NEW YORK -- There are two contrasting facts about Major League Baseball's upcoming replay system, which was unveiled to the media on Wednesday during a three-hour presentation that seemed to capture every possible permutation of every possible baseball play imaginable, and these two facts are impossible to reconcile. Whether anyone can come close will determine how successfully replay is received by a public that claims it wants instant replay… but might not understand just what that means.
The first is that self-evident one: There is so, so much work going into the instant replay system. Every stadium will have 12 different camera angles, including an overhead cam especially installed at each stadium, fed into a Replay Operations Center in MLB Advanced Media's offices in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. (Also home of Sports On Earth's offices, but they don't let us anywhere near that stuff.) This room, 9,000 square feet equipped with 30 massive high definition televisions, will be staffed with eight umpires and tons of technicians, going over every possible play from every possible angle, slowing it down, speeding it up, going frame-by-frame.
This endeavor -- which will be a subplot at every single game played this year and spotlighted even more in the postseason -- has come at an almost infathomable cost, in both dollars and man-hours. MLBAM showed us the command center, and the plethora of fail-safes to make sure that every play is viewed and viewed again and viewed again until those poor umpires are all Clockwork Orange'd. The rules for replay challenges are scrupulously specific and have been agonized over by tons of intelligent people who have made this their life's work. Major League Baseball is about to have the best, most thorough instant replay system that humankind can come up with.
And then there is this other fact, presented to media alongside all these whirlygigs, that, well… this might not be all that necessary. While prepping their system and testing their readiness, MLBAM looked at 50,000 close, reviewable plays from the 2013 season. Do you know how many reversible calls there were from that 50,000? 377.
That's one wrong call every 6.4 games. Do you know how often they found a game in which there were two missed calls that would have been overturned in the same game? Once every 90 games. Three missed calls in the same game? Once every 810 games. Four missed calls? Never. There weren't any.
The mere scope of what MLBAM is trying this year is staggering. They have learned the lessons of the NFL: There will be no middle-aged men peering under a curtain. There are all the cameras. There is the control room. There are all the regulations. There is a state-of-the-art video processing system, pioneered by MLBAM, that is devoting every resource to the every possible angle. It can feel like NASA-level stuff. This is how you do a replay system. One thing you can be sure of: If this catches on, the NFL's replay system will be a lot better within five years, maybe sooner.
Except… baseball isn't football. Baseball umpires are better than NFL referees; there is less to call, less than only a camera can catch. Those stats tell the whole story: Two calls wrong in a game once every 90 games. For this we have called in NASA.
Maybe you say one call is all that matters: If one wrong call is overturned, it's worth it, particularly if it's one in the postseason. That makes sense, and the nine-year-old Will Leitch still stinging over Don Denkinger finds it difficult to disagree with you. But know that the game of baseball you're going to be watching over the next year is going to be a lot different than you're used to.
MLB has done everything it can to keep the flow of the game, thanks in large part to input from Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre, who also spoke today. ("Managers now have something they never had before," Torre said. "They have a chance to change the outcome of a game. Maybe they'll have fewer sleepless nights.") This is the main reason for the manager challenge system, criticized by some for being too football-like, too imprecise. Sure, someone in Chelsea could buzz the earpiece of an ump on the field and tell them a play needs to be looked at again … but that's the quickest way to stop a game dead in its tracks, no matter how efficient the system is.
That's why the managers are there: On close plays, they've often slowed the game to a stop to argue anyway, so the replays have been built into the system. Now a manager starts the process: It's on them to get the replay system going, not the umpires and not Chelsea. This works, because by the time the umpire requests a ruling from Chelsea, the play has already been watched dozens of times: They don't wait around to be told to look at a close play. This does make it go faster, and there's even the neat transparency of MLB now allowing the stadiums to show close plays on the jumbotron (something that was previously not allowed) and then, once a play has been overturned, an edited highlight package explaining exactly why. Again: They're doing this right.
The problem is that this system can't possibly be perfect. There are too many plays that are inconclusive, that no human, no matter how many cameras he or she had at their disposal, could ever figure out what happened. We saw a few of these today, including one where Cardinals farmhand Stephen Piscotty, during Arizona Fall League action, may or may not have been hit on the hand with a pitch. There was no way to decipher, no matter how closely you looked at it. The play was… inconclusive.
But this is a lot of work for inconclusive. The reason replay is here is not because umpiring has been bad: It hasn't, as MLB's statistics clearly show. It's here because umpires haven't been perfect. We live in an age of instant outrage, of Twitter, of millions of people loudly pointing out mistakes at once, and all of them being heard. With that sort of noise, MLB had to respond, and they had to respond in the biggest way possible. (Which they have done: Seriously, the NFL's replay system sort of looks like two octogenarians trying to figure out how to rewind their DVD player now.) But they still won't get everything right. We won't like that an obvious ball-strike call can't be overturned. We won't like that tag-up play that can't be overturned. (For this year anyway, tag-up plays are not reviewable.) We won't like that the guy in Chelsea thinks it's inconclusive when, dammit, we are sure it's conclusive. It will drive us irrationally crazy. It's not fair, but it's how it is. Now that the door has been opened, w'ere going to become more demanding, not less.
Meanwhile, they're getting better than ever at this, teaching us things about the game we didn't know, and changing some others. The MLB cameras put rest to the notion that the "tie goes to the runner;" by definition, when it comes to nanoseconds, there is no such thing as a "tie." Right now they can't get that down, but they will. Also, the replay system now must determine, precisely, what a "catch" is. Is it when the ball hits the glove? Is it when the glove is closed? Is it when the ball is transferred? Video can tell us... but are we sure we want to know? Our muscle memory of decades of watching baseball is about to get upended. It is something we should all prepare ourselves for.
This is the next step in baseball, and in sports. This is what we wanted, this is what technology brings us, this is the way human progress is supposed to work. But it is all for something that was not nearly as broken as we felt, emotionally, it was. Baseball is about to unveil the best replay system in all of professional sports. It's terrific that they're going all in. But it's still not going to be perfect: We're still going to criticize it, all the time. And the game itself, what we think of it, can't help but be a little bit different. It's still baseball. They're doing everything to protect it, and keep its core. But it won't be exactly the same. It'll be better, probably. But it'll be different. I hope you're all ready for what's coming. It's amazing. But it really is a lot.
* * *