The Problems with Replay

Before the events of Monday night are completely overtaken in our minds by the drama of What Comes Next, I’d like to return here to a play in that game, and a subject we’ve discussed here recently, namely the institution of an instant replay system of some sort for MLB. I’m opposed to replay, as I’ve repeated here ad nauseum. And another good example of why came in Game 4 of the ALDS, when Chien-Ming Wang came in high and tight to Kelly Shoppach, who was trying to bunt with 2 men on. Shoppach, with the ball coming at him, retracted the bat, but not quickly enough. The ball hit either his hand or the bat or both in some combination. Had it just it the bat, obviously, it’s just a foul ball. But in either of the other two cases—and this is what the umpire ruled—Shoppach was to get first base. TBS, as ever a bit slow on the draw, finally put up a couple of replays. The best view was, predictably, blurry and inconclusive. To me, it looked like the ball definitely hit the bat—and the distance the ball traveled on rebound suggested as much—but it’s certainly plausible that it also clipped a bit of hand. Impossible to tell. In my opinion, the replays were absolutely inconclusive. That, in itself is an argument against replay—that a single, blurry image is always going to be inconclusive. But that’s not what draws this post. What shocked me was the response of TBS commentator Bob Brenly, who upon seeing what to me was clearly inconclusive, stated with absolute firmness, “That ball clearly hit his hand.” And therein lies the problem. Even with replay, there is always a human and quite fallible umpire doing the interpretation. I don’t know why Brenly made that statement—perhaps, as has been suggested—he has an innate bias against the Yankees. And, as Errol Morris has so effectively argued, we tend to see what we want in an image, even if we’re not cognizant of that fact.

I should add that I’ve watched just a few downs of NFL football this season, and in that short span came across a similar situation. I can’t quite recall the game. I believe it was the Jets or Cowboys playing. Maybe the Pats. A play at the goal line. The running back dives into a pile. In the footage, it’s impossible to tell whether the ball has crossed the line or not. On the field, he is ruled down before the end zone. The offensive team appeals. The replays are inconclusive—entirely. Al Michaels, who is doing the commentary, says something to the effect of “That may or may not have been a touchdown, but there’s no way you can overturn the call.” But then the ref did just that. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps he was wrong. Who knows? Meanwhile, time marched on….

30 comments… add one
  • I know this is not the point of your post but I was a bit confused by the fact that Shoppach was given first base on the play. Even if it hit is hand, it seems to me he shouldn’t have been sent to first because he was in the act of bunting and his right hand was on the barrel of the bat and had effectively become a part of the bat. If the ball had hit his left hand, then yes, he should have gotten first. Or maybe I don’t understand the rule?
    YF, you’re right about the subjective element always being at play even with instant replay, but are you arguing that instant replay would not improve the accuracy of calls in the long run (however small an improvement it may be)? Secondly, what do you think of computer chip technology that is used in tennis? The human element is completely taken out of the judgment.

    Nick-YF October 11, 2007, 11:58 am
  • No Nick you are 100% right. The swing or in this case the attempt to swing/bunt takes precedent over getting hit. So even if it did hit him, he was still attempting to swing/bunt and should NOT have been awarded 1st base.

    John - YF (Trisk) October 11, 2007, 12:16 pm
  • This type of call should never, ever be subjected to any kind of review, in any hypothetical “replay is instituted” scenario. AT the very least we might all be able to agree that if replay is EVER instituted (beyond our utopian wonts or desires), it should be done sparingly.
    As for the NFL, I have maybe seen one or two plays, max, ever, that I was shocked were either overturned or held up following replay despite what looked like visual evidence in contradiction to the ultimate decision. In other words, I have found that the NFL replay system corrects incorrect calls and validates correct/incorrect calls already made by a huge margin over the “headshakers”. The “headshakers”, which YF was lucky enough to have seen, are insanely rare, in my experience. That’s a good testament to replay’s utility, at least in football.

    SF October 11, 2007, 12:22 pm
  • Nick and Trisk:
    I reviewed that play with a friend who is a professional umpire (tho not at the ML level), and often comments/posts here. The umps made the correct call, if they believe he was hit by the pitch. Because Shoppach was attempting to get out of the way and retracting his bat, he gets first base if he is hit by the ball, even if the ball also hits the bat.

