Instant Replay: Hidden Costs

1 09 2010

Donald was ruled safe on this play, ending Armando Galarraga's bid at baseball immortality.

Posted by Texas Flats

On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers pitched the most infamous one-hitter in the history of baseball.  We all know what happened by now: 26 up, 26 down, with light-hitting rookie Jason Donald up to bat.  An eager crowd stood in anticipation as Donald grounded to first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who tossed over to Galarraga covering first.  The stadium erupted, and for a split second, the 17,738 fans at Comerica Park (and countless more watching the game on TV) were euphoric.  In the span of just 24 days, an unprecedented three perfect games had been thrown in the new Year of the Pitcher.  It was the perfect storyline to signal the end of Major League Baseball’s most imperfect period: the Steroid Era.  Except, it never happened.  Veteran umpire (and if not the best in the game, he’s certainly close) Jim Joyce called Donald safe.  A stunned crowd delivered a raucous chorus of boos and jeers as Galarraga quickly retired Trevor Crowe for the final out.  The fans knew what had happened.  The Tigers knew what had happened.  And after the game, Joyce saw exactly what everyone else did: Donald was out.  One of the most celebrated umpires in the game today missed the call, and Galaragga was robbed of his chance to join the elite ranks of Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, and the 17 other pitchers in Major League history who have thrown a perfect game.

As a baseball fan, I would have been upset no matter who the pitcher was (yes, even if he was a Yankee).  But as a Tigers fan?  I almost cried.  It wasn’t the only blown call we‘ve seen lately, and it may not have had as much an effect as Phil Cuzzi’s or Tim McClelland’s did in last year’s American League playoffs, but it may be the most notorious blown call in recent memory.  The calls for further implementation of instant replay grew, especially after a recent Outside The Lines study showed that umpires miss 20% of “close” calls, a rate of more than one per game.  And as anyone old enough to remember who Jeffrey Maier is can tell you, one missed call can make a world of difference.  It may finally be time for Major League Baseball to enter the 21st Century and use instant replay for all calls (with the possible exception of balls and strikes), but there are some who are concerned with its implementation.  After all, time is money, and instant replay is likely to cost both.

“You have to start somewhere, and now’s the time.” Those are the words of former umpire Don Denkinger, whose blown call in the 1985 World Series helped Kansas City defeat the St. Louis Cardinals. After watching the events of 2009’s postseason unfold, he began to publicly support the further use of instant replay.

Many are opposed to instant replay simply because baseball has gotten by without it for over 150 years.  While tradition is something to be respected, we cannot oppose positive change simply because “that’s how we’ve always done it”.  After all, coat and tie used to be the “traditional” outfit for fans going to a game, but no one does that anymore, do they?  An NFL-style challenge system seems unworkable for a number of reasons, so maybe the simplest suggestion for its execution is to have a 5th umpire in the booth reviewing every call on the field, and if a call is questionable, that umpire can signal down to the Crew Chief that the play should be reviewed.  The most common objection to this (and indeed, every suggestion for instant replay) is that it will increase the time of a game that’s already taking too long to play.  My first reaction to these objections is “What’s another three minutes going to do when the game is already taking three hours?”  Still, these concerns may not be unfounded, so it’s best to analyze the numbers.

In 2009, the average MLB game lasted 175.38 minutes (and contrary to popular belief, National League games, minus the DH, actually lasted slightly longer than American League games did, though only by a couple of seconds).  When we remove extra-inning affairs and rain-shortened games, that time drops to 171.79 minutes, just under the three-hour mark (and if that’s too long for you, then so is a 185-minute NFL game.  But they were able to institute instant replay without the league falling into disarray).

