Thursday, August 7, 2014

Challenging the Game

The game of baseball has changed. This cannot be more obvious or overstated. Now it seems that, for every other player, the third baseman is playing behind second base1. Batters are fundamentally changing their swings; pitchers altering their windups. Some of these changes are purely situational as players adapt to the countless hours of film they have watched in preparation for the game. These changes are teams improving themselves, employing miniscule touches to gain advantages. Science creeps ever further into the sport. The most drastic change, however, is not about using strategy to better play the game. Instead, it is an attempt to manipulate plays that have just occurred. By far, the most blatant change is actually a brand new rule: the addition of the instant replay.

If you don’t follow baseball closely or just don’t fully understand the new rule (like me), here is a brief overview. It is a bit hard to follow. Like in football, each manager can use one challenge per game and earn another if the first is successful. These challenges can be used on a variety of plays. The types of plays are primarily (nearly 75%) close plays on the basepaths--whether or not a runner beat a throw or slid under a tag. After the seventh inning, managers lose their ability to challenge, and umpires decide if a play is able to be reviewed. Reviewable plays are watched by an official team of umpires in New York, in a situation probably not unlike NASA headquarters in Apollo 13. A call is then confirmed or, following “indisputable evidence,” overturned.

At the All-Star break, there had been 723 challenges, 599 of which were called by teams, the other 124 brought about by umpires. Of these seven hundred challenges, an astounding 48% were overturned. But I think the more important question--and the one that is harder to answer--how many of these challenges directly affected the outcome of the game?

Certainly, there are some plays that need to be reviewed. Major League Baseball has considered this; home runs are automatically inspected. But I have seen plays in the first inning, where a runner is thrown out trying to potentially steal second base. A year ago, would a manager consider taking the field to yell about such a call and prolong the inning? Probably not. I completely understand the logic that ‘every out counts in a baseball game’ and that runs can be scored with two outs, just as easily as they can be scored with none. But at what point does it seem overzealous to challenge a call so early in the game?

In an age when baseball seems to be slipping in popularity compared to other major sports, a constant complaint is that the game takes too long. Of the major sports, it is the only one that does not have a clock. Games probably average around three hours. But sometimes they finish 45 minutes early or hang on an hour late. People posit all kinds of fixes ranging from ridiculous to weird (two outs instead of three, seven innings instead of nine, etc.) All of these changes would definitely shorten playtime but at the cost of sacrificing integral parts of the game. But instead of making an effort to quicken the game, instant replay adds valuable time where, to an observer’s point of view, nothing is really happening

Originally intended to be 60-90 seconds long, some replays last as long as four minutes. Meanwhile, announcers have to invent new remarks to make about the same play they have already watched several times without commenting on the obviously long wait time. Unless the play decides a run scored, fans quickly lose interest after seeing the play themselves a few times. Not to mention the toll it takes on the players, notably the pitcher. After being constantly involved in the game, players are suddenly taken out of the moment. After particularly inane breaks, pitchers are allowed to continue throwing to keep themselves warm. Causing such a delay almost seems like an elaborate form of ‘icing the kicker.’

Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like a baseball purist, the instant replay takes away from the authority of the umpires. Before video evidence, umpires were the ultimate deciders of the outcome, for better or for worse. Managers could leave the comforts of their dugouts to get in the face of an umpire after a controversial call (an event which hardly ever takes place anymore), but by doing so, they’d be stepping out of their realm and into that of the umpire. I would love to see how former Braves manager and recent Hall-of-Fame inductee, Bobby Cox would behave under these new rules2. Now, the higher powers in New York watching every tape have the superiority. Every time a call is overturned, it highlights the imperfections of close judgement calls, imperfections which were always a classic part of the game. Sure, calls were missed from time to time. But these calls went in both directions. In a sport with, arguably, the most number of statistics determined by close plays, it was comforting that the umpires were right there, getting most calls correct. Now we have to rely on precise, but faceless analysts in New York.

I’m sure baseball could use some modernization. And I’m sure instant replay is a step in the right direction. I just don’t think this move is totally right. Perhaps the situation could be remedied to specifying when a manager could use their right (for instance, if a play directly results in a run). The instant replay is just too noticeable of a break that jars the pace of the game to a halt. It’s disrupting for the announcers, the players, and the fans. I hope someone who knows how to fix it agrees.

1 Relatively new in baseball, or at least more common, is shifting the infield on a batter. It involves making one side of the infield vulnerable by putting most of the fielders on the other side. Formerly done by certain teams only to the most prominent hitters who pulled the ball nearly every time to the right or left side, now just about every team seems to use this strategy. It all comes down to watching video and looking at statistics. I find this to be a fascinating and positive change for baseball.
2 Cox holds the record for most ejections from a game. With the new rules, this will probably be his record forever.