Should Replays Have to Be “Clear and Convincing”?

Last night, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash had some harsh words for the umpires after the Rays’ 3-0 loss to the Seattle Mariners.

Noting he had no recourse “other than just to tell them how bad they stink,” Cash made it clear just how much he disagreed with a call made by the umpire’s early on in his team’s loss.

“Terrible. Terrible. It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We spend so much time on pace of play, let’s just get the damn call right on the field. It’s terrible. They ought to be embarrassed. Feels like we got beat twice tonight.”

Cash was upset about a replay decision in the first inning. With runners on first and third and one out, Mariners’ third baseman Kyle Seager hit a weak grounder between the pitcher’s mound and third base. In one motion, Tampa Bay pitcher Alex Colome fielded the ball barehanded and fired it to catcher Rene Rivera. The ball short-hopped Rivera, who made a nice scoop and placed a tag on Seth Smith, who was called safe by home plate umpire Tripp Gibson.

Rivera immediately motioned to the Rays’ dugout, telling Cash to challenge the call because Smith was out. Cash challenged the call, and after nearly three minutes of review, the umpires upheld the call on the field. Watch the play here:

It seems very likely, in looking at the replay, that Smith’s foot was on top of Rivera’s foot and that Smith never tagged home plate until after he had been tagged.

Rule III of the Official Replay Review Rules states:

Standard for Changing a Call

To change a reviewable call, the Replay Official must determine that there is clear and convincing evidence to change the original call that was made on the field of play. In other words, the original decision of the Umpire shall stand unchanged unless the evidence obtained by the Replay Official leads him to definitively conclude that the call on the field was incorrect.

I had a conversation with my friend about this very subject a few days ago. We were watching the May 22 game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. In the seventh inning of that game, with the Dodgers leading the Padres 1-0, Will Venable hit a single up the middle to score Derek Norris from second base. In real time, Norris looked clearly safe, but Dodgers manager Don Mattingly challenged the call. Replays showed what the television viewers (and home plate umpire Brian O’Nora) did not see in regular speed: Norris beat the throw, but as he slid, his right foot bounced off the ground and glided over the plate, allowing catcher A.J. Ellis to put a tag on him just before his left knee crossed the plate.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers and Zack Greinke, the evidence was not “clear and convincing,” and the call on the field was upheld. Watch the play here:

The question is: why does the evidence have to be clear and convincing in order to overturn a call? In an effort to get the call right as often as possible, does it really make sense to allow the split-second judgment of an on-field umpire who may or may not be in position to make the correct call to overrule the judgment of officials with six different slow-motion views, just because the replay officials are only 90 percent sure about the correct call?

My friend’s suggestion, which I think Kevin Cash would probably agree with, is for the replay officials to make their call without any knowledge of the call on the field. Only in cases where it really could go either way would they declare the replay inconclusive and defer to the original call.

Without the knowledge that the runners had been called safe, I think it’s pretty likely that both Smith and Norris would have been called out based on the video evidence. But because the replays only got the officials to “pretty sure,” the calls on the field stood.

Obviously, if the system were changed to have the replay officials make the calls without knowing the call on the field, we would occasionally have an instance where the correct call was made on the field but then overturned by the replay officials. But guess what? We would never know it! If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If a player touches the plate a split-second before he is tagged but he is called out because every available replay looked like he didn’t, is “out” actually the wrong call?

As it stands now, we often have cases where we’re all “pretty sure” that the call on the field was wrong, but because we’re not clearly and convincingly sure, the probably-wrong call stands. I’ll take an occasional theoretical wrong call that no one knows about over a multitude of probably-wrong calls any day.

If the goal is to get the calls right as often as possible, the best approach is to have the replay officials make their best calls regardless of what the on-field umpire called originally.

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