Missed Calls in Braves Game Highlight MLB Replay Flaws

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I like instant replay. I don’t want much “human element” from the umpires — we get plenty of that from the actual participants. With the level of technology available to us in 2018, it would be silly to allow bad calls to go uncorrected.

And yet, here we are in 2018, allowing bad calls to go uncorrected even though we have a replay system in place. I’ve written about this before, but last night’s game between the Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves highlighted what are, to my mind, the three biggest flaws in the current replay system. Not surprisingly, these three flaws are all directly borrowed from the NFL’s replay system; I will never understand why Major League Baseball, when trying to develop a good instant replay system, thought to themselves, “You know those silly rules the NFL has that everyone hates? Let’s do it like that!”

First, the plays, and then we’ll discuss the flaws. In the bottom of the fifth inning of yesterday’s game, Johan Camargo attempted to score on a wild pitch by Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery. The ball took a fortuitous bounce off the backstop, allowing catcher Willson Contreras to quickly get to the ball, spin, and fire a throw to Montgomery covering the plate. Camargo slid head first into the plate, Montgomery swiped a tag, and home plate umpire Jim Wolf called Camargo out. The Braves challenged, but the ruling was that there was not enough evidence to overturn the call on the field. Here’s the play:

Just moments later, Montgomery uncorked another pitch in the dirt. This one only got a few feet away from Contreras, who scooped it up and fired to third baseman Kris Bryant to nail baserunner Charlie Culberson, who was trying to advance from second base on the play. Culberson immediately reacted with a mix of outrage and disbelief, and the replays make it clear why: third base umpire Sam Holbrook missed the call, and Culberson was clearly safe. But because the Braves’ challenge on the previous play had been unsuccessful, they had no more challenges available. Culberson stood on the base in disbelief for a while, but he eventually realized that there was nothing he could do.

Yesterday's @Braves game exposed three big flaws that MLB's replay system copied from the NFL. Here are some solutions to those flaws.Click To Tweet

(The Culberson play is not currently available for embedding from MLB.com — it’s almost as if they don’t want to make it too easy for people to see bad calls! — but here’s the link so you can see for yourself.)

As noted before, I think this inning highlights three of the biggest flaws in the current replay system. They are:

Flaw 1: The “Clear and Convincing” Clause

There are three possible outcomes of a replay challenge:

  1. “Confirmed.” There is clear video evidence that the umpire made the correct call on the field.
  2. “Overturned.” There is clear video evidence that the umpire made the incorrect call on the field.
  3. “Call Stands.” The video evidence is inconclusive, so we defer to the call on the field.

The problem is, there are many degrees of “inconclusive.” In the current system, “We’re 90 percent sure the ump made the right call” and “We’re 90 percent sure the ump made the wrong call” are treated exactly the same: “Call Stands.”

I understand the impulse, really. We want calls in real time, even on close plays, and if the calls can be easily overturned, they lose their gravitas or whatever. But on the play at the plate, it’s pretty clear that Camargo was probably safe. Not 100 percent clear, but if you were to watch the play with no knowledge of what the call on the field was, tasked with determining whether he is safe or out, you’d go with “safe.”

Jim Wolf did everything right on this play. He was in excellent position to make the call, and in live speed, it looked to him like Montgomery got the tag on Camargo before Camargo’s hand touched the plate. But that’s the problem: even when an umpire does everything right, there are bang-bang plays that the human eye just misses sometimes.

If we are going to use replay, it is silly to put so much weight on the snap judgment of a fallible human being making a call in real time with only one angle to look at. If the call looks like a toss-up on replay, sure, let’s defer to the original call. But we shouldn’t require absolutely surety to overturn a call. If the replay officials are 80 percent sure that the runner is safe, he should be called safe, regardless of what the call on the field was. I don’t know exactly what the percentages should be, but I’m 100 percent sure the threshold should be well below 100 percent.

Proposed Fix: Change the threshold from “Clear and Convincing” to something lower that allows “pretty sure the call was right” to be treated differently than “pretty sure the call was wrong.”

