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Umpires, Rulebooks, and Instant Replay

Managers ejected, players dejected, and umpires crawling under the nearest rock. These are only a few of the reactions to some recent blow calls by the officiating crews in Major League Baseball games. Still, three in one week shines a light on numerous problems involving officials in baseball games. Replay is barely utilized, and even in those situations in which it is allowed, some umpires apparently cannot use it properly. MLB has a chance to use this week as a positive, but will it lead to any positive change?

Jason Miller

It has been a rough week umpires in Major League Baseball. Throughout any MLB season, all fans, players, coaches, and pundits expect umpires to miss a call or make a mistake. The most infamous missed call in the last few seasons came during a Tigers Indians game in which Tigers righty Armando Galarraga needed just one more out to complete a pitcher's most impressive individual accomplishment, the perfect game. We all remember what happened next. On a ground ball fielded by the first baseman and thrown to Galarraga covering first base, umpire Jim Joyce called the Indians runner safe despite clear evidence to the contrary. The call stood, the perfect game was ruined, Joyce left disgraced, and everyone, even Indians fans, left the park somewhat disappointed.

It is at the most important moments when we as fans believe officiating must be perfect. Often times, as long as such moments are relatively infrequent, officiating gaffs are overlooked or seen as "part of the game." Umpires, referees, and the like are human, and no human is perfect, even when we expect or demand flawlessness. In his book "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives", Leonard Mlodinow explains the issue with human's vision versus a camera:

"For example, most people consider that the greatest evidence of an event one can obtain is to see it with their own eyes, and in a court of law little is held in more esteem than eyewitness testimony. Yet, if you asked to display for a court a video of the same quality as the unprocessed data captured on the retina of a human eye, the judge might wonder what you were trying to put over...Moreover, the only part of our field of vision with good resolution is a narrow area of about 1 degree of visual angle around the retina's center, an area the width of our thumb as it looks when held at arm's length. Outside that region, resolution drops of sharply...Fortunately, the brain processes the data, combining the input from both eyes, filing in gaps on the assumption that the visual properties of neighboring locations are similar and interpolating. The result-at least until age, injury, disease, or an excess of mai tais takes its toll- is a happy human being suffering from the compelling illusion that his or her vision is sharp and clear."

In comparison to a machine, humans are severely lacking. Cameras pick up everything in the viewfinder, while humans have numerous obstacles to overcome. Still, somehow, due to our brains, yes those incredible specimens hopefully in tact inside our skulls, we make up for some, but not all of this discrepancy. Humans have the ability of thought, something a camera lacks, while cameras have the ability of incredible sight, something humans lack. Combine the two, and viola, presto, and eureka, you've got yourself a recipe for success.

In baseball, instant replay, or the assistance of slowed down video footage shown from numerous angels, may only be utilized to determine whether a fly ball should be deemed a home run, foul ball, or automatic double. Otherwise, we put the entire onus on getting the calls on the field correct to those flawed humans in blue (well, black, but we say blue!). Well, this week, we failed more than once, some mistakes worse than others, but in all three instances, something went wrong.

First, in the 9th inning of the Indians Athletics game on Wednesday May 8th, the A's Adam Rosales hit a ball that crossed over the yellow line of demarcation hitting a railing in the stands, thus constituting a home run. The umpires, as they have been prone to do, called this "close" play a ground rule double, sending Rosales to second base. Still, the play was close, so, as allowed by the rules governing baseball, the umpires descending the dugout steps to review the play using video footage and slow motion instant replay. After looking it over, the umpires proclaimed that their call of a double would stand, citing the play as inconclusive. As Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs put it:

"Basically, the wrong call was made on the field. But that was understandable, because from a distance it would've been hard to tell what the ball hit. That's why instant replay exists, and the system worked perfectly, right up until Hernandez and the rest of the umpires watched slow-motion video and still got it wrong."

Not surprisingly, this act of incompetence led to A's manager Bob Melvin's swift ejection due to vehement and justified arguing. After the game Melvin remained calm, but obviously still fuming when discussing the call with reporters. He even mentioned that he listened to the Indians broadcasters say they thought the umpire crew got the call wrong.

On the same night, in Tampa Bay, Blue Jays infielder Maicer Izturis hit a ground ball into the infield that was fielded and an out recorded. Except, Izturis claimed that the ball had hit him before landing in fair territory, grimacing in pain from the contact his bone had made with the ball. Well, Maicer, like many before him was faking, in an attempt to remain at bat. The 1st base and home plate umpires somehow agreed that Izturis had actually been hit by said ground ball, even though on replay the ball clearly avoided Izturis's entire body. Rays skipper Joe Madden had a fantastic view from the dugout, and he began to complain, eventually resulting in his ejection from the ball game. Now, this wasn't a "reviewable" call under MLB's rules, but instead of an out on that pitch, the at bat continued.

That brings us to Thursday night in Houston. The lowly Astros needed on more win against the downtrodden Angels to complete a sweep of the Halos. In the top of the 7th, Astros manager Bo Porter replaced his pitcher with a reliever. After being announced into the game and having thrown several warm up pitches, the Angels countered with a pinch-hitter. Then, Porter removed his pitcher again for a righty reliever. Immediately, Mike Scioscia came out to argue because the MLB rule clearly states that:

"If the pitcher is replaced, the substitute pitcher shall pitch to the batter then at bat, or any substitute batter, until such batter is put out or reaches first base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire-in-chief's judgment, incapacitates him for further play as a pitcher."

Apparently arguing the rules with umpires, the supposed masters of the rulebook, got Scioscia nowhere, since the umpiring crew allowed the second substitution to occur, and would not yield. Not surprisingly, the Angels played the rest of the game under protest, and actually pulled out a nail biter, winning the game 6-5.

No matter, these three incidents may have randomly occurred in the same week, but it shines a humongous magnified glass on the issue of replay and officiating in baseball. Some believe that umpires are the human part of the game. They do a great job most of the time, a good job some of the time, and a poor job every so often. Others think that umpires, while the tradition, constitute an antiquated way of overseeing the rules of the game, and should be dispensed with.

MLB announced on Friday that the call in the Angels game was wrong, and prior to that announced that the botched home run call in the A's game was also the wrong call. Still, these events have not pushed the league towards making any immediate changes, although when has the league ever done anything immediately? In addition the league suspended the umpire that did not get the ruling correct in the Angels game, a minor consolation. Still, as the league sits right now, these decisions were without a doubt the proper reactions.

I am in favor of greater use of instant replay in baseball. Whether we should use robots and cameras to make all the calls on the field is another question. I think that because humans have the ability to think, change, deduce, remember, and feel, they should have a significant part in officiating baseball games. Still, let's accept and recognize that humans, while superior in some aspects, have inherent deficiencies we can now overcome.

The three other major sports in America, as well as Tennis, and soon Soccer, have realized this. More importantly, the most popular sport in the country, football, has incorporated replay, and enhanced its involvement, for many years. In fact, in football, replay is seen as a spectacle, with coaches deciding on challenges, and TV producers and announcers making a big deal out of "going to the booth review." MLB may have made the right decisions this week, except maybe an apology to Joe Madden wouldn't be out of line, but in the near future, the league must make instant replay a more dominant and useable force in every single game.