Instant replay makes baseball more like a video game

The sight of human beings arguing or deciding calls in baseball may disappear very soon.

The sight of human beings arguing or deciding calls in baseball may disappear very soon.

Brad Ausmus knows how to play the game. And he’s probably good at poker too. Because so far a good number of his bets are paying off for the Detroit Tigers.

Through games of June 30, Brad Ausmus was the second-most successful manager in the AL Central in his replay challenges, winning twelve of twenty-one, 57 percent — better than the Twins’ Ron Gardenhire (eight of eighteen, 44 percent), the White Sox’s Robin Ventura (seven of fifteen, 47 percent) and the Indians’ Terry Francona (seven of eighteen, 39 percent), but not as good as the Royals’ Ned Yost (fifteen of twenty-two, 68 percent). It’s a pretty meaningless stat, however, because a guy in the clubhouse watching the TV feed is really calling the shots in most cases, not the manager.

When it comes to leaving well enough alone, maybe the 138-year-old enterprise known as major league baseball can learn a thing or two from FIFA. Soccer, as we chauvinistically call it here in the United States, is a sport almost completely unchanged in eighty-four years of World Cup competition. It is proudly quaint—there is no clock beyond the referee’s watch, no fouls unless the one omnipotent official sees and calls them, and no replay technology (although even in this most traditional of sports “goal line technology” has recently been instituted for the rare case when it’s unclear whether a ball has made it into the goal — quite understandably, since a single goal means so much in the sport).

This year MLB jumped with both feet into its new replay experiment. How’s it going so far? Well, everyone seems to love it. Players, managers, and fans are happy that their team no longer gets “robbed” so often by the umpires—and the umps appreciate how it takes some of the burden of blame off their shoulders.

The lure of technology is irresistible. Most sports see no reason not to use it to make their game more “accurate,” even if it means interrupting the action — and so college basketball fans get treated to the gripping spectacle of refs huddling around the scorer’s table to see if a few fractions of a second must be added back on the time clock. And now MLB fans thrill as the game stops and they watch umpires put on headphones and call headquarters.

For more than a century, MLB did just fine with four sets of eyes belonging to the men in blue. But when TV broadcasts started to show replays of every close call, dissatisfaction with umpire performance began to spread. Now umps are subservient to every possible angle that can be captured by the ubiquitous cameras.

What does it prove? They’re overwhelmingly right, but they’re human, so on rare occasions they get it wrong. And sometimes (dismiss this troubling thought) it’s very hard to tell.

Baseball is a sport predicated on failure. Batters who fail seven times out of ten are stars. The fact that umpires might err on one or two of every hundred calls has until now also just been a part of the game, just like grounders that take bad hops over fielder’s gloves or poorly hit balls that fall for bloop hits. Chance occurrences are part of the sport, and it’s impossible to eliminate them. Even the best pitchers need a lot of luck to throw a no-hitter.

Which leads us to the Galarraga Argument. If we’d only had replay, Armando would have had a perfect game (that is, if any challenges had remained in the ninth). But then he wouldn’t have been nearly as famous. And if it hadn’t been for equally historic mishaps, few would recall who Bill Buckner or Fred Merkle were.

In fact, the integrity of the game does not rest on whether every event is just or fair, whether every play is made, and whether every call is correct. If you think otherwise, if you believe every decision must be gotten right, then why are managers limited in their challenges? Baseball is a sport, but having only two chips to play in the replay challenge makes it more like a silly board game. (The only previous “counting” rule like that is the very sensible limit on managers’ visits to the mound.)

If the purpose of replay is to correct errors, why allow some do-overs but not others? If it so important to get every call “right,” why not use robots to call balls and strikes and install monitors all over the stadium that can instantly display the “right” call? (The only glitch might be determining instantly whether a ball is caught on the fly or not, or whether a decision on a runner being safe or out takes off a force play or not. But I’m sure enough monitors can be installed so that players can glance up and see the results on the fly—just as basketball players can glance up at the shot clock.)

This is where we’re inevitably heading. Life is becoming more like a video game. The dictates of instant gratification threaten to overwhelm any remaining opposition from old fogeys like me, and umpires will sooner or later disappear. When they do, many will say good riddance.

The fly in the ointment is the troubling reality that many calls cannot be resolved through technology. Because the distance between bases is still so amazingly perfect 150 years after Alexander Cartwright plotted it, there sometimes really are virtual ties between a thrown ball and a player’s foot — and pitches that precisely graze corners of the strike zone.

Can machines always make better judgments than humans? Put me down as a skeptic — or, if you prefer, a Luddite.