to cause screaming for a long time.
For example, why have managerial challenges at all? Why introduce a new element of strategy? Instead, is it feasible to have sufficient resources at Replay HQ to review every very close call in every game? That would eliminate managers stalling until they get a thumbs up or thumbs down from their replay eyes in the sky. “Under review” flashes on a scoreboard. Everybody waits. If such a method worked, you would subtract all current managerial stalling, as well as the old rhubarbs. Then the total addition to time-of-game eventually might be very small indeed.
The prize for baseball at the end of this process — if the sport gets it right — is quite large. Every other major sport is full of tough, touchy calls by officials that seem arbitrary, incorrect, unfair or even biased, no matter how excellent the referees may be or how pure their motives.
“It is worth a little bit of time to get it right,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said.
Only baseball has a sport that, by accident, is open to replay inspection on almost every meaningful play. And, apparently, after two months of operation, at a tolerable or even tiny cost.
If a sport with the possibility of such near-perfection in its on-field fairness seems contrary to the cantankerous temper of our sporting times, we still have one last recourse to delicious incivility.
“Hey, ump, are you blind? That pitch was a foot outside!”
Well, maybe an inch. But we’ll feel better anyway.