MLB Rule 8.04 directs that “[w]hen the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball… the 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher.”  12 seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but according to a recent study, the average time between pitches is 26.3 seconds.  I haven ’t found a statistic showing the average time between at bats, but when the ball is batted (whether in play or foul), this time will obviously increase.  And since it is these plays that are likely to be under review, that extra time comes in handy.  But since I don’t have an exact figure for the amount of time that passes, it wouldn’t be fair for me to make a guess, so for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just round it to 30 seconds.  If MLB were to institute a rule similar to the NFL’s, where the Crew Chief would be given 60 seconds to review tape and find incontrovertible evidence to overturn a call), then we’re at one minute.  Add in a few seconds for the booth umpire to review the footage and determine the call should be reviewed, the time that the umpire takes to get back to the field and make his call, and for play to resume, we’re probably looking at two minutes or so, which probably isn‘t that much longer than the average time a manager spends arguing with an umpire on a disputed call anyway.  In the NFL, a recent study showed the average length of game stoppage due to replay is just under three minutes, but unlike baseball, the NFL tends to use replay timeouts to air some commercials, which probably lengthens this delay.

It isn’t hard to figure out how many replays might be necessary in any given game; if the Outside The Lines study was accurate, umpires miss approximately 1 in 5 reviewable calls.  If umpires miss approximately one call per game, then logic dictates that there are about 5 plays per game that may require review.  It’s unlikely that all five of these plays will actually be reviewed, but looking at it from a worst-case scenario, let’s assume that they will be.  I mentioned earlier that each review is likely to last about two minutes, and at 5 reviews per game, we’d add 10 minutes per game.  That would increase the average length of a 9-inning game from 171 minutes to 181 minutes, still shorter than the average NFL broadcast.

Much of the concern surrounding instant replay doesn’t stem from the use of replay itself, but whether it will truly be “instant”. As Terry Francona put it, “We’d be out there all night”. But is that really the case?

If that’s still too long for you, there are ways Major League Baseball can shorten the game: actually enforcing rule 8.04 on the pitcher, as well as 6.02(d)(1) (requiring that the batter keep at least one foot in the box during his entire at bat, with just a few exceptions – no more of this stepping out after every pitch to take a few practice swings).  Commercial breaks can be shortened (but since there are some monetary costs associated with replay as well, that might not be a feasible solution).  There are a number of other suggestions for how baseball can pick up the pace of the game, and they are certainly not limited to these three ideas.

Adding a 5th umpire to each crew means an additional 17 umpires will be employed by Major League Baseball, something that former National League umpire and Umpiring Supervisor Ed Vargo spent years campaigning for.  These umpires will be called up from AAA (just like they are when a Major League umpire is on vacation), which may cause a small shortage of umpires in the minors, but minor league games only have three umpires anyway, and a players’ success or failure in the minors will not be determined by a blown call.  The starting salary for an MLB umpire is $120,000/year, so at 17 additional umpires, this will cost baseball just over $2 million per year.  Can baseball afford this?  Sure, Major League Baseball takes in $4.7 billion annually.  The question is, are they willing to?  Additional revenue can be found in a number of places, and one suggestion is to lower the salary cap for revenue sharing tax, and spread that money across the league, including the umpires’ union.  The umpires’ union would get bigger, and MLB would have a better system and more revenue.  These sorts of details would be hammered out during the (probably very intense) negotiations between the league owners, Major League Baseball execs, and the players’ and umpires’ unions, and the best we could do at this point is speculate.

This is an issue that the Commissioner’s Office simply cannot ignore, and it is my hope that Major League Baseball takes steps to make the game more perfect.  It’s time to ensure that the game will be decided on the players and coaches, not the umpires.  The players deserve it, and most of all, the fans deserve it.




5 responses

1 09 2010
New Law Era

This game and this call are just a few examples of how awful this baseball season has been.

1 09 2010

Not to mention that this would cut down on arguments from the manager, which means that, time-wise, the games would pretty much be even….

2 09 2010
Texas Flats

I’ve heard people advance the argument that it will actually increase manager arguments, just so it’ll give the booth umpire more time to review the call. I could see that happening, and if it’s really a big concern, they can always put in some safeguards against that happening.

6 09 2010
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3 05 2012
MLB Instant Replay: I Luv U, Do You Luv Me? | FanGraphs Baseball

[…] we could just run some computer simulations and call it day! Or, if we’re feeling frisky, maybe we could enforce the 12 second rule (8.04) that’s already on the books. Pitchers are supposed to hurl to home […]

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