The Future of Major League Baseball With Expanded Replay

It’s 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 22, 2015.  It’s a hot and humid sunny afternoon at the Stadium as the Yankees play host to the Houston Astros.  It’s the bottom of the third inning in a scoreless game, and Jordan Lyles just walked the number eight hitter, Austin Romine, with one out to put a runner on first base.  The next batter, Brett Gardner, swings at the first pitch he sees and hits a low line drive toward the left-center field gap.  Romine, unsure whether the ball is going to be caught, stops running about three-quarters of the way to second base.  The Houston left fielder, J.D. Martinez, is in a full sprint when he dives to his left for the ball.   The second base umpire, C.B. Bucknor, sticks his right arm in the air to signal that the ball was caught.

Challenge Flags in Baseball? (Photo Credit:  Wikipedia)

Challenge Flags in Baseball? (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The crowd, which had risen to their feet upon the crack of the bat, is slowly sitting back down.  Romine returns quickly to first base while Gardner walks back to the dugout, upset that the ball didn’t find the gap.  Martinez gets himself to his feet and casually flips the ball back to second baseman Jose Attuve.  As Martinez receives a high-five from the center fielder Justin Maxwell, Attuve tosses the baseball back to Lyles, who begins rubbing it with both hands in preparation for the next hitter.  Attuve walks back to his position and raises his index and middle fingers in the air to signal the number of outs to the outfielders.  Lyles now waits on the mound as Derek Jeter begins his stroll from the on-deck circle to the plate.  The Puff Daddy/Jimmy Page collaboration “Come With Me” echoes throughout the Stadium as Jeter begins his pre-at-bat ritual at home plate.

Meanwhile, in the dugout, Yankee manager Joe Girardi is glued to the television screen, watching the replay of Martinez’s catch.  Although hard to definitively tell from the camera angles, it does appear that – yes! – the baseball may have actually been trapped by Martinez.  Girardi immediately turns to Tony Pena, his bench coach, to obtain his input, but Pena already has his left arm outstretched, clamping a red flag in his hand.

Girardi instantly snatches the flag, deliberately walks to the top step of the dugout, and launches the red flag in the direction of the infield.  Upon seeing the red flag flutter through the air like a delightful old melody, the first base umpire begins  waving his arms over his  heads to signal timeout.

Jeter backs away from home plate and slowly returns to the on deck circle, where he takes a knee.  The four umpires jog toward the first base line to meet with Girardi to fully understand the nature of the challenge.  Girardi states that he believes the ball was trapped by J.D. Martinez in left field and not actually caught.  Jeff Nelson, the home plate umpire and the crew chief, nods as Girardi is explaining his point of error.  Nelson Play Under Review IIthen confirms to Girardi that the play is indeed a reviewable play under Rule 11.01 and that an official challenge has been initiated.

Nelson proceeds to walk back to home plate and, once arrived, turns his microphone on.  Then, Nelson addresses the crowd:  “The Yankees are challenging the ruling on the field that the batted ball was a legal catch.”  Dan Hartman’s disco hit “Instant Replay” starts blaring from Yankee Stadium’s speakers while the phrase “the previous play is under review” begins flashing on the giant high-definition screen in centerfield.  The Yankee ball boy scampers out to Nelson and hands him the official Verizon Replay iPhone.  Nelson then waits for the call from the Replay Umpire.

* * * *

On television, YES broadcasters Michael Kay and Paul O’Neill are re-watching Martinez’s catch in “YES-Mo.”  After giving their opinions on whether the call will be overturned (they both agree it should), they call in Meredith Marakovits, the Yankees “sideline” reporter who is positioned in the seats adjacent to the Yankee dugout, to get some perspective on the rationale behind throwing the challenge flag.

“I overheard Girardi tell Pena that the replay showed the ball made contact with the blades of grass before Martinez was able to get his glove under the ball, which is the reason they chose to use one of their two allotted challenges this early in the game.”  Markovits then adds, “Robbie Cano, Mark Teixeira, and a few others have left the dugout and went to the clubhouse to relax in the air-conditioning to wait out today’s first review.”

“Smart thinking,” Kay responds.

To help navigate these issues, the booth then brings in, via the Tri-State Ford hotline, the recently retired umpire Joe West, who serves as the YES Rules and Replay Expert.  As the Train song “Drive By” slowly fades out, “Cowboy Joe” begins his explanation.  He opines that the call will be reversed because there is definitive evidence on the replay that the ball made contact with one and potentially two blades of grass prior to being caught.  Kay jokes that it’s a good thing the Yankee grounds crew didn’t cut the grass today.

