Hi! Welcome to the inaugural post of The Spiel, my new sports blog. Auspiciously enough, I’m starting this blog right as people are proclaiming the end of blogging, but hopefully that only applies to politics blogs.
I want this to be a blog about the kinds of sports discussions that tend to get bogged down in fruitless, repetitive arguments between, well, teams: purists versus moderns, traditionalists versus statheads. In these arguments, the advocates for each side tend to share the same points among themselves and then repeat those the same points back to their opponents; each side gets so used to responding to the other side’s tired arguments that the discussion calcifies. My point in this blog will not be to say that “the truth is somewhere in between”—personally, I lean towards the moderns nearly every time—but to point out the kinds of more nuanced points that get missed by this kind of polarization, in the hopes of making discussions fresher, more interesting, and more complex than they so often tend to be.
One good example of the kind of debate I’m talking about is the debate over instant replay review. Granted, this may not seem like the most timely time to enter this discussion, which—at least in football and baseball, the two biggest American sports—would appear to be resolved: both sports have replay review and they’re not going back. But in fact I think the discussion is as timely as ever, since the implementation of replay in both sports—in football since 1999, in baseball since just last year—has shown replay’s potential to both enhance and harm the entertainment on the field, which is after all the purpose of all rules and officiating: to keep the game as entertaining as possible. If this sounds like a radical idea, it’s only because we wrongly treat “entertainment” and “spectacle” as synonyms; conventional sports entertain by giving us a fair competition governed by clear and enforced rules. Replay aids in this enforcement, but whenever its benefit is outweighed by the harm it does to other aspects of the game’s entertainment, it should be considered a failure, and reworked.
It seems to me that the most common arguments for and against replay review have lost sight of the goal of entertainment: the anti side ignores the ways in which officiating mistakes hurt the product on the field, while the pro side sees correctness, not entertainment, as the ultimate goal. After a fairly lengthy consideration of the issues involved here, I’d like to suggest an idea that I haven’t seen anyone suggest before: a time limit on replay reviews, to distinguish between calls which are merely incorrect (and should be reluctantly tolerated) and calls which are bad (and should be eliminated at all costs). Almost everything wrong with replay, it seems to me, could be fixed by making this distinction.
2014 was baseball’s first season of allowing replay review of most plays on the field, and while there are quibbles about how it’s been executed, it’s clear that baseball can’t go back: once you have the power to correct mistaken calls on the field, it’s hard to imagine ever being without it. I admit that, having been replay-skeptical before last year, I spent a few weeks grasping at any evidence that replay was a disaster—more from the take-sides instinct that I mentioned above than from anything substantive. But now I’m resigned to the necessity of replay review. In Game 1 of the 2014 National League Division Series, which I listened to on the radio, there was a crucial call early in the game that went against the Giants (I’m a Giants fan). When the radio announcers began saying that it looked like the call was wrong, I felt relief: it was going to be overturned. I remember the feeling of impotent frustration and anger that used to accompany a blown call going against my team, and the idea of going back to the days when we had no recourse for that feeling is a non-starter.
However, replay comes with a cost, one that was widely predicted (and that was already on view in football): the game grinds to a halt while the replay officials study the video to make a determination. I only attended two baseball games in 2014, which is what having a toddler will do for you, but both of them featured lengthy replays, and both are worth considering, if you can stand to spend that much time watching nothing but umpires wearing headphones. The first, White Sox at Giants on August 13, turned almost entirely on a crucial 7th inning at-bat, in which the Giants batter, Joe Panik, trying to get the Giants’ first run home from third with one out, hit a weak grounder that led to a play at the plate. The Giants runner, Gregor Blanco, was pretty clearly out, with the ball beating him by about a second…but the Giants challenged, and the call was overturned based on the controversial new Rule 7.13, establishing that a catcher can’t block the plate before the ball arrives. How long did it take to determine that the catcher had blocked the plate? Oh, about ten minutes. Click this, I dare you:
Not only was the elapsed time unconscionable, but overturning such a crucial call in the late innings (a tie game with one out, as opposed to a one-run deficit with two out), on such a ticky-tack rule, is not how a game is meant to be decided. Even Giants fan blogger Grant Brisbee, in his recap of the game, declared, “I’m not okay with that”:
… I feel unclean, completely gross. The Giants only scored runs because of a technicality, a loophole, a deft legal maneuver. They were going to get shut out, yet they scored seven runs because Joe Panik hit a baseball just horribly enough. I’m all for the new rule … but I’m also in favor of the umpire getting the opportunity to use his discretion. This opens up an Angel Hernandez Wormhole of Stupid, but I’m okay with an umpire looking at the replay to see if the runner really couldn’t score because of the catcher’s positioning.
