How to End Baseball's Epic Officiating Screwups: Use Instant-Replay Umpires

The Oakland Athletics' overruled home run this week shows again that subjective on-field rulings are an unreliable, often unfair way to officiate MLB games.
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AP / Mark Duncan

Inaccuracy is inevitable in a game with as many intricacies as baseball. Balls will be called strikes, checked swings will be debated, and the infield fly rule will confound fans forever. But one of the goals of Major League Baseball is to ensure the game is officiated as correctly as possible and offer an effective in-game remedy for the human mistakes of umpires. Wednesday night's debacle at Cleveland's Progressive Field showed once again that the MLB is failing at that goal.

With two outs in the ninth inning between the Athletics and the Indians, Oakland infielder Adam Rosales hit a game-tying home run that was incorrectly ruled a double on the field. The ruling was upheld even after four umpires, including crew chief Angel Hernandez, reviewed the replay.

That's the short version of the Catastrophe in Cleveland. The larger takeaway is that baseball's instant-replay system, introduced in 2008 to prevent the type of missed call that occurred on Wednesday, is not working. Baseball needs a replay umpire, or more games will be decided by human error.

It's still unclear how exactly Hernandez and his crew missed what everyone in the stadium—including both teams, both sets of announcers, and everyone in the press box—clearly saw. Rosales's hit bounced off the railing about nine inches above the yellow home-run line at the top of the padded wall in left field and ricocheted back onto the outfield grass. That couldn't have happened had the hit not been a home run, because the ball would have hit the soft padding below the line. After the game, Hernandez told a reporter that the crew did not believe there was "100 percent certainty" to overrule the call on the field, which sounds ludicrous to anyone who's watched even one replay of the "double."

Joe Torre, the league's executive vice president of baseball operations, released a statement Thursday afternoon that unwittingly identified the basic problem with baseball's current replay system:

In the opinion of Angel Hernandez, who was last night's crew chief, there was not clear and convincing evidence to overturn the decision on the field. It was a judgment call, and as such, it stands as final.

Torre's statement, like the MLB's current rule book, conflates an objective fact with a subjective review. Whether a ball crossed the home-run line is an objective question, and a review system that allows subjectivity to so easily override objectivity is fatally flawed.

This isn't the first time in recent years that a game has been marred by inept umpiring that could not be properly reviewed. Armando Galarraga's perfect game on June 2, 2010, was ruined when first-base umpire Jim Joyce called the last out of the game safe. And after erroneously ruling that then-Yankee Nick Swisher left third base too soon in the 2009 American League Championship Series, umpire Tim McClelland said: "In my heart I thought he left too soon... after looking at replays, I'm not sure I believe the replay."

The MLB instituted its current instant-replay system precisely to avoid the unreliable subjectivity that has tainted so many games over the years. But even given the opportunity to rely on that failsafe Wednesday night, Hernandez and his crew doubled down on the wrong call instead.

A replay umpire could solve many of the problems that plague the current system. Right now, field umpires must head into the clubhouse to watch the replay, often on a tiny monitor, facing intense pressure to complete the review as quickly as possible to keep the game moving. And replays are only used when there's reason to believe an umpire made the wrong call the first time, which sometimes causes umps to stubbornly stick to the original call in the face of opposing evidence—as Hernandez did on Wednesday.

But put a replay umpire in a room with a large monitor that gets the feeds of both teams' television broadcasts and the ability to quickly communicate with the umps on the field—similar to the system currently in use in college football—and those problems will go away. A replay ump would have no skin in the game, access to more replay angles, and the impartiality of being at least one step removed from the action. That way, all disputed calls that should be based on objective results—fair/foul balls, disputed home runs, safe/out tag plays on the bases—could be funneled through a single observer with a mandate of impartiality and access to replay technology befitting of the 21st century.

A replay ump would have no skin in the game, plus access to more replay angles. All disputed calls that should be based on objective results could be funneled through a single observer with a mandate of impartiality.

Detractors may argue that adding another umpire would only complicate an already thorny process, but it would actually make things simpler. Despite what the umpires' union might say, a replay ump could keep the men in blue from making destructively bad calls they have to live with forever—just ask Joyce how that feels. It would benefit teams and players, who could trust that a bad rapport with an ump or a fuzzy picture on a replay screen would not cost them any more games. It would certainly benefit the fans, who don't want to see their team miss the playoffs in October because of a horrendous call in early May. And it would benefit the game by removing a layer of potential inaccuracy.

It's worth noting that Rosales's hit would have only tied the game, and Cleveland could have prevailed in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings. Ultimately, though, that's not the point. We have the technology to almost completely eradicate objective errors from baseball. Until the MLB installs a replay umpire or makes some other tweak to its obviously compromised review system, the stain of games like last night will linger over the sport.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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