West goes on to explain that the reason the review has not concluded yet is because the Replay Ump is now tasked with determining whether the runner from first (Romine) was more than three-quarters of the way to second.  Under the rules, if Romine had reached the three-quarter distance, he would automatically be awarded second base upon a reversal of a catch to a non-catch.  However, if a runner is less than three-quarters of the way to second base, it is within the Replay Ump’s discretion to determine if the runner would have made it to second before being forced out.  While West is talking, YES Network provides a split screen showing second-base umpire Bucknor on the left side and Romine running to second on the right.

“The Replay Ump must determine precisely where Romine was when the out signal was made,” West explains while using the telestrator to draw a line on the base path to show Romine’s location when the call was made.  “Based on Romine’s location, it does not appear that he made it the requisite distance to automatically be awarded second base.”

Thus, West concludes, the Replay Umpire must make his own assessment of the situation.  West explains that a number of factors need to be considered when making this determination, including Martinez’s position after he landed, the strength and accuracy of his arm, how far away from second base Attuve was, the speed of Romine, Romine’s instincts as a base runner, the elements (like wind speed and direction), and field conditions.  West assures the audience that Major League Baseball has up-to-date statistics that assist the Replay Umpire in rendering his decision.  West does lament the fact that the Replay Umpire is not currently authorized under the rules to utilize the newly created Sabermetric system PRSB (the Probability of Reaching Second Base) when making his ruling.  However, West notes that the use of this advanced metric is something that will be discussed “in earnest” during the off-season.

English: L-R: Michael Kay, Paul O'Neill, in th...

Michael Kay and Paul O’Neill watch the instant replay on the monitors in the YES broadcast booth while awaiting the official ruling from the Replay Ump. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kay thanks West for, as always, providing invaluable insight into the replay process.  O’Neill comments that, “this one’s a doozy” but notes that the whole purpose of replay is to “get the call right.”  In order to fill time, Kay begins explaining that The Elias Sports Bureau just provided them with an interesting historical note.

“Did you know Pauly,” Kay begins, “that according to Elias, this is now the longest instant replay review on a Saturday afternoon initiated before the fifth inning of a tie game in the history of Major League Baseball.”

“Isn’t baseball something,” O’Neill responds in amazement.  “Every time you go to a game, you witness something new.”

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something like this transpires, and you realize that history is happening before your eyes,” Kay agrees.

* * * *

Back on the field, the Houston infielders have gathered together at second base, and the outfielders have done the same in left-center field.  Martinez is demonstrating to his outfield brethren how he definitely positioned his glove under the ball before the ball made any significant contact with the ground.  The starting pitcher, Lyles, has retaken the mound and is throwing to the catcher to keep loose during the review, which is entirely permissible pursuant to Rule 11.14(c)(iii) – the “Hamels Rule.”  The umpires are huddled together along the first base line when the Verizon Replay iPhone rings.  Nelson holds the phone to his ear and nods along as he listens.  After Nelson hangs up, he hands the Verizon Replay iPhone back to the Ball Boy and begins walking toward home plate.  The Replay Ump has made his decision!

Like the scene from a teenage comedy where the unpopular kid shows up at the party, the music inside the stadium screeches to a halt and the crowd is alerted to the fact that a decision has been made.  Nelson once again turns on his microphone as the home crowd waits on bated breath for the official ruling.

“Upon further review,” Nelson begins, “The call on the field has been overturned.”  There is a smattering of cheers from the crowd as Nelson continues his explanation: “Replay shows that the baseball touched two blades of grass prior to entering the outfielder’s glove.  Therefore, there was no legal catch.”  Nelson pauses half of a beat before continuing.

“However, when the umpire signaled that the ball was caught, the base runner was determined to be less than three-quarters of the way to second base.  Therefore, by rule, he cannot be automatically awarded second base.  Taking into account all of the required factors, including the location of the non-catch, the arm strength of the left fielder, and the speed of the base runner, it has been determined that had the play been correctly ruled a non-catch, the base runner would still have been forced out at second base.  Will the official scorer please re-set the scorecard to reflect these rulings.”

Hearing the official ruling, Romine then jogs off the field while Gardner locates his batting helmet and then trots out to first base.  Derek Jeter is re-announced as the batter and his walk-up music begins again.  Jeter steps into the batter’s box and raises his right hand while he gets set.  Once ready, Nelson points to Lyles and shouts, “Play ball!”

In typical “Jeterian” fashion, he has a gritty at-bat.  After fouling off numerous tough pitches, he works the count full.  Lyles then delivers the payoff pitch.  It’s belt-high fastball that misses away by about fourteen inches, and Jeter takes the pitch.  After tossing his bat aside to make his way to first base, Jeter stops in his tracks as he sees Nelson’s clenched right fist raised high in the air.

“Strike three,” he booms.  “You’re out!”