Granting that the delay here is due at least as much to the rule, not replay itself, replay is still a necessary cause: with an unlimited amount of time to review the call and (as Brisbee points out) no room for discretion, the rule’s confusing implementation is no longer just a problem for the umpires who have to enforce it, but is inflicted directly on the fans, in the form of replays like this (and like those in the Fangraphs link above).
The second game I attended, Nationals at Dodgers on Labor Day, featured four replays; three of them were nice and short—and, not coincidentally, confirmed that the umpires had been correct in the first place—but the most significant one took three minutes (which is not ten minutes but is still a long time to watch nothing happen), overturned a call at a significant moment in the game (it turned a leadoff single by the fastest player on the team into an out, in a game ultimately decided by one run), and did so on marginal, even dubious evidence:
If Dee Gordon was out on that play, it’s because the tip of Gio Gonzalez’s glove brushed the tip of Gordon’s heel just before Gordon reached the base, and I don’t think the TV broadcast shows an angle that proves that that even happened. As with the Giants replay above, no one on earth would have objected if the original call stood. So all the replay gave us was a result that is just as uncertain as the original call, at the cost of three minutes of dead air.
The thing that is wrong with replays like this is not just that they are a boring waste of time, but that they completely shift the focus of the action from the players to a bunch of people nobody cares about, and in particular a group of replay officials in New York who are making these decisions sight unseen (hence the umpires’ headphones while they wait for the decision). Watching this in person, I knew it was boring, but I couldn’t know how absurd it was for the TV viewer. Seriously, I know none of you watched those videos—not with me droning on about how boring they are—so at least go back and watch the second one, the Dodgers one. The announcers start calling the play by sharing what we’re interested in, relevant descriptions of the action (the pitcher, Gonzalez, is late covering first base, which allows a fast runner like Gordon to apparently beat the tag)—but once the play is being reviewed, there is nothing to narrate except the replay…which they dutifully do, for two minutes, and by the time the call is made they have understandably made themselves believe that the replay is the action:
And the runner is…OUT! What a challenge by the Nats’ video coordinator, Eric Dalton, and then out to Matt Williams via Randy Knorr!
It sounds like a celebration of a breathtaking triple play, rather than of one guy in the clubhouse watching video and then telling a coach to tell the manager to tell the umpires to tell the guys in New York to review the call.
In cases like these, replay review, which is intended to reduce our frustrations with poor officiating, actually compounds one of the major ones: that bad calls make the officials, not the players, the center of attention; that officials should “let ‘em play,” by making only the strictly necessary calls and otherwise staying out of view. Keith Law (I believe) coined the hashtag #umpshow to describe umpires who, through a combination of bad and unnecessary calls and theatrics, make themselves the center of the action instead of the players; well, what is this kind of review, if not an #umpshow dragged out for three or five or ten minutes? Is it less egregious because the #umpshow was commissioned by the coaching staff of one of the teams?
Since it may seem that I’m putting an enormous amount of weight on just two replay reviews over the course of an entire season, I should acknowledge: of course these are just anecdotes, and it’s true that the average time for baseball replays has been under two minutes (though this doesn’t factor in the time it takes for the manager to decide whether to challenge the call in the first place). But it’s the extreme cases that we need to talk about, because those are the ones that are doing harm, and, as I’ll argue below, the ones that are most easily avoidable.
