A Major League Baseball umpire has a great deal of discretion over the playing of the game. While the players affect what happens in a game, the umpire affects how the game is played.
There are many decisions that are strictly within the purview of the umpire and at those moments the umpire makes what the public deems to be an incorrect call, the clamor for instant replay becomes greater. Here is why instant replay should not be adopted in baseball.
There is an art to baseball umpiring; when to give a little, when not. When is a baseball “unfit” for play? What base would a runner have reached without fan interference? When has a base runner intentionally interfered with a fielder? These are things that are not immediately measurable and are issues that could only delay a game and decision if left up to an appeals process. Sure, breaking out a dial gauge or determining through some other measurement process, one could determine imperfections in a baseball, but allowing this to happen would only open up avenues of dispute. Video analysis could never speak to intent – the umpire has to make decisions based on how the game has progresses, what has been heard from players, and what would seem to make sense from the demeanor the players have displayed. The umpire is in the best position to make an inference to intent and it’s a decision that is properly placed there.
Similarly, the umpire is the only person qualified to make a judgment on whether a pitcher intended to throw a pitch at a batter as one of four people on the field who are not in the employ of a given club. Judging intent is difficult, but it is necessary. A pitcher will sometimes lose control of a pitch and will accidentally hit a batsman. This is much different than creating a situation where by design a batsman will be hit. Replay would not tell you this.
There are two instances where a player or manager will be ejected immediately – arguing called balls and strikes, and arguing whether or not a “check swing” is or is not a full swing. “Check swing” is simply not defined by baseball rules and therefore an analysis of whether the head of the bat has gone more than half way across the plate or if the player has maintained control over the bat head is little more than speculation. While arguing the call is not tolerated, an appeal can be made to either the first or third base umpire – depending on which would have the better line of sight dependent upon whether the batsman is left or right handed.
With as many different permutations as there could possibly be in the course of a swing, is it wise to open up an avenue of dispute requiring granular video dissection of a batters’ swing?
The umpires judgment extends to whether a ball is foul or fair. While this what most replay proponents would suggest is the most usable aspect of replay, it detracts from the game in one major way: because the umpire must be impartial and because the umpire must use discretion when determining intention, deciding on a strike zone, and whether a batter took a swing or not, the umpire must be able to have his/her credibility behind him/her. It is a simple concept, but it is an important one. Video replay in baseball is a bad idea. There will be the missed homerun calls, the missed tags, and disputed balls and strikes. It is part of the game. There’s a human element to baseball that exists in no other sport and to remove that, even a little bit, is to lessen the beauty, and simplicity of the game.
For replay to work, check swings must be strictly defined, “Intention” must be strictly defined. Valid and reliable metrics by which determination of what base a player would be on save for fan interference would have to be created. The game loses its simplicity.
Umpires are easy to dispise, but most of the time they’re right. And they play an important role in the execution – and simplicity of the game.