    YF October 11, 2007, 12:45 pm
  • Personally I am ok with replay in Tennis, because it is precise and conclusive. The ball’s trajectory is traced and followed to its natural extension; the width of the ball is even calculated and you learn the exact spot that the ball landed.
    As always, the replay debate falls on one question. How helpful can replay be? If all it provides, as in football, is assorted angles of fast-moving action, can it be helpful? I for one still have arguments every time a receiver goes up for a ball, comes down, is hit, the ball comes loose. Is it a fumble? did he make “a football move” before the ball came out? Seriously? How vague is “a football move?”
    We all want the right calls to be made, but a level of precision may not be possible in some sports. And if in that is the case, then why not let the umps on the field make the judgement. Cause we need to accept a little fact here and that is that sometimes umpires/referees make judgements on what they’ve seen.
    And I really hate to reiterate the nostalgia argument. Cause i’m too young to be so damn nostalgic, but I enjoy the subjective nature of umpiring as a small part in the general subjective nature of baseball. I like that players do phantom tags, or that they hang around the base an extra second to see if the player might step off. I like the catchers try to frame pitches, or drag them back subtly into the strike zone. I like a manager suspecting that a player cork’d his bat but only mentioning it after he hits a home run (why waste the accusation on a single?) I even like that smart hometown fans know when to “interfere” and when not to during foul stands play.
    (Namely, if the hometeam hits a ball into the stands, you try to catch it even if the outfielder is reaching in. Thats perfectly legal. But if the visiting team hits it into the front row, get out of the way, give the home team a chance to call it.)
    The bigger point to all of this is that baseball, more than other sports, has had subjectiveness written into its core. I feel that replay would get us more correct calls, but if we didn’t have the occasional jeffrey maier, would we still care as much about this sport?

    carlos (YF) October 11, 2007, 1:13 pm
  • I think anecdotal evidence fails to provide a good enough argument to one side or another in this debate. For every “the replay was inconclusive” there is a no-brainer replay angle. Each side can pile up dozens of these examples with little hope of convincing the other.
    SF is right. HBPs should not be reviewable. They are probably the WORST possible play to review because of the speeds involved. Likewise, I have rarely seen the officials get an NFL replay wrong (though the Pats-Bills game was apparently one of them this year, if the radio guys were correct).
    I think it’s an assumptive leap to draw from one example some sort of maxim in which one declares that all replays are blurry, inconclusive and subject to mental errors by flawed humans. The NFL counteracts this argument with the “irrefutable evidence” rule, or whatever phrase they use. Most of the time — the vast majority of the time — that works. Why would it not work for baseball in the extremely limited scope in which replay would likely be deployed in that sport?

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 2:27 pm
  • Why would it not work for baseball in the extremely limited scope in which replay would likely be deployed in that sport?
    YF might argue, Errol Morris essays in hand (what, no Roland Barthes?! Come on, YF, step up that intellectualism a little, please!), that the eye isn’t as truthful as we all believe it to be. But more than that, the counter-argument most often deployed seems to be “we don’t care whether it works or not, and even if it does, we still don’t want to use replay”. Not much tractability, there.

    SF October 11, 2007, 2:36 pm
  • “Why would it not work for baseball in the extremely limited scope in which replay would likely be deployed in that sport?”
    But would the scope stay limited? And what does “extremely limited” look like and mean? And what plays in baseball should be included in this limited scope? What parts of baseball do not occur in super fast time?

    Nick-YF October 11, 2007, 2:38 pm
  • The author is dead.

    YF October 11, 2007, 2:40 pm
  • Nick, I agree these are questions that baseball would need to answer satisfactorily, but I’m not sure why the existence of the questions themselves somehow precludes solutions from bring reached.
    Also, it seems a bit circuitous to argue that, as YF did once, what seems most clear is often least clear. In which case something that seems very clear we must decide isn’t clear at all, but under that logic, what isn’t clear is inherently clearer than what is, so we must swing back in the other direction. The philosophy sounds contrary for contrarianism’s sake and doesn’t seem to address that sometimes, yes, things really are that clear, even in a 2-D representation of a 3-D world.

