The Hot Corner
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 02:26

Last week, the Washington Nationals lost their fourth National League Division Series in the past six years, surrendering their early lead and serving up the Chicago Cubs’ third straight appearance in the National League Championship. As the Nationals choked away their chance for a D.C. team to make a conference final for the first time since 1998, an odd interpretation of an obscure rule helped them steal defeat from the jaws of victory. With two outs in the fifth inning and the Cubs leading by one, Javier Baez, as he is wont to do, swung and missed at an 0-2 slider in the dirt. The ball quickly scooted under the glove of Nationals’ catcher Matt Wieters, releasing Baez to run to first with two outs. Wieters raced to retrieve the ball and, panicked, threw wide of first base. Addison Russell came around to score from second, and a third strike that might have meant the third out instead became a two-base, run-scoring error, and the nightmare inning continued.

This was one of four ways that Cubs hitters reached base in the fifth inning that night (the other three being an intentional walk, a hit batsman, and three base hits). It gets more interesting, because as Baez followed through after his swing, the end of his bat clipped Wieters’s mask. As it turns out, a provision in MLB’s rulebook seems to govern this exact scenario. When a batter unintentionally hits the catcher on his backswing, the rule says, it is “a strike only … and no runner shall advance on the play.” It seems straightforward enough; because Baez got a hold of the mask, he loses his chance to run to first. Home plate umpire Jerry Layne, however, didn’t agree. Despite protests from both Wieters and Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker, the play stood as is. Layne explained himself after the game, making a roughly 200-word statement in which he managed to use the phrase “in my judgment” six times. Layne argued that the rule only applies if the umpire thinks the backswing contact actually affected the play. You will find no such provision in the rulebook, making Jerry Layne possibly the first ever activist umpire. So much for “balls and strikes.”

This was not the only controversial moment in the fifth game of that NLDS. In the bottom of the eighth, Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras attempted to pick off Jose Lobaton at first base. Lobaton got back well ahead of the throw and was called safe. But not so fast. When slowing down the ultra high definition feed of the game, it becomes clear that for the briefest of moments Lobaton’s foot lost contact with the base while the tag was still on. Lobaton was called out, and the Nationals’ threat ended.

This has become a common gimmick with replay review. The umpire, not blessed with the gift of slow motion vision, makes a call that appears incorrect only upon consultation with replay review. This occurred last Friday as well. Cleveland DH Edwin Encarnacion sprained his ankle as he returned to tag up on second, and fell off the base. Adding insult to injury, he was called out on replay review as the Cleveland trainers carried him off the field. The Division series seemed to mark another completed revolution in the relationship between umpiring and television coverage. Though technology once made umpires’ jobs much harder, since the advent of replay review it has removed a considerable amount of pressure from their shoulders.

Let’s go back in time. During the first inning of a day game in July 2008, Derek Jeter took off on an attempt to steal third. The catcher’s throw arrived well before Jeter, but the Blue Jays’ third baseman missed Jeter’s left hand, which slid into the bag before the tag was applied to his chest. Nonetheless, third base umpire Marty Foster punched him out. Jeter popped up and protested, “he didn’t tag me.” Foster responded, “He didn’t have to. The ball beat you.” Jeter, usually loath to get into it with an umpire, became apoplectic.

It was indeed absurd for Foster to wave his hand at a pretty integral rule, but it is difficult not to feel at least a little sympathetic. For the first hundred plus years of Major League Baseball, umpires could rely just on the timing of the throw and general placement of the tag. As time wore on, television broadcasting made their errors more identifiable, especially once networks started broadcasting games in high definition. Where umpires once needed only to avoid blatantly incorrect rulings, fancy telecasting forced them to be perfect. Missing even the most difficult calls could draw the ire of an entire city.

We can see this on full display in the blown call that ended Armando Gallaraga’s bid for a perfect game in 2010. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Gallaraga got Cleveland Indians rookie Jason Donald to hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield. Miguel Cabrera, playing first base, ranged at least forty feet to his right to retrieve the ball, forcing Gallaraga to hustle to cover first. Cabrera fielded in time and threw across his body to Gallaraga, who caught the throw and stepped on the bag, just barely in advance of Donald. Unfortunately, Jim Joyce threw out his arms and ruled Donald safe, ending Gallaraga’s perfect game hopes. In the days before televisions broadcasts, and even in the days before high definition, the blame for ending the perfect game would likely have gone to Miguel Cabrera. After all, he ranged much too far to his right and began the high wire act of a pitcher covering first. With the addition of slow motion, however, all the blame goes to Jim Joyce. In the days that followed he received a barrage of hate mail and death threats, and had to issue a tearful apology to Gallaraga after the game.

Since MLB expanded instant replay in 2014, blame has shifted shoulders once again. The onus is now on neither the player nor the umpire, but on the manager. The umpire’s error is forgotten in the demand for the manager to challenge the call, and a manager’s failure to challenge earns him the furor previously reserved for the umpire. Joe Girardi learned this lesson last Friday when his decision not to challenge a crucial play cost the Yankees Game 2 of the ALDS. With runners on second and third and two out in the sixth inning, Chad Green’s 0-2 pitch to Lonnie Chisenhall ran up and in toward the lefty’s hands. Dan Iassogna, umpiring behind the plate, ruled that the pitch had hit Chisenhall.

Immediately, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez started motioning to the dugout, urging his manager to challenge. And sure enough, the “super slow-mo” revealed not only that the ball had missed Chisenhall’s hand, but that it had glanced off the knob off his bat and into Sanchez’s glove. He had struck out, and the inning should have been over. Girardi, however did not to ask for a review. The inning continued, and the lineup turned over. Francisco Lindor came up batting left handed, and tattooed a 1-0 slider for a grand slam to right.

Girardi received the predictable reaction. And as boos rained down from the Yankee Stadium bleachers two nights later, one would have to believe he stood there wishing that MLB never moved to replay review. Because if they hadn’t, it would be Iassogna receiving the best of New York’s anger, not Givardi.

All this is to say that replay review has created as many problems as it has solved. Far from being a perfect solution to the inadequacies of human umpires, it has instead exposed the human error present in writing rules, watching video or deciding when to challenge. Life was simpler when fans could just yell at their televisions, instead of watching umpires and referees don headsets or stare at a Microsoft Surface to sort out infinitesimal vagaries for what often seems an eternity. How should these leagues speed up review? Get rid of it.