May 5, 2015
The Worst Rule In Replay
I’ve been kicking this can for months, looking for a place to dispose of it properly. I could have kept kicking it, too, but for Casey McGehee and Doug Eddings. It was the seventh inning of Friday night’s Angels-Giants tilt, and the Angels had a runner on first base with nobody out. San Francisco led 1-0. Kole Calhoun led off the top of the seventh with a clean single to left field, bringing up David Freese. On an 0-1 count, Freese hit a double-play ball to McGehee at third base. It was a terrifically easy play, leading McGehee just enough to his left to shorten the first leg of the around-the-horn twin killing.
McGehee, however, flubbed it. The ball bounced up past his glove, deflected of his left side and rolled toward shortstop. Brandon Crawford, a great defensive shortstop who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, grabbed the ball and threw to second base brilliantly. It was a great, reflexive, instinctual play, though ideally, he’d have thrown to first base, because there simply wasn’t a play on the lead runner, Calhoun. Calhoun beat the throw, though somewhat narrowly.
Alas, that’s not the way Eddings saw it. He called Calhoun out, drawing one of the quicker team decisions to challenge in the short history of the replay system. A few looks confirmed what most fans had seen even in real time: the call was wrong. Calhoun beat the ball to second base with his feet-first slide. It confirmed that, and yet, the call stood. Calhoun had to jog back into the Angels dugout. There was one out, after all.
The official ruling was ‘call stands,’ mind you, not ‘call confirmed.’ Those are distinct decisions. A replay umpire in New York may issue either edict. ‘Call confirmed’ signifies that the umpire made the correct call, and was corroborated by video evidence. ‘Call stands’ means only that the standard set by the replay rules implemented when the system took effect last year—that there must be “clear and convincing” evidence that a call was incorrect in order to overturn it—was not met. In this case, because of some imperfect camera angles and the modicum of ambiguity about when a ball is considered caught by a fielder holding a base, there was sufficient uncertainty to prevent flipping the call.
When an umpire blows a call and a review is ordered, we use the first two slow-motion looks to determine that the call was wrong. We use the last six to determine whether this is one of the rare occasions on which the broken system in place will permit actual justice to be done. That’s the sad truth of the matter. The language of the replay rules ensures that the on-field umpire’s judgment of a play remains paramount, because whatever he decides, a replay must provide incontrovertible clarity in order to overrule him. The implication here is that the umpire on the field, watching the play at real speed, with human eyes, from only one angle, has some cosmic understanding of the capital-T Truth of the play that no camera can match.
Of course, that’s nonsense. Very often, while a camera can’t give a definitive, 100-percent-certain answer on a call, it provides us with a much better idea of what the correct call ought to have been than an umpire could. When a replay is ordered, we should always, always, always be asking ourselves only this: what does it look like the correct call should be? Whatever call is best supported by the multiple angles of slow-motion, high-definition footage, that should be the call. Instead, we get moments like Friday night, wherein a mistake by a human doing his best was compounded by a bureaucratically contrived system doing its worst. The theory to which one must subscribe, in order to find this tenable, is that an umpire understands some subjective truth about a play in motion that we don’t get from the objective evidence provided on tape. That’s indefensible, and yet, it’s replay law.
Why does it have to be this way? The easy, lazy answer is that the umpires union would never allow straightforward, blank-slate appeals, because it would cut the legs out from under the umpire on the field. That explanation is not only insufficient, but untrue. There is always some concession in return for which a union would agree to a given measure. Union leaders tend to be hard-boiled and hard-headed, and that’s truer of the umpires union than of almost any other, but ultimately, a union is an advocacy group. It has certain objectives, and an offer that promises enough advancement on those objectives can overcome almost any seeming poison pill. Be it friendlier rotations, better pay or a greater degree of tenure, there’s some horse for which Cowboy Joe West would trade the umps’ unearned benefit of the doubt. Blaming unions is one of the more popular ways of dodging real problems with a number of institutions, these days. They’re hardly ever the real culprits.
No, what’s standing in the way of progress here is that humans are horrible at dealing with progress. We fear change and that which is unknown, and so, we fight progress until it becomes obviously inevitable, by which time it has been actually inevitable for a while. We only hurt ourselves by doing this. We put ourselves in danger and gain nothing. It’s like resolutely marching downward on an escalator going up. Half measures and roadblocks to change, like the language that gives one bad look at a play the leg up over five good looks, only stop us from living well. There’s a human cost to moving forward; that is not to be denied. But the societal cost of resisting progress is astronomical, in money, lives, and happiness.
Since I dropped my philosophy minor at the end of my freshman year, though, let’s talk about the baseball cost of Friday night’s debacle. The Angels would have had runners on first and second and nobody out, had that call gone the right way. The run expectancy for that situation this season is 1.45. Instead, they had to live and work around a one-out, runner-on-first situation, the run expectancy of which is 0.51. (For the sample-size police, those numbers were 1.40 and 0.48 last season.) Eddings made a mistake worth nearly a full run, and the replay system concretized that injustice. The Angels would tie the game in the frame, but were unable to take the lead, and after another volley of single runs between the teams, the Giants walked off as winners, 3-2. A one-run umpire error went uncorrected in what turned out to be a one-run game, despite the play going under the microscope of replay. The Angels had been 36-percent likely to win that game before Freese hit the ball. Had the play been called correctly, they would have been roughly 44-percent likely to win. When the dust settled, they had just a 29 percent chance to win.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to act as though the call decided that game. Mike Scioscia inexplicably allowed C.J. Wilson to bat with two runners on and two outs in that seventh inning. Wilson had thrown only 63 pitches to that point, but the heart of the Giants’ order was due for a third time in the bottom of the seventh, and frankly, the leverage of that plate appearance (for the initiated, as Russell Carleton would say, the Leverage Index was 3.26) demanded a competent hitter. Scioscia managed as one unaccustomed to life without the DH. He seemed unprepared for that situation, for which there is no excuse. There’s also the matter of a really great encounter between Sergio Romo and Mike Trout in the top of the eighth. After an error and a single put two on with nobody out, Romo fanned Trout on five pitches, in a delightful battle wherein Trout fell behind 0-2, took a tough pitch, fouled off a tough pitch, then whiffed on a classic Romo slider. When Trout stepped to the plate, the Angels trailed but had a 55 percent chance of winning. After he swung through the slider, loudly swore, and stomped back to the dugout, the number was 40 percent.
The Angels are in freefall. (One could say that it’s been a long day, living in Reseda, except that Reseda lies well within Dodger Territory.) After opening the season with nearly a two-thirds shot at reaching the playoffs, they wake up Tuesday on the wrong side of a weighted coin flip, according to the Playoff Odds report. Part of that is the fact that the Astros have gone streaking, but the Angels can’t exactly give that as an excuse: they’re 11-14. It probably is not the case that a single call derailed their season. Rather, their owner’s petty and clumsy handling of the Josh Hamilton relapse created just the distraction a somewhat ramshackle roster didn’t need, and injuries (not least Hamilton’s, though his injury is no longer the reason he’s not contributing) have played a role. Still, we should make a note of the farce that was the McGehee-Eddings-Calhoun play. It’s a good reminder that even having access to the best imaginable resources with which to solve a problem can mean nothing, if our collective fear of the next step prevents us from using them.