Posted by: mdegeorge | July 27, 2011

Buc needs to stop here on instant replay debate

It’s becoming a yearly tradition just around this point of the summer: The renewed acrimony over the lack of instant replay in baseball.

It’s always the SportsCenter-leading play that’s the catalyst, whether it’s the Armando Galarraga perfect game spoiler or Tuesday’s controversial game-ending play in the 19th inning between the Braves and Pirates. And it always leads to the cavalcade of professors of the greatness of instant replay to march in, touting the video do-over as the panacea for the game’s ills.

On first look, Jerry Meals’ determination that Michael McKenry missed Julio Lugo on a swipe tag at home plate in the 19th inning appeared dead wrong. Egregious. Unthinkable, even for tired eyes, that a person getting paid could mess up that badly. A chance to look a second time, slow the play down, deliberate certainly would have made things right.

Or would it? Let’s assume the MLB did have instant replay capabilities and that they operated under a similar system as the well-known NFL protocols whereby incontrovertible video evidence is required to overturn a call made on the field. Can that video really be deemed 100 percent evidence that the tag was made?

On first appearance, it absolutely looked like Lugo was out, partially because of the reactions of the two players involved. But the best angle available comes essentially perpendicular to Lugo’s leg from behind the catcher, meaning the exact moment in which McKenry’s glove is closest to Lugo is concealed by the catcher’s leg. That angle doesn’t show the tag itself. (If you don’t believe me, check this link to David Schoenfield’s reaction at ESPN, where the screenshot from the video shows nothing.) You can’t see any effects like rippling of the jersey on Lugo’s leg that indicate he’s been tagged, and McKenry’s glove doesn’t act like it’s made contact with anything. I can’t make out if he’s been touched at the plate, so I’d assume Meals, mere inches away who could see and hear what went on, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

So had the decision been thrown to the replay official, in all likelihood, there would have been a delay of about five minutes before nothing changed and the game would’ve still been over. He was probably out, but replay probably wouldn’t have changed that. So where has it gotten us: A still wrong call, per popular opinion, that is arguably more frustrating to stomach. There are calls that are cut and dry, and despite what it appeared like at first glance, this one wasn’t. It’s close enough to warrant a formal complaint by the Pirates – mainly to incite their newly re-found fan base. It’s too close to justify fans harassing Meals’ family (there is nothing that transpires on a baseball field that justifies that.)

I’ve made the argument before, but it bears repeating: Baseball is an inherently inexact game. It is possibly the least quantitative sport in the world in that the goal and means to accomplish it is so difficult to define.

In hockey, a goal is a goal. A basketball player can make or miss a shot. Baseball depends on official scorers to determine what is a hit, and umpires to determine what is an out or a strike or not. Every other sport uses the human element to determine infractions like penalties and fouls; referees in those sports define the negative, what is done that shouldn’t be done. In baseball, umpires are involved in determining the positive as well: What is a hit, what is an out, what is a strike, what is a ball. With so many more calls to make, it’s no wonder that the truth is hard to tease out.

The replay systems that are most effective in sports are those that can determine simple calls. Was the entire puck over the line before the clock read 0.00? Did the entire football cross the plane of the goal with the receiver’s knee off the ground? Was the shooter’s toe on the three-point line?

Those calls are all one-dimensional: You’re looking for a point A (the back edge of a ball or the front edge of a foot) in relation to point B (the leading or trailing front of a line).

The McKenry-Lugo play exists in three-dimensions that replay didn’t capture. We saw McKenry’s glove move near Lugo’s hip. It probably touched him, but per the bylaws of an instant replay scenario, “probably” isn’t good enough. Even in baseball, replay is effective for boundary calls like fair-foul or home runs. But anyone who thinks instant replay is going to mitigate issues like whether or not a first baseman drawn off the base by a throw swipe tagged the runner jetting by him or pinpoint the exact instant when a tag is applied to a player’s thigh while his foot is millimeters from sliding into second base is going to be sorely disappointed.

It’s also a game about “pace”, as Bud Selig made clear in a recent interview on the subject with ESPN. So to return to Atlanta at 10 minutes to 2 Wednesday morning, let’s imagine the call is overturned. What effect does it have when the teams finally get back out there for the 20th inning?

Baseball will always be an imperfect game, no matter what measures Don Denkinger or Barack Obama think should be taken. Across-the-board instant replay won’t improve the game’s imperfections enough to make it worthwhile. It’s going to take quite a few more annual recurrences of this debate to convince me otherwise.

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