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MLB replay review is going to embarrass the sport in October if it’s not improved

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Robbie Grossman and the Oakland A’s were inexplicably robbed of yet another run. What happens when this swings a playoff series?

San Diego Padres v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

MLB botched another replay on Sunday to steal away yet another run from the Oakland A’s, and this might have been the worst one we’ve seen yet.

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about the replay review system this season. It’s wildly inconsistent in its application and makes an astonishingly high number of mistakes for a system whose entire purpose is to mitigate mistakes. This latest example doesn’t add anything new except another data point, but with each egregious error the case becomes clearer that the system isn’t working and needs to be reformed.

Before we continue, let’s clarify the point. This is not an article about how the A’s should have won this game. Sure, a correct call would have given them another run in a tight affair, and extended an inning and given them momentum and yadda yadda. Certainly, it would have increased their odds. But this isn’t like when Oakland had the winning run wiped off the board in the 9th inning against the Yankees in 2018, with the win directly robbed from them. We’re not here to play butterfly effect, just examine the replay review itself.

Next, we need some background. On Friday, the system got one right. Matt Olson slid into home and was called safe, but the replay suggested that his foot popped a couple inches up before it reached the plate and then didn’t come back down until after the tag was applied. The call was reversed, and Olson was out. It went against my team, but this is how I imagine a proper use of replay working.

Once again, to sum up: The call was reversed because it was sufficiently determined that his foot wasn’t down.

Fast forward to Sunday. There was another close play at home, this time involving Robbie Grossman, but it was the exact opposite. The call was out on the field, but replay indicated that the runner was actually safe. However, this time the umps rejected the clear evidence and refused to reverse the call. The only constant was the A’s getting screwed, again.

Let’s examine what happened here. The umpires offered an explanation for their call, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle:

This is what both teams were told after Grossman call was not overturned: After viewing all relevant angles, the Replay Official could not definitively determine that the runner’s foot touched home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag. The call STANDS, the runner is out.

Wow, thanks for that detail, fellas. You really accurately described the definition of an out. Super helpful.

Absent any semblance of transparency from the league, we’re left to our own devices to judge this incident. To begin, there is no doubt about whether Grossman beat the tag. He absolutely did, plain as day. You should only need a quick look at the first two angles of the above tweet video (or the closeup photo below) to determine that.

The question is whether Grossman’s foot stayed down as it crossed the plate, or popped up like Olson’s had. This is where I have a problem, because on Friday they were comfortable using their best judgment to determine the exact same thing about Olson, with enough confidence to overturn a call, but then they wouldn’t do so on Sunday despite similarly convincing evidence. The fact that they both went against the A’s isn’t even relevant; it’s the inconsistency that’s the problem.

Of course, we can never know what happened on any play for absolute certain unless there’s a sensor on the plate that activates when it’s touched. (Side not: Any reason that can’t happen?) But if anything, Grossman’s play was even more obvious. All it takes is a small amount of critical thinking.

How do you know if a ball landed on the foul line or just on the wrong side of it? Look for the chalk kicking up into the air, which is a surefire sign due to the laws of time and space and physics. Similarly, how do you know if a runner’s foot is down while he slides? Look for the dirt spraying up around it while the foot moves forward.

Go up and watch that replay again. The dirt begins flying before his foot is even past the batter’s box, and continues uninterrupted all the way up to the plate. Unless there was too much iron in the soil and he had a magnet in his shoe, there’s no other way that happens. Go swipe your hand as hard as you can an inch over some dirt and see how much of it flies wildly into the air.

Still not convinced? Here’s a still frame to really drive it home (pun absolutely intended). His foot is on the plate, with the tag not yet made. Cut and dried.

There were more angles on the telecast, and they all showed the same thing. My understanding is that the umps have some extra in-stadium cameras at their disposal, most notably an overhead one, but that wouldn’t be helpful in this regard.