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 2:52 pm
  • Paul, I guess my feeling is that these questions would be close to impossible to resolve. You put forth that HBP would be the worst case to use to use replay. Is it any tougher to conclude what happened than on a baserunning play?

    Nick-YF October 11, 2007, 2:55 pm
  • “To use” was instant replayed in that post!

    Nick-YF October 11, 2007, 2:57 pm
  • It seems so. Granted this is anecdotal, but I know the vast majority of the replays I’ve seen on close baserunning plays are discernible to the point where you can feel comfortable with whether the call was bad or not, whereas HBPs that are sketchy, particularly foul/HBP calls and where the ball ruffles the front of the jersey on the way by, are incredibly difficult to tell.
    But these plays aren’t much different than football, except that you’ve got 22 guys surrounding and potentially obscuring the play.

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 2:59 pm
  • For the record, I think you got “to use” right the first time. Good call, Nick! :-)

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 2:59 pm
  • YF and SF, only here can I find baseball talk mixed in with references from a Barthes essay. I love it. I really thought I was the only one who would do such a thing.

    carlos (YF) October 11, 2007, 3:05 pm
  • Actually, regarding the NFL, it occurs to me that I saw another instance of this problem just this past weekend. The Dallas game, I think. They’re driving. Terrel Owens (I believe) catches a ball as he’s diving to the ground. Or does he trap it? Looked like he made the catch, to me, but the defensive team throws the red flag. Perhaps he trapped it or it was slipped out before he had full possession. And so we go to the replays. There’s only one decent angle, and to me, what’s clear is that there is absolutely no way to tell whether the ball was or wasn’t lose when he was down. There’s a lot going on. Piled bodies. Body parts down here, a ball obscured there. No way to tell. Nevertheless, the commentator (Jaws?) states, and with no doubt, something to the effect of “That is not a catch.” I was stunned. It was a ridiculous statement. I didn’t even hang around to see what the ref called, because the issue is moot. There’s never going to be a guarantee that the ref in the booth doing the review isn’t seeing things just like that commentator. Anyway, I think i covered all the other reasons I object to replay in that previous thread…..

    YF October 11, 2007, 3:08 pm
  • Actually, SF is spot on to reference Barthes. The author is dead, he wrote. Every reader brings their own meaning to every story (and I think we see that on this site every day!). With replay, every reader/reviewer sees something different. Often, i would suggest, what they wish to see, either consciously or subconsciously.
    Next week: Slavoj Zizek takes on the infield fly rule.

    YF October 11, 2007, 3:15 pm
  • That Owens call wasn’t nearly as confusing as YF makes it out to be. There was one clear view, the best view of the play, that showed the ball touching the ground in the course of the catch. End of story. No catch.
    See, it’s just not that hard.

    SF October 11, 2007, 3:27 pm
  • Yeah, I agree. Easy call — no catch. The correct call was made on review.

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 3:44 pm
  • i believe it showed the ball touching the ground, from behind his body, but there was no way to tell whether his hands were around it from the other side, whether he had it trapped up against his body, and then maybe it shifted after he was already down….it was NOT…a straightforward view with all of the elements clear and no obstructions. so even if it APPEARED, sort of, like it was a trap, a different angle–a missing angle–might easily have told a different story.

    YF October 11, 2007, 3:46 pm
  • If the ball was touching the ground it wasn’t a catch. Whether his hand was wrapped around the ball was irrelevant. The ball cannot touch the ground in the process of making a catch, Owens had not established possession, as defined by the NFL, at the point the ball touched the ground, he was still (technically, according to the rules) establishing possession. Hence the incomplete call, and the correct one..
    This was a correct call, there isn’t ambiguity, however much YF obviously wishes that to be the case.

