The Need for (and Fun-Sucking Potential of) Instant Replay in Baseball

This year's World Series has had enough controversial calls to make a case for the MLB stepping into the 21st century. But will the game still need old-fashioned judgment calls?

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara, rear, and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia celebrate the Red Sox 5-2 win over the Detroit Tigers on Oct. 19. The Red Sox advance to the World Series. (AP; Matt Slocum)

Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss the World Series:

Simpson: All right, here we go...


What a quintet of games we've had so far in the Fall Classic. The Red Sox and Cardinals have battled to a near stalemate in a taut set of games, with Boston taking a 3-2 series lead back to Fenway Park after Monday's 3-1 victory.

The series has had enough circus-like plays and controversy to fill a decade of October baseball. St. Louis won Game 3 on a walk-off obstruction call, the first game in the 110-year history of the World Series to end that way. Boston won Game 4 on a pickoff, of all things, also a Fall Classic first. It's amazing that Monday's game didn't end with a dropped third strike, or a swarm of midges descending on the field.

The offensive star thus far has been David Ortiz, who's put up video-game numbers in a otherwise pitcher-friendly series. Ortiz is hitting an absurd .733 with a 1.267 slugging percentage in five games and would have even better numbers if Carlos Beltran hadn't robbed him of a grand slam in Game 1.

While Big Papi has been the biggest player in the series, the biggest issue has been the many disputed calls—and the potential effect the new instant replay rules going into effect next year might have had. A force play by the Cardinals in Game 1 was correctly overturned by the umpiring crew, but the unprecedented reversal left St. Louis frustrated and MLB officials counting the days until the start of the new "manager challenge" system. Other moments—including a seventh-inning play at the plate Monday night—begged for the relative certainty of instant replay but were left to the umpires' on-field discretion instead.

Baseball has lagged woefully behind other North American sports leagues in stepping into the 21st century and adopting a comprehensive replay system. The NFL's current format has been in place since 1999, and NBA officials routinely review objective calls in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. But as of now, blatant umpire screwups like the one that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2011 cannot be reviewed, even if television viewers at home see immediately (and usually repeatedly) that the call is wrong.

The umpire who messed up Galarraga's historic moment, veteran Jim Joyce, was actually on the third-base bag in the waning moments of Game 3 and made the obstruction ruling that ended the game, a gutsy and ultimately correct call. But when umps like Joyce do "kick the shit" out of a call, replay must exist to protect the integrity of the game and save the men in blue from Don Denkinger's fate. Thank goodness it's coming next season.

What do you think of the series so far guys? Are you excited about the coming expansion of instant replay? And how cool is David Ross's salt-and-pepper beard?

Stevens: Jake, you almost lost me at Don Denkinger. That famously blown call in the 1985 World Series was, after all, a key factor in my beloved Royals winning their only series title. I'll even admit there's a certain archaic joy in the possibility of blown calls affecting a game. Jeffrey Maier gifting Derek Jeter a homer in 1996 comes to mind. Sports are about entertainment, and truly screwed-up officiating like that gives us all something to talk about.

But, nah.

Take last night. The Red Sox sent David Ross home on Jacoby Ellsbury’s single. At the plate, Ross seemed to evade Yadier Molina's tag, but was nevertheless punched out by home plate umpire Bill Miller. That's the current math of baseball. If the ball beats the player to the bag, he's generally going to be called out—whether he evades the tag or not. That's just wrong.

Purists might argue that instant replay will take away some of what make the game unique. Maybe. But unique isn't always good. My problem with replay is that it doesn't go far enough. What bugs me about the new system is that it's left up to managerial discretion. Like the NFL with its silly red flags, it will be left up to a manager to decide which possibly blown call needs to be challenged. Managers will be allowed one challenge in the first six innings and two more from the seventh to the end of the game. Dumb. Jake, you mentioned the missed call that ruined Galarraga's potential perfecto. Even if the new replay system had been in place, it's easy to imagine a situation where Jim Leyland would have had no challenges left by the ninth. The bad call might still have stood. Why go there? If we have the technology to eliminate bad calls, let's eliminate them. Every single call on the field should be reviewed, every time.