Flaw 2: Manager Challenges

We just discussed how even an umpire in great position can miss a call sometimes. You know who is responsible for challenging those calls? A guy with a much worse view of the play.

Managers sit on the top step of the dugout. Their views are obstructed by any number of people on any given play. In the current system, if there’s a play that looks to the manager’s eye like it might have been missed, he holds up his hand to let the umpire know that he’s thinking about challenging. Then he looks back at his bench coach, who is on the phone with a person in the team’s video review room who is looking at the replays. The manager periodically glances at the clock in center field, which counts down 30 seconds from the end of the play. At some point before the clock hits 0:00, the manager either signals that he wants a replay or he signals “nevermind, let’s keep going.”

So a manager challenge is not really a manager challenge — it’s essentially a challenge by the video review person, whose name we don’t know and whose face we’ll never see.

Proposed Fix: If it’s a person looking at replays who determines whether to challenge, we should take it one step further. Put a fifth umpire up in the press box for every game, with access to the same replays as the current video review persons who work for the teams. When a play happens on the field that makes the umpire think, “Hmmm, I wonder if they missed that,” he can press a little button that signals to the home plate ump that he’s going to take a quick look. If a quick look (within 30 seconds, just like the current system) determines that a deeper review is in order, he signals that he’s doing a full review. But instead of taking the time for two umpires to go over, get the headphones on, explain to the people in New York what is being challenged, etc., he can just start the review immediately. And since we only need 80 percent confidence in the call (pursuant to the fix to Flaw 1), the review can be done pretty quickly. I bet most reviews would be done in roughly the time it currently takes to get a review started.

The benefits to this system are many. It lets the league employ more umpires, which would seem to outweigh any concerns from the umpires union about being marginalized by replay. It would cut down on time spent watching a manager hold his hand up while glancing anxiously between his bench coach and the countdown clock. It would allow the league to exercise a little control over what to review and what not to review, like a guy’s foot popping off the base by a millimeter on his slide into second base, etc. And perhaps biggest of all, it would address Flaw 3…

Flaw 3: There’s a Limit on Challenges, but There’s No Limit on Bad Calls

In yesterday’s game, the Braves lost their challenge because the replay officials were only pretty sure the Braves were right. Then, seconds later, when there was a call that was super obviously wrong, there was nothing the Braves could do about it.

Even if we eliminate the controversy about the Camargo play, the current system allows an obvious missed call to go uncorrected because of other plays that came before it.

I understand wanting to limit the number of times a manager can challenge. If a manager could just challenge every call, the game would last forever. But how do you place a limit on the number of challenges and also guarantee that egregious errors like the one Sam Holbrook made don’t go unfixed? Easy. You limit the number of challenges to zero. Stop putting the burden of challenging calls on the manager and his video review person. Umpires exist for the sole purpose of making correct calls on the field — so let’s put the onus of correcting bad calls on the umpires, too.

Simply put, if the umpires on the field make 10 bad calls in a game, there should be 10 replays that overturn those calls. If they make one bad call, there should be one overturned call. The number of replay reviews should be determined by the number of plays that need to be reviewed, not by an arbitrary one-size-fits-all limit. And the best way to ensure that replays are used judiciously is to have them called for by impartial third parties whose only job is to get the call right.

Proposed Fix: Replay reviews should be initiated by a fifth umpire inside the stadium, and there should be no limit on the number of missed calls that can be corrected during a game.

Okay, so Flaw 2 and Flaw 3 kind of merged together, or at least their solutions did. All three of these flaws are essentially clones of similar rules in the NFL’s wildly unpopular replay system. MLB had the chance to implement something with all the benefits of a good replay system and none of the major flaws; instead, they just copied it directly, flaws and all. The good news is, the replay system has been under constant review (see what I did there?) since its inception, so there’s still time to fix it.

There you have it, Rob Manfred. I’ve identified three flaws in the system and easy solutions to all three. Your move.

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