    SF October 11, 2007, 3:56 pm
  • Is this gonna turn into JetsFan vs. PatsFan?
    Because that’s just not fair.

    rz-yf October 11, 2007, 4:08 pm
  • Hah. I’ll add that it was very clearly not a catch. And that football rules are, basically, ridiculous to unravel. But the refs unravel them correctly, and replay allows them to do so.
    Replay has taught me so much about football because it leads towards discussions of what the rules actually state. It provides information, not seen by the refs at first glance, which illuminate more about what actually happened.
    In the case of TO, he dove, the ball entered his arms, he was unable to secure it without it touching the ground. Once the replay showed “shift of the ball” and “touching the ground”, it became not a catch. Regardless of what other angle you find, the fact that the ball touched the ground while he attempted to make the catch automatically makes it incomplete.
    I’ll argue that most of the conflict in NFL replay come from the rules themselves, not replay. THe rules ask us to look for very specific things, which sometimes don’t make sense, but replay allows us to see those very specific things. Things like did the knee come down, did the ball break the plane, was the ball in his hand when the arm came forward, did it shift in his arms while he fell out of bounds, etc etc. These are things that are hard to see in live action, but replay allows the ref to see in detail.
    This doesn’t translate well to baseball where the home base ump has all the information he needs to make a strike call already, or on the basepaths where the umps are in position to make the call.

    carlos (YF) October 11, 2007, 4:47 pm
  • On a seperate note, what is required to make a correct home plate call?
    I’d say:
    1. does the catcher have the ball when he taps the runner. As i recall, he can’t tag the runner with his non-ball holding hand. So posession of the ball is necessary. And he has to keep possession of the ball until the bitter end.
    An example: What about when the runner bowls over the catcher, like Hinske demolished Posada? If Jorge had not held on to the ball after Hinske’s forearm went into his throat, Hinske would have been safe. Didn’t matter that Jorge had the ball when he came into contact with Hinske. He wouldn’t have it at the end. In this case, the ump didn’t call Hinkse out until Jorge showed him the ball.
    2. did the runner get to the plate before the tag/contact with the ball? Tie goes to the runner. How close are we going to peg this? Nanoseconds? If the runner’s big toe brushes the plate at the same exact instant that the edge of the catcher’s mitt brushes the loose fitting uniform shirt? Is that a tie, or did the mitt touch the sleeve a hairsbreath before the big toenail got no more dirt but plate? Are any of us not ok with bang-bang plays be considered arbitrary ties? (My bias is coming through. I don’t really want it to be arbitrary, but I really don’t want a replay trying to split hairs on calls that are going to go either way anyway.)
    3. there are other miscellaneous things like: did he run out of the basepath coming home (not that this is ever called), interference of some sort?

    carlos (YF) October 11, 2007, 4:58 pm
  • Out of curiosity, what would be an appropriate penalty for a failed review in baseball? In football, a time-out is a valuable commodity, so it makes sense to penalize a team one time-out if their review fails. Baseball seems to lack such an easy penalty.

    KurticusMaximus- YF October 11, 2007, 5:18 pm
  • The penalty will be the removal of all of David’s sunflower seeds in the dugout, to be replaced by the far less popular Eugene’s brand sunflower seeds.

    FenSheaParkway October 11, 2007, 5:23 pm
  • Baseball seems to lack such an easy penalty.
    No HGH at the postgame smorgasboard!

    SF October 11, 2007, 5:59 pm
  • I’m surprised – no game thread for the Rockies? I mean shouldn’t you want to scope out the hopefully future competition sox fans?

    Rob October 11, 2007, 10:12 pm
  • Out of curiosity, what would be an appropriate penalty for a failed review in baseball?
    That’s easy… Upon the failure of an umpire challenge:
    The New York Yankees will be prohibited from playing New York, New York for
    one (1) game in Yankee stadium after a win.
    The Boston Red Sox shall be prohibited from playing Dirty Water for one (1) game in Fenway Park after a win.
    Etc. etc. etc.
    Any penalties yet to be enforced at season end will be carried over to the following season. (Tampa Bay Devil Rays & Kansas City Royals are excluded from this rule)
    Due to the uncertain nature of playoff wins, penalized teams will lose their celebrity first pitch for one (1) game

    Brian October 11, 2007, 10:32 pm
  • in tonites NLCS, upton makes the same take out slide (if not even a little cleaner) that a-rod made on pedroia. this time, the ump has the stones to make the call. double play awarded and the runner who advanced to third is returned to second. zona fans go crazy and litter the field with litter.
    in this case, i was glad replay was used… remove idiot fans from the stands. replay could never be used in a “players intent” scenario like tonites. plays like these will always be left to the human condition as the games forefathers so thoughtfully intended.

    sf rod October 12, 2007, 12:11 am

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