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Reviewing instant replay

MLB announced proposed changes to the implementation of instant replay in baseball. The announcement has caused opinions to flare on both sides. What's being discussed, and how might it affect the game we know and love?

Jamie Sabau

Baseball is an old game in a new age. For decades, baseball took a backseat to no other sport in America, but things have changed. More importantly, as time has gone on, American sports have changed with the times. Sports in the U.S. have joined the economy as major sources of business, they have been vehicles of cultural and social change, and they have done so while organically adapting to the time.

Baseball, being the oldest and most storied of the lot, has had more issues of stagnation and tradition when facing the possibility or sometimes the necessity to change. In the last few decades, baseball has introduced free agency, the designated hitter, added new franchises, increased the number of teams to reach the postseason, introduced statutes governing the use of performance enhancing substances, and now even has teams from the two separate leagues playing each other on a regular basis. Given all of these characteristics of modern baseball that have been introduced, argued about, and eventually accepted, it makes perfect sense that baseball, like any other sport, should continue to improve itself.

This leads us to the recent news that MLB will, pending a number of votes and negotiations, introduce a more enhanced and comprehensive usage of instant replay in game situations beginning supposedly in 2014. For better or for worse, instant replay has permeated into sports culture and vernacular to the point at which three of the four major American sports now use instant replay in a fluid manner throughout the course of each season. Baseball, as the elder statesman often does, has been a little late to the instant replay party, causing many advocates of its use to constantly berate and verbally abuse the internet when an umpire fails to make the correct call.

No one would deny that one botched call in a baseball game could change the outcome of said game. Given that we possess technology that gives umpires the chance to make the correct call at nearly all times during a game, it seems ludicrous not to apply that technology. Just like allowing DNA testing to reopen criminal trials from years before the technology was in use or admissible in court, the number of reasons not to use instant replay have dwindled to the point at which almost none remain.

The proposed system would include manager challenges. Each manager would be given the ability to officially challenge one time through the first six innings and twice in the final three innings. Managers often come out of the dugout to argue calls, and most of the time, even after a conference by the umpires, the call stands and everyone moves on. This spectacle of the manager arguing with the umpire, usually to no avail, has become accepted in the baseball world, but for some reason the more logical approach of replacing these infant-like temper tantrums with instant replay constitutes more inflammatory.

Major League Baseball has been weighing numerous issues in considering an expanded use of instant replay. One obstacle the league has attempted to tackle is the idea that more instant replay will lead to longer games, and more specifically, less time spent during the game not playing baseball. Still, if we were to replace almost all arguments between managers and umpires with a quick tossing of a flag onto the field indicating the desire to challenge a call, we might end up with a similar amount of time taken up not actually playing the game. It is a much more efficient use of umpires time to take a minute or two to look at replays to determine the proper call than to spend yelling at a manager after which nothing of consequence has changed except the possibility that the manager has been removed from the game.

Publications around the baseball world instantly churned out pieces from different perspectives with opinions and information as to what an expansion of replay like the proposed model might do for the game. Here are some excepts from these articles:

Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs:

"It seems to me this is a sure-fire way to leave nobody satisfied. People who are opposed to expanded replay will remain opposed to expanded replay. People in favor of expanded replay won't understand the limitations. And those are the two groups. This really is a fairly black-and-white issue, as rare as that is, and this smells like a halfhearted compromise."

Sullivan's statement sheds some more light on the situation. He calls the issue a clear split between those who want replay and those who won't ever accept it. Maybe instead the division lies between those zealots, who want to see the call correct no matter what it takes, and those who enjoy the game as is, and eschew change as it can only cause unnecessary ruckus that precludes them from enjoying baseball as the currently do.

In discussing the trade off made between lengthening the time of the game and getting the calls correct, Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated writes:

"No matter what route is taken, for change that's so long overdue, it's worth getting right with proper implementation and training rather than rushing a glaringly imperfect system into being for the sake of expediency. It's disappointing that MLB didn't opt for a system that puts the emphasis on the right call above the strategic deployment of an artificially scarce resource, and it's certain that the challenge system will have its critics, its conflicts and its controversies. Perhaps it will evolve over time, reviewed at this point next year and tweaked if there's widespread dissatisfaction."

Jaffe has made the decision that the proposed system has flaws, and that the end goal must be to get the calls right at the expense of anything else, so why make alterations if you don't "go for the gold?" His view on the situation may be narrow, but it represents a large cohort of fans, pundits, and aficionados who love the game and value truth over process. Get the call correct, nothing else matters. His last sentence discussing the ability for greater tweaking of the system as it becomes a more natural part of the game stands as the most important aspect of his argument. The proposed system constitutes the only information we have thus far, so we attempt to forecast what might happen, but leave out the possibility that we can polish and perfect the system as it moves forward. This is a mistake, and as fans we need to remember not to overreact without giving this a shot first.

Over at Baseball Prospectus we get the admittedly optimistic view from Ben Lindbergh:

"But come on, folks: forest for the trees. Our long national no-replay nightmare is over, and reality-based baseball is here. We can't undo Don Denkinger, but we can prevent future infamous calls. That's something to celebrate, even if the implementation isn't ideal."

Lindbergh's argument isn't that the newly proposed system will fix everything, or that it doesn't fix enough. Instead he makes the case for progress. Make changes to the system, monitor and track the affects from that stimulus, and then make he necessary changes as time goes in order to attain an instant replay process that fits just right into the game. This point of view is one of acceptance and perspective, but it also involves more time, time to perfect the system.

It doesn't matter so much what you believe, the game will change without your direct input. Baseball will continue to have three outs to an inning, 9 innings in a regulation game, and the mound will remain 60 feet and six inches away from home plate. In other sports, instant replay has become a natural part of the game, an aspect that is no longer seen as extraneous or burdensome, but instead as necessary. Baseball, due to the nature and history of the game, has to change at its own pace. If that means implementing a flawed system, and then taking a year, two years, or even five years to polish that system to one that has as few flaws as possible, then so be it. More importantly, allowing for the usage to change over time gives fans more time to warm to the change, and more time to accept it as the standard. This is the nature of change, and sometimes it comes more rapidly than at other times, but in the case of instant replay and baseball, it's time for something to happen, and for now we'll just have to sit back and watch it play out.

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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference.

Ben Horrow is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and That Ball's Outta Here. You can follow him on Twitter at @Summerpastime.

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