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MLB replay review still makes too many mistakes

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The league should make it a priority to fix this flaw in their sport

Baltimore Orioles v Cincinnati Reds

Runners on the corners with a run across the plate, or the end of the inning with a zero on the scoreboard. It’s a huge difference.

Major League Baseball first instituted replay review in 2008, over a decade ago. Since then it has expanded from boundary calls like fouls and homers to all sorts of plays around the diamond, and conceptually it can be a great thing for the game. Retaining some of the human element is important, but so is getting calls right when we have the clear ability to do so, and this is a way we can have both.

However, even the most ardent supporters of replay review must admit that it’s just not working well so far. Too many calls are still missed, even with the benefit of several minutes to study the tape at all angles and speeds. What’s the point of the system and the lengthy game delays if it’s still going to get things wrong?

The latest example came in the Oakland A’s game against the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday. The A’s had runners on second and third with two out, and the batter hit a grounder to third base. For whatever reason (perhaps he forgot how many outs there were?), the third baseman chose to throw home to get the out at the plate instead of ending the inning at first.

The result was a situation where the ball beat the runner, but the slide beat the tag. The play was called an out on the field, which isn’t necessarily surprising when you have a play that looks so much like it should have been an out. But this is exactly why we have replay, and the video showed an unambiguously clear story in the other direction. See for yourself.

There are enough angles here to see that Olson’s front/right foot hit the plate (not just hovered over it, but really hit the rubber) before the catcher’s glove connected with his back/left shin. It’s understandable for the field ump to have not noticed it live, but in film it’s clear and convincing. What are the rest of us missing that the booth ump saw, or vice versa?

This play probably didn’t factor into the result of the game. The extra run wouldn’t have changed a 5-1 loss, and even with the bonus chance for a rally there’s no reason to assume the A’s would have cashed in on a day they otherwise went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position; the next batter would have been Vimael Machin, a rookie in his second career MLB game who went 0-for-4. The point here isn’t that Oakland got robbed of a win, just that it theoretically could have, as a matter of principle — we’d be singing a different tune if the final score had instead been 2-1 with the potential tying run stolen away, or if this had been a postseason game with enormous stakes.

Of course every team will be on the wrong side of a bad call now and then, but this seems to keep happening to the A’s. That’s absolutely not to say they’re being targeted in any way, just that someone has to be on the short end of every stick, and whoever it is will certainly notice how it keeps happening. Unfortunately that’s Oakland.

The most nationally famous incident came in 2014, when Adam Rosales hit a 9th-inning, game-tying home run that bounced back onto the field in such a way that it was initially called that it caromed off the wall. However, despite the replay distinctly showing what happened, to the extent that even the other team’s broadcasting crew agreed it was a homer, umpire Angel Hernandez upheld the call of a double. MLB later admitted the mistake.

That’s not the best example here, though. First off, it involved Hernandez, perhaps the biggest Human Element in umpiring history, and there’s no accounting for him. But more so, it was an issue of insufficient equipment, which has since been resolved. It’s part of the timeline, but it’s not relevant anymore.

Instead, here’s the replay that still haunts A’s fans. Once again it involves Olson sliding into home plate, this time in Yankee Stadium in 2018. There’s a swipe tag, but zero evidence that the glove made contact with him:

That would have been the go-ahead run in the 9th inning, with a rally still ongoing. Instead, it was wiped off the board for the third out; the game stayed tied and went to extras, and the A’s lost. They ultimately finished within three games of the Yankees for home-field advantage in their Wild Card Game matchup, which New York hosted and won. This call/loss made a significant impact; reverse it and they’re only one game behind in the final standings with the head-to-head tiebreaker in hand, close enough for butterfly-effect what-ifs. Do the A’s win the 2018 WCG if it’s at the Coliseum?

The thing that made it so galling was that it involved overturning the call. If there’s an argument in favor of Wednesday’s call against the Rockies, it’s that the original ruling was merely upheld, meaning they didn’t feel it was quite clear enough to conclude one way or other. Hard disagree, but at least there’s a hint of logic. On the Yankees play, though, there’s no excuse. Even if you could convince yourself you saw something in that obviously missed swipe tag, there’s no way it should satisfy any threshold of certainty — except that bar seems to fluctuate wildly from day to day.

Again, this is not simply an A’s fan favoring the A’s. Just last week, in a preseason exhibition game at Oracle Park, Chad Pinder hit a ball over the wall in right field but had it called a triple (and upheld). The Giants TV announcers even agreed.

It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a real game; it was the real replay review system. It also doesn’t matter that it was against Oakland (although that’s annoying too), just that it keeps happening at all in a system whose sole purpose is to be far closer to perfect. And finally, this isn’t just an outside observer whining, because A’s manager Bob Melvin thinks so too. From his post-game press conference Wednesday:

“Over the years we feel like we’ve had a tough time with the close calls on replay. It didn’t decide the game [against the Rockies], but it can be frustrating,” said Melvin.

To be fair, replay has helped the A’s at least once. In 2018 against the Astros, Ramon Laureano made a mad dash home from first base but was called out at the plate. It was reversed on replay, giving Oakland the tying run in the 9th and setting them up to win in extras. I think he was safe but don’t know for sure like the Olson examples above, and the problem here is once again the shifting standard of requirement for overturning.

Houston fans were mad about that one and I don’t blame them, as it’s possible to agree with the result but also criticize the inconsistent process that got us there. Wednesday’s Olson play was far, far more convincing than Laureano’s, but didn’t get the same benefit of the doubt. We see obvious mistakes ignored, seemingly correct calls reversed on minute phantom details, and everything in between. That randomness is the primary issue.

Other sports seem to have figured this out. The NBA makes good use of replay, and my only complaint is that I wish they could utilize it more to change foul calls. I don’t follow the NFL and NHL as closely but they seem to do fine, and so do tennis, soccer, and many others with the Hawk-Eye system. Why can’t baseball get it right, after so many years of using it?

This is something MLB should really care about. It’s not just a bad look, but the specific way it’s bad — it feels old and outdated and anachronistic, all wrapped within the stuffy atmosphere of a lack of transparency. (Why was Olson out? Because. The XFL has innovated in this area.) All of that is one more on the list of small flaws that will turn off the youth market whom the league so desperately wants to capture, one who is interested in using technology to optimize their lives and won’t find charm in the aw-shucks of Joe West stubbornly sticking to an objectively incorrect judgment just because it’s artisinally made.

Over in the NBA they get the three-point line right every. single. time, and you can post highlights on social media without takedown notices. Is MLB interested in keeping up? If so, then getting with the times on accurate replay review is a better place to start than, say, warping the rules of the game for pace-of-play purposes, and it will also simultaneously appease the already existing fan base rather than pissing them off like all the other recent wild ideas. Get on it, Rob.