Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Replay We Won't Get

The Washington Nationals are making a frantic bid to qualify for the playoffs. After entering the season as a division favorite, they've been looking up at the Braves all year. Now, they're the hottest team in the NL over the past 30 days, and enter today's play 5.5 games behind the Reds for the last wild card spot.

But it could've been 4.5 back. As Hardball Talk shows here, with embedded video, Washington's Wilson Ramos was called out on strikes for the last out of the seventh inning, trailing 5-4 with the tying runner on base. Ramos was called out on what was clearly a ball. Here is the Brooks Baseball chart of the at bat:

The third strike is pitch number 7. It's not as bad a call as the video suggests, but still, the inning ended on a ball being called a strike with the tying run on third in a game the Nats would lose by a run. 

The point here isn't whether the Nationals would've won if the count on Ramos would've gone to 2-2 instead of strike three. The point is about replay. As you probably know, there will be expanded instant replay in the 2014 season. All manner of calls can be challenged and, if replay indicates an error, overturned. Balls and strikes, though, are specifically excluded.

The logic is that if managers could challenge every close ball/strike call, games would last forever. But my question is: Why challenge? Several years ago, major league baseball installed cameras at every stadium that record the speed and movement of every pitch, as well as where they cross the plate. That system, called Pitch F/X, is what feeds Brooks Baseball as well as those graphs you see during TV broadcasts or when watching a game on,, or At Bat 13. The point is: Every pitch is being recorded as it crosses the plate. Why do we need an umpire to call it a ball or strike? We already have the information we need to make the call. Why allow somebody to potentially screw it up?

People call this "robot umpires." It'd be a pretty radical departure to not have the ump behind the plate calling strikes and balls. But if baseball is willing to accept the imperfect solution of challenging balls in play, which will necessitate time-consuming reviews that may not, given the limited number of camera angles, provide a clear answer, why won't baseball consider automating ball-and-strike calls, where we have the technology to do it now, better than any umpire?

And think of how baseball history might have changed if we had Pitch F/X and robot umpires 125 years ago (literally - it was chronicled in 1888) and one of those strikes called on Casey had, in fact, been a ball, as ten thousand eyes believed that fateful day in Mudville.

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