That means every call—including (gasp!) balls and strikes. It's just absurd that the most fundamental play in the game is always left up to interpretation. Baseball’s official rules clearly state what a strike zone is, yet every single umpire has a different one. No other sport tolerates this kind of murkiness. Why should baseball?

I'll grant this removes some of the theater from the sport. A hitter can't turn around and yell at a computer for having a too-broad strike zone. A pitcher can't grumble at a computer for squeezing him. Managers won't be able to run out on the field and squabble over a missed tag. But, really, they shouldn't have to. The point should be getting every call right, every time. If that means the Royals would never have rallied in '85, and Jeter wouldn't have hit a homer in '96, so be it.

The biggest drawback to the new replay is that won't let umpires penalize players for bad facial hair. Okay, I'm kidding about that. But I'm serious about the need for a truly comprehensive instant replay system.

That's my take, Patrick. What's yours?

Hruby: Hampton, Jake, first of all: It's good to have the Sports Roundtable back. We've missed so much over the last few months—Dwight Howard's dithering, Johnny Manziel concern-trolling, "League of Denial," the ongoing Washington Redskins nickname controversy, baseball's fungus-like bloom of every-man-a-relief-pitcher postseason facial hair: Gaze upon me, ye NHL playoff beards, and despair!—that I can't help but wish that instant replay somehow applied to us. But as far as baseball goes? I'm for it. And against it. Not in a flip-flop way. I just think that when it comes to replay, there's something of a Goldilocks Zone: Too little is infuriating, and too much is soul-crushing.

Fittingly enough, the current World Series illustrates this.

Hampton, you're right about bad calls. Leagues should strive to eliminate them. The big ones, at least. The obvious-in-retrospect ones. The bang-bang, game-changing plays that most can be helped by a second, third and fourth look. Plays at the plate are perfect for this. So is any sort of close call at the bases. We saw that on Monday night. Thanks to super-slow-motion, high-definition and multiple camera angles, replay can almost always yield the correct call on the sort of plays that even a seasoned official can botch. It's kind of like using replay to determine whether a shot attempt beat the buzzer in basketball. Did the runner beat the tag or not? That's pretty much black-or-white.

I like the idea of a manager challenge system, too—we've seen the challenge system in football and tennis, and in both sports, it adds an element of strategy and entertainment while keeping games from bogging down in an endless series of officiating checks and re-checks. Which is important. After all, no one pays to watch officials, and the best contests are the ones where you hardly notice the umps and referees are there. The typically rhythmless, foul-fest final minutes of a close college basketball game are borderline interminable; having always-available, mandatory replay would turn baseball into a similar viewing chore, even though baseball is slow-paced to begin with. St. Louis might have been frustrated by Game 1's force play overturn—but how frustrated would both teams be, not to mention the rest of us, if every single ball and strike was subject to the same scrutiny?

No, Hampton, subjecting balls and strikes to replay is a terrible idea. They are—and need to be—judgment calls. Same as holding in football, or shooting fouls in basketball. Unlike the lines on a tennis court, batters and pitchers come in different sizes with different stances and varying stuff; strike zone rules are necessary guidelines, but can't be rigid absolutes. I mean, I suppose you could design, build and program a machine to make calls—but that machine would still be dealing with the aforementioned variation. We'd be left to argue about algorithms and parameters. Also, we wouldn't have this.

Look, I don't want umpires to "kick the shit" out of calls, either. But some kinds of calls will always have shit-kicking potential. That's true in life, too. Both are fundamentally unfair. Sometimes. If either the Red Sox or the Cardinals end up losing this wild, wild series (and they just might) on a Galarragian botch, they'll be mad. Rightly so. But they'll also have to live with it. All of us do.