That’s not Cricket! Thoughts on the MLB’s review system


Oct 15, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland (10) and Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell (53) shake hands with the umpires prior to game three of the American League Championship Series baseball game at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

I like a lot of different sports.  I watch a lot of football and soccer in addition to baseball, my first love.  Over the last couple of years, however, I’ve grown to like the old summertime sport of cricket.  Now you may be thinking “Chris, this is a baseball website, what the hell are you doing talking about cricket on a baseball website!” And you are right to question but stick with me here.  The other day I was reading an article on the additions to the review system that the MLB will be adopting next year.  I thought to myself “there has gotta be a better way to do this!” and I immediately thought of how it’s done in cricket, and would much rather see the MLB take their cues on instant replay from cricket rather than the NFL.  Allow me to explain.

If you’re unfamiliar with the new rules MLB will be adopting starting next year, they’re really rather simple if you catch yourself watching the NFL.  They are also very backwards, reactionary, and unoriginal.  Instead of innovating, the MLB has simply copied.  The new rules allow for managers to have one “challenge” on reviewable plays (fair/foul, home runs, etc.) before the sixth inning and two more from the seventh inning to the end of the game.  The first challenge does not carry over past the sixth inning.  Calls that are challenged will be reviewed by a team of umpires headquartered in New York City.

My criticism of this system, despite it’s lack of apparent innovation, stems from the fact that these challenges could be used to stall for time or other purposes that are different from the intended use.  A ball could be fair, and you could challenge it to allow for more time for your relief pitcher to warm up.  The rules for unreasonably delaying action don’t account for this.  Dividing up the challenges and making them 1) dependent on the manager’s discretion and 2) use it or lose it also set up the situation for wasting time or otherwise adulterating the game.  I believe there was a lack of foresight in creating these rules.  They’re backwards and inadequate in a complex game such as baseball.

This is where I believe a lesson can be taken from the world of cricket.  First of all, in cricket, all plays can be subject to review.  Did he catch the ball?  Did the ball hit the bat or the batsman’s leg? (I’ll try not to get too into the rules of cricket as not to bore you but that would result in an out, and is called a leg before wicket or LBW. This will be important later so keep it in mind.)  They can review for that.  In cricket there are three officials, two on the field and one in a booth up in the press box with access to high speed cameras, microphones, and clever devices that allow him to review each and every play.  Does the third official, as he is known, review every play? No, he doesn’t need to.  But he can.  The beauty of this situation that in all but two situations every game (each team gets one “appeal” where they can ask for a play to be reviewed in a game), it’s the officials on the field that call for the review.  Imagine that.  Umpire’s famous egos notwithstanding, these officials freely admit that “Damn, man, that was a close play. You know I’m not really sure.  Let’s ask the guy in the box.”  The third official will then rule: did he catch the ball? You know, nope, it hit the ground and bounced into his hands, that dude totally isn’t out.  And then play resumes.  If MLB could hire umpires without grandstanding egos, and you know there’s perfectly good umpires out there that are more concerned with fair play than being the center of attention, this would be an excellent way to empower them to make the right call every time.  Did his foot touch the base? Let’s go to the high speed video. No it didn’t; he’s out. Move on with the game.  The whole process takes about a minute.  Easy–but more importantly, accurate.

I mentioned that the third official in cricket has some neat tools besides high speed video to help him do his job.  There’s a microphone in the stumps (the part that the bowler, the guy that throws the ball, is trying to hit in order to get the batsman out).  This is so they can hear if the bat touched the ball, because it makes a very specific sound, and if someone caught it after it passed by the batsman and it touched the bat, he’s out.  Maybe if we put an accelerometer or pressure sensor in the base, it could judge for itself when it were touched and we would have a much more accurate way of determining if the fielder touched it first or the baserunner sliding got to it.  Just spitballing here, but there are tons of neat technologies that could be used to improve the accuracy of the umpires’ jobs.

Another ingenious system used in cricket is the Hawk-Eye tracking system.  Remember I told you about LBW before? Well to tell if someone’s leg was obstructing a delivery that would have hit the stumps and got him out, you either have to guess, or use the Hawk-Eye system.  It is comprised of several cameras, high speed and infra-red, positioned around the stadium.  These cameras track the ball, and as such track it in a 3D environment that is fed into a computer.  This computer then can predict, with tons of real world stats about the delivery, where the ball would have gone.  If it had not hit his leg, it would have hit the stumps, and he would have been out. You can’t do that, so he’s out!  Before the invention of the Hawk-Eye system this was a matter of judgement on the part of the official (sound familiar?), but now it’s been made into stone cold facts.  This has improved the game because now there’s no question as to if a judgement call was right or not, because it’s no longer a judgement call.  This system already has precedent outside of cricket.  If you watch soccer, specifically the Barclay’s Premiere League in England, you’ve head of this system before.  No?  The new “goal line technology” that can tell if the ball has passed beyond the plane of the goal is actually the Hawk-Eye system.  Now how would this apply to baseball? How would knowing exactly where the ball was, where it would have traveled be helpful?  First off, you’ll never have fan interference mis-calls again.  The strike zone could be standardized. Did the ball make it over the wall? You betcha, it’s a homer!  Is this starting to worry you, starting to sound like a perversion of America’s Pastime?

What’s wrong with making the game more accurate? What’s wrong with eliminating human error?  People complain about umpires like Angel Hernandez, but we don’t talk about what could be done to correct that problem.  Implementing some of these suggestions can only improve the game.  The MLB, in a lot of ways, is stuck in the past.  It doesn’t want to introduce them newfangled machines into the old game of dirt, grass, wood, and leather.  But times are changing, and baseball can improve.  It has to improve, if it wants to remain relevant.  That which doesn’t grow stagnates, and that which is slavishly tied to the past is doomed to become part of it.  Maybe not now, maybe not even soon, but someday. I don’t want to see that happen, I love baseball. No sport tugs at your heart strings like baseball.  It can be better. It should be better.  It should embrace new ideas, maybe not any of mine, but copying the NFL and throwing challenge flags is not the way to go.

Thanks for reading and as always if you want to discuss anything I’ve said here please leave a comment or tweet me @lastcartridge.