So if replay reviews are not entertaining, but the alternative—just accepting bad calls with no recourse—hurts the entertainment value of the sport too, how do we incorporate replay in the least disruptive way possible? We have to reframe our goal for replay, not as improving the accuracy of calls per se—a task both endless and boring—but as improving the sport’s entertainment value. This means that the goal of replay should not be to get calls right, but to avoid bad calls (or blown calls, if you like). Correct calls are good in themselves, like all correct things, but they are not so great a good that they are worth sacrificing the entertainment value of the game. By limiting our use of replay to bad calls, we can keep replay’s most important gains while minimizing the harm it does to the sport.
So what is a bad call? When we say that an official made a bad call, we don’t, I think, simply mean that the call is wrong. We mean that the call is clearly wrong upon watching the replay, or even in real time (as with this infamous call, which I think almost singlehandedly led baseball to adopt replay a couple seasons later). When the result on the field clearly doesn’t conform to the rules, the results are arbitrary instead of governed by accomplishment, and arbitrariness is not interesting. So the more glaring the officiating error, the more the sport’s entertainment value suffers.
Okay, that’s obvious. But the corollary is that the less obvious the wrongness of the call is, the less sports fans care, all else being equal. Of course I know that all sports hinge at times on seemingly tiny margins and arbitrary rules, and sports fans are dutifully obsessed with those margins and rules. But I don’t think it can be denied that when replay reveals that an official missed an extremely close call, all but the most unhinged fans react with resignation, not fury.
So the ambiguous calls are the ones with the least upside, the ones that fans least care about getting right (or, shall we say, they are the least outraged if the call is wrong). Not only that, there are multiple disadvantages to subjecting such calls to replay review. The main one is that the ambiguous calls take the longest time to review, as officials have to zoom in to the millimeter level from several camera angles, and then deliberate a very difficult judgment call. Overturning an ambiguous call also is frequently more intrusive, often hinging on obscure or complicated rules (as with the Giants clip above). And finally, the ambiguous calls are the ones that are most likely to produce inconclusive replays, meaning that the benefits of replay (the assurance that the call is right, or the power to correct a clearly incorrect call) don’t really accrue to them anyway; in fact, ambiguous calls produce a risk that the replay official will get the call wrong, which has twice the frustration of an ordinary blown call but takes ten times as long. (Dez Bryant’s overturned catch against Green Bay in the NFL playoffs last month is an example of how frustrating this kind of replay review can be, turning a thrilling athletic accomplishment into minutes of waiting followed by days of legalistic arguing.)
This is what comes from the premise that the purpose of replay is to get the call 100% correct. Once you make that concession, there is no way to avoid wading into the swamp of a long, inconclusive review. In fact, the more inconclusive the replays are, the more time the officials spend on them, in the hopes of seeing something that they can call conclusive. This is perverse.
On the other hand, if we redefine replay’s job as to avoid bad calls, and to otherwise stay out of the game’s way, the solution is simple: replay review should take only as long as is needed to determine whether the call was blown or not. In other words, a time limit: if two minutes, say, have passed and the replay officials still can’t make up their minds, the review is ruled inconclusive and the original call stands. Not because a two-minute delay is barely noticeable while a two-and-a-half-minute delay is an eternity (though obviously less time is better than more time), but because if it takes a long time to tell if the call is wrong, then it wasn’t a bad call.
“Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good” is a truism in politics, but not in sports, where the relentless pursuit of perfection is considered a basic virtue. When it comes to designing the rules and their enforcement, though, we don’t have the luxury of striving for perfection. We should not tolerate umpire error—that is, an umpire botching the call, missing something obvious—but we should tolerate umpire fallibility, not as a virtue in itself, but as an alternative to indefinite delays in pursuit of a perfection we’ll never achieve.
I know I’ve spent a lot more time on the problem than on the solution here, but I would love to discuss the solution in the comments. I think it’s a simple and effective fix. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of baseball cognoscenti would go for it—but that’s a subject for another post.
Image via http://economicsonlinetutor.com/blog/2014/04/30/instant-replay-in-baseball-after-one-month-is-it-working/