Here’s the problem with MLB’s current replay system: Too often, it doesn’t work.
Yeah, that’s probably oversimplifying things. The good news? Some fixes are simple!
On Sunday night in Atlanta, Phillies runner Alec Bohm failed to touch home plate on his ninth-inning slide. But was called safe on the field and replay officials allowed the call to stand. It was the deciding run a 7-6 win for the Phillies.
Last Thursday, Mets batter Michael Conforto clearly stuck his heavily-armored elbow into the strike zone and was nicked by a pitch from Miami right-hander Anthony Bass in the bottom of the ninth inning. The bases were loaded at the time, and the HBP forced home the deciding run in a 3-2 victory for the Mets.
In both cases, what actually happened was pretty clear from a couple quick of looks at replay. In both cases, though, the incorrect calls were allowed to stand.
“Why even have replay if you won’t overturn that?” Braves pitcher Drew Smyly, who started Sunday’s game against the Phillies, told reporters. “That’s the way I feel about it. I think everybody feels that way. There’s five different angles. It’s clear, he didn’t touch the plate.”
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who blocked the plate, agreed: “It makes me not even want it anymore, honestly,” he said. “It just slows the game down. It took five minutes for them to decide that, and to me, they got it wrong. I’d rather just not have it and get the game going.”
With respect, that’s the wrong conclusion.
Here’s the thing: Replay, in theory, is good. The goal has to be to get calls correct, right? And replay does, for the most part, do an outstanding job of correcting calls missed on the field. Correctly overturned plays are like offensive linemen in football — if you don’t hear about them, they’re doing a great job.
And yet, every time replay fails, calls to get rid of it rise up across the country, from players and writers and fans alike. I don’t understand that. Why would we want to go back to a time when we just accept that there are going to be a handful of calls missed every single game, with no system in place to get those calls right? Why not just fix the system?
Yes, to d’Arnaud’s point, a couple of times per game, replay slows the action. But, folks, the problem with baseball games that last nearly four hours is not one or two replay delays (most are under a minute). That’s a drop in the bucket.
In the Phillies-Braves game, I’m still not sure how replay officials failed to overturn the call on the field. Any objective look at the replay showed Bohm missed the plate, that his foot basically bounced over it on the slide. But one of the biggest problems with replay? For some reason, the call on the field carries weight.
From The Athletic, an email from the supervisor of the Phillies-Braves crew: “After viewing all relevant angles, the Replay Official could not definitively determine that the runner failed to touch home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag. The call STANDS, the runner is safe.”
Here’s a solution: How about just admitting umpires on the field could have made a mistake and have the replay officials in New York make the disputed call, unbiased by what the umpire on the field thought he saw? Dansby Swanson, the Atlanta shortstop, agrees.
“So if anything, the change could be,” Swanson told reporters, “they don’t know the call and they just make a call based on what they see on replay, not what’s actually (called) on the field.”
This makes a lot of sense, if your bottom-line goal is getting the call right. And that 100 percent should be the goal.
Now, about the Conforto situation: The three most infuriating words heard on a baseball broadcast are “it’s not reviewable.” Not to go all toddler on you, but … “Why? Why? Why?”
Why isn’t it reviewable? And, “because it’s just not” isn’t an acceptable answer. Is it a concession to the umpires, to allow them to have some control, some final say over what happens on the field?
Sorry, that’s not good enough.
If the goal is to get every call right — and if it’s not, again, what are we even doing? — here’s a list of what should be reviewable:
Replay, as it’s currently set up, allows for the folks in New York to check to see whether a batter is actually hit with a pitch. That’s good. They got it right. Conforto was grazed by the pitch. Well, his elbow armor was grazed.
But replay officials cannot, by rule, judge whether they believe Conforto intentionally leaned into the pitch. That makes zero sense.
Kulpa, as with any home-plate umpire, has to watch for a lot of things, but his priority has to be determining whether a pitch crosses the plate in the strike zone. It’s an incredibly difficult task that takes a lot of focus. Not to mention that the umpire is behind the batter, which might be the worst possible perspective to watch for the ever-so-slight lean of Conforto’s torso, led by his front arm, the one farthest away from the ump.
But looking at the play from a mound-to-plate view, it was clear that not only did Conforto make no attempt to avoid the pitch, but he actually leaned into the pitch.
Everyone watching the live broadcast saw what Conforto did. And everyone who watched even one single replay from that perspective saw Conforto’s lean.
But it wasn’t reviewable? That’s a joke.
Oh, and here’s the other thing. By rule, any pitch that hits a batter in the strike zone is supposed to be immediately called a dead-ball strike. By rule, it doesn’t even matter if the umpire thinks the batter failed to make an attempt to avoid the pitch, or leaned into the pitch.
Read that again. Here’s umpire Ted Barrett, if you don’t believe me.
Apparently that’s not reviewable, either. Again, even though we all saw the pitch over the plate on replay, and we all saw the little dot in the K-Zone outline.
So Kupla was wrong on two things on that one pitch. First, he should have called the pitch a strike and the play should have been dead. If he thought the pitch was a ball (he would have been wrong), he should have ruled that Conforto made no attempt to avoid the pitch, because he didn’t. It should have been a dead-ball ball.
But he missed both of those calls, and there was no remedy for the Marlins, because the rules say those things are not reviewable. That’s not good enough. The rules need to be changed. The goal has to be “get the call right, no matter what.”
So, yeah. It’s been a bad week for replay in baseball. But an imperfect replay system can be fixed. Two starting points: Make everything reviewable, and let replay officials in New York make calls regardless of the call on the field.
Oh, and while we’re asking for things, how about a little accountability? Kulpa, to his great credit, admitted his mistakes, when asked questions by a pool reporter. But the replay officials in New York need to be held to that same standard, something more than just an emailed statement after the game ends.
It’s a flawed system, but some of the fixes are pretty obvious.