Sure, Grossman could have made a better slide, perhaps around back of the plate while reaching in with his hand. Or the batter could have just hit a sac fly instead of striking out on a wild pitch. But that is all beside the point. We’re not talking about whether the A’s deserved a run, or what they could have done better to earn a win. This is the play that happened, and Grossman clearly touched the plate before the tag. If you’re safe then you should be called safe, especially in an age when we can use replays to correct these things.

Grossman didn’t mince words after the game:

“Are we gonna win one at some point? Everyone saw it, but they make the decision. ... I thought I was safe. I thought through the video I was safe and they’re the only ones that thought I was out.”

And his reaction at the time said it all, capturing the exasperation of every A’s fan who already knew how this was going to turn out the moment the umps put on the headsets but still couldn’t believe their eyes when the inevitability came to pass.

I don’t really know what to do to fix this problem. All the tools are already there. It’s not an issue of technology, nor availability of camera angles. Everything needed to easily overturn this call was right there at hand, just as it had been on Friday in a virtually identical case, but this time they just chose not to use it for some reason. How do you improve that which isn’t even being properly utilized in the first place?

Perhaps the problem is the people involved. The replay booth is just manned by regular umps, which always seemed like a conflict of interest to me. Replay is essentially a direct affront to human umps, superseding their authority and correcting them in front of everyone on live TV. I have no idea what the umps themselves think about the whole thing, but my first thought wouldn’t be to put them in charge of stewarding their imminent robot replacement. To be clear, this is not an accusation of foul play, but I think it’s a legitimate question to ask — could there be a more suitable group of people to perform this duty?

Furthermore, one reason for the inconsistency is that the booth umps rotate just like any other crew. If, theoretically, there are differing opinions among them about the value of replay or how obvious a call must look to be overturned, then you can get wildly volatile results like the ones we’ve seen over the years. Think about how strike zones vary slightly for each individual, but now raise the bar up to and possibly including the opinion that balls don’t exist at all and every pitch is a strike (as an analogy for an old-school ump who never wants to reverse a call) and then apply it to only the closest and most impactful plays of the game, with entire runs at stake.

For now, I have only two solutions to offer. The first is to hire a dedicated crew that only works the replay booth rather than rotating new eyeballs through every week, so that there can be consistency in application for all teams throughout the season. Grab a handful of fresh young umps from the minors, park them there, and let them pioneer it, such that they’re creating a new career instead of watching their old one be gradually co-opted.

Second, add transparency. When there’s a replay review in the NFL, they get a former ref on the telecast breaking it down and explaining what’s going on. He’s not the actual decision-maker in that case, but he’s at least offering the professional opinion of a real-life ref. I think MLB could go a step further and just mic up the actual booth ump, or at least a spokesperson for them. If you think you’re right, then what’s the harm in explaining the ruling right then and there? They already take forever anyway, so this would also be a way to fill those several minutes of dead space on the broadcast.

Whatever the answer might be, something must be done, because the current incarnation of replay review simply doesn’t pass muster. It makes too many mistakes that are too obvious to anyone watching, and it seems to make up new standards as it goes along on literally a daily basis. This is too much human element for me.

Why do I care so much about this, you might ask? Especially when I already exonerated the call for affecting the A’s most recent loss? Because October is coming, and there will be close plays in the postseason just like any other time. There could be as many as 65 playoff games, and somebody is going to slide into home or land a bloop near a foul line or whatever. Are you prepared for a postseason series to be swung on a call like Grossman’s slide? Sudden death game, go-ahead run in the 8th, overturned because reasons, and then that team loses in extras and is eliminated?

Let’s not do that. It would be bad and embarrassing for the sport, and frustrating for the fans. Even worse if it’s your team that draws the short straw. (And c’mon, A’s fans, you know it’ll be our team getting hosed in the playoffs in an exciting new way to add to our long list.) Nobody wants to win that way, either.

Please address this, MLB. Shoddy, inconsistent replay review worsens your product and benefits nobody, and it’s going to lead to a serious scandal sooner than later. The improvements suggested here would not be cost-prohibitive and could be implemented tomorrow. Or come up with your own ideas. But please don’t accept abject failure, which is what these replay reviews currently represent.