Instant replay system takes a hit after series of blown calls over weekend
Red Sox manager John Farrell might be the most dissatisfied customer when it comes to MLB's new expanded instant replay system, but he's far from the only one. While it's as unfair to judge two weeks of performance by replay officials as it is to overstate the significance of the hot or cold starts by any player or team, this past weekend featured a trio of high-profile incidents that have shaken confidence in the system, as reviewed plays appeared to wind up with incorrect outcomes despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
Two such incidents came in Boston's losses to the Yankees on Saturday and Sunday, respectively; in the latter, Farrell became the first manager ejected for arguing a reviewed play. In the fourth inning of Sunday night's game, with runners on first and second and one out, New York's Francisco Cervelli grounded into what appeared to be an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play, injuring his hamstring on his sprint down the line to boot. But Yankees manager Joe Girardi challenged first base umpire Bob Davidson's out call, and upon review, the call was overturned. That allowed the run represented by Brian McCann, who had advanced from third base, to count, expanding the Yankees' lead to 3-1; they won 3-2. But none of the angles shown on ESPN's broadcast appear conclusive enough to merit the call being reversed:
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Without conclusive evidence that the call on the field was incorrect, the play should not have been overturned. Farrell came out of the dugout to express that point of view to the umpires, but he was ejected, since arguing a call that has been reviewed is prohibited. Via ESPN Boston's Gordon Edes, here's what he said after the game:
"We felt that it was clear that the replay was inconclusive,'' Farrell said, "and the frustrating part is that when this was rolled out and explained to us, particularly on the throw received by the first baseman, we were instructed when the ball enters the glove -- and not that it has to hit the back of the glove -- is where the out is deemed complete.
"At the same time, any angle that we looked at, we couldn't tell whether [Cervelli's] foot was on the bag behind Mike Napoli's leg, so where this became conclusive is a hard pill to swallow. And on the heels of yesterday, it's hard to have any faith in the system, to be honest with you.''
The crisis of faith to which Farrell refers came via an eighth-inning call in Saturday afternoon's game, when New York's Dean Anna briefly came off second base after hitting a double. Boston's Xander Bogaerts tagged his right hip during that split-second interval, as captured by this photo, but Farrell's challenge went for naught; the call on the field (safe at second) was upheld. After the game, MLB conceded that it should have been overturned:
Anna wound up not scoring, as the inning ended one batter later without the Yankees adding to their 7-4 lead, but that's beside the point. If MLB didn't have immediate access to the right angles from among 12 feeds in a nationally televised game, just what were they looking at in the Replay Operations Center? If the broadcasters can spot such errors, umpires charged with reviewing the play at MLB Advanced Media have no excuse.
As if the two snafus in theYankees-Red Sox series weren't bad enough, Saturday's slate also included another blown call in the Nationals-Braves game when Washington's Nate McLouth was called out at first base despite appearing to beat out a bunt to third base in the third inning. Nationals manager Matt Williams challenged the call, and replay showed that his foot arrived at the base a split second before the ball was in Freddie Freeman's glove:
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Despite four minutes of review, the call on the field was upheld and McLouth was called out. The play loomed large; not only did Washington, which trailed 4-1 at the time, fail to score in an inning where it should have had runners on first and second with nobody out, but Williams also couldn't challenge a fourth-inning play in which Adam LaRoche appeared to catch a line drive and double a runner off, only to have umpires rule that the ball had bounced. Via the Washington Post's James Wagner, here's what the manager had to say after the game:
“I’m extremely frustrated by the process at this point… I don’t know how Nate is out if they have the same feed that we have, so that’s frustrating because I thought he was safe. We’ve looked at it 100 times since then, and we believe he was safe. And if that is a safe call, then we maintain our challenge.”
Ugh. Nobody expected perfection in the new system, particularly in the first month, but managers, teams and everyone else had reason to expect that when broadcasters and viewers could discern the proper call -- or that there wasn't enough conclusive evidence to reverse the on-field call -- then the replay officials could as well. Far more than the on-field delays caused by reviews, such lapses shake everyone's confidence in the system.
The irony is that the aforementioned trio of calls occurred following a wave of positive reviews for the new system, including this in-depth piece by ESPN's Jerry Crasnick. Within that piece, Crasnick reported that the rate of overturned calls -- 18 in the season's first 115 games (through last Tuesday) -- averaged one blown call for every 6.4 games, the same rate at which MLB officials reported that blown calls occurred last season. Via Baseball-Reference.com's data, 26 calls have now been overturned through 185 games, a rate of one every 7.1 games, but such a count doesn't capture the aforementioned gaffes, with one call incorrectly overturned and two calls wrong calls upheld. Nor does it count the number of times a manager has been screwed out of further challenges by the limitations of the system, a salient point regarding both the aforementioned Nationals' play and the April 2 Giants-Diamondbacks game, where San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy challenged a safe call on a pickoff attempt (inconclusive) and then had no recourse to challenge what should have been an out at the plate in what turned out to be a one-run game.
It's mid-April, and two weeks of play is too early to make a definitive evaluation of the new system, which has added multiple layers of complexity to the game for everyone involved. At the time it was introduced in January, Braves president John Schuerholz, the chairman of the replay committee, noted the work-in-progress nature of what is intended to be a three-year rollout:
"This is a start. This is a great, giant step. It is in three phases. We'll check on how well we did after Year 1, again after Year 2. And after Year 3, we expect to be as near to perfection as we humans can get."Even so, MLB will have to do better than it did this weekend in order for managers, teams and the general public to have confidence in the new system. If what we're seeing on video -- whether from the press box or the couch -- contradicts what replay officials are seeing and acting upon, such confidence will be a long time in coming.