The Replay Rule That Won't Add a Second to a Baseball Game

Baseball is a game that incorporates human error. Like many people, I've always believed that if the game was so close one blown call lost it for you, you didn't get the job done. You need to account for the margin of error. Even so, you have to admit that when a bad call occurs in a crucial game, it becomes a much bigger deal.

Baseball players live in a world of failure.  To get a hit three out of ten times is considered good.  To get a hit two out of ten times puts your career in jeopardy.  Any professional baseball player is accountable for their rate of failure. If they make too many mistakes, they are unemployable.

But there is another professional in the game that is subject to no such standard, the umpire.  Failure by umpires is the reason baseball is considering a ridiculous rule change that will add time and tedium to the game.  It will intrude into a grand tradition of letting chips fall where they may.  What is different now that makes baseball consider this?  There are many things, but the money involved for teams and players based on their performance and career stats is considerable.  Blown calls cost money.  Add to that the player's desire for fairness and a level of skill in the umpire squad that matches the skill the players are required to have.

So what exactly is the problem we are trying to fix by introducing replays?  It is to compensate for the failures of umpires.  There is a better way to build the quality of the game over time, while reducing the frequency of blown calls and it doesn't involve stopping the game to review plays.

Umpires blow calls for four basic reasons. First, reasonable human error when the play is too close.  Not satisfying for the player or team that comes out on the losing end, but not unreasonable because those unintentional cases balance out on the average.  Second, there is a failure by the umpire to have himself in position to see the play clearly.  He misses the call because of a mistake on his job.  Ball players don't get free passes on mistakes due to being in the wrong place, umpires shouldn't either.  The third category of error is just out and out incompetence.  The umpire has not acquired or retained the skill to consistently make the right call and they are just bad at their jobs. They have inconsistent strike zones, they do not pay close enough attention at the bases.  Ball players do not last long in the game when don't have the basics of their jobs down well enough to play at the major league level.  The fourth, and probably most egregious, is when an umpire inserts his personality and presence into the game deliberately to exert a certain amount of influence over the behavior of players and coaches.  These umpires make calls that have "messages" to the team or player.  These umpires want to be involved in the game in a way that is completely out of bounds.  Joe West is a good example of an umpire like this. He can, at any time, ruin a play or an entire game putting on a show of how important Joe West's opinion is in the game.  Not his judgement, his opinion.

So how does a replay effect these situations?  The best use of a replay would be to review the quality of officiating after the season is over and apply minimum performance standards to umpires who routinely fall into categories two, three or four.  During the season, managers could flag particular calls for review.  At the end of the season, an impartial panel, not handpicked by the Commissioner's office or the Umpire's Union, would objectively review the plays which have been challenged and rate the umpires based on their competence and their adherence to professional standards.  A baseline would be established below which an umpire could not go without disciplinary action. Those umpires who fell below the standards would either get retraining and probationary status, demotion to minor leagues or termination depending on the range of their deviation from acceptable professional performance and conduct.

In the first year of this system, the impact would be limited to an awareness on the part of umpires that they are being watched and evaluated more closely.  As seasons go by, a standard of professional excellence and behavior, commensurate with that expected from players, would emerge. It wouldn't take many seasons.

This approach would not provide the satisfaction of having an umpire overruled while 40,000 paying fans sit in their seats waiting for someone to look at recordings from six different angles.  It is an approach that takes the long view, that says umpires should be the professionals players are expected to be or they should find another line of work that is more suited to their skills. This would vindicate the majority of umpires who perform at a high level and would improve officiating without destroying the elegant pace of a baseball game.

Major League Baseball occasionally comes up with a change to the game that chips away at baseball's beauty.  They've pandered to television money excessively and that has resulted in many abominations to the game.  Here's chance for them to get something right without taking the most simple-minded and disruptive course they can come up with.