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2012 ALCS: Missed Call vs. New York Yankees Reignites MLB Instant Replay Debate

Yankees manager Joe Girardi argues a call with second base umpire Jeff Nelson.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi argues a call with second base umpire Jeff Nelson.Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
Gil ImberAnalyst IIOctober 15, 2012

Though umpire Jeff Nelson's ejection of Yankees manager Joe Girardi following a missed tag call at second base during Game 2 of the 2012 ALCS is sure to once again provoke talks about expanding instant replay in professional baseball, this precise debate has been brewing in baseball circles for years.

During Game 5 of the Orioles vs. Yankees ALDS, umpires did elect to employ instant replay review following right field umpire Fieldin Culbreth's initial call that a Nate McLouth drive toward the foul pole was indeed a foul ball. Upon review, one angle from the third base spectator area appeared to suggest the baseball may have grazed the pole while the view provided by TBS's blimp cam indicated the baseball never quite reached the vertical yellow structure.

That call was upheld due to inconclusive evidence to overturn it.

During the NL Wild Card Game, left field umpire Sam Holbrook's contested infield fly call also provoked a discussion regarding instant replay. However, as Holbrook was actually correct in his decision to invoke the infield fly rule, the video review debate fizzled soon after its explosive beginning.

Yet given Sunday afternoon's clear and convincing evidence that umpire Nelson had indeed missed Yankees infielder Robinson Cano's timely tag on baserunner Omar Infante—and Girardi's high-profile ejection that would eventually follow—the instant replay debate will once again flourish well into the offseason and after the final outs of the League Championship and World Series. 

In August, the MLB tested expanded instant replay systems, coincidentally at Citi Field and at the site of Sunday's controversy, Yankee Stadium. The expanded systems were said to have consisted of one radar-based and one camera-based system, which resemble tennis's Hawk-Eye system, a process through which judges determine whether a ball has hit a line on the court. 

In July, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig conceded that future instant replay expansion will become a baseball inevitability: "We're now going to add it on trapped balls in the outfield, and as I call them, bullets hit down the first and third base lines."

However, Selig also cautioned the potential for the technology's overuse, saying: "there is little appetite in the sport today for replay."

In regards to umpires, Selig stated, "I read the umpire scores and you'd be surprised how well they do. Nobody second-guessed umpires more than me when I owned the Milwaukee Brewers, I admit it." 

In regards to umpiring accuracy, Selig is correct.

When ESPN generated its 2010 umpire study, concluding that baseball's men in black miss 20 percent of all non-ball/strike close calls, the sports network failed to spotlight that only 1.3 calls per game, on average, were deemed close enough to merit review and that 20 percent of those calls were missed.

In other words, ESPN concluded that umpires missed 20 percent of 1.3 close calls per game, or around one fourth of a missed call per game—better stated as one missed call per umpire every four games.

During this—and every—postseason, umpires have been vilified for perceived missed calls, some of them correctly criticized (as in the case of Nelson on Sunday) and some the victims of a public's incomprehension of MLB rules (as in the case of Holbrook during the NLWC).

Still, the fact of the matter remains: Umpires, on average, have missed an average of one non-ball/strike call every four games they have worked, which, in a crew of four—ESPN's study did not consist of six-man umpiring crews—amounts to nearly one missed call per game.

For instance, first base umpire Rob Drake incorrectly ruled Cano out at first base for the only missed non-ball/strike call during Game 1 of the ALCS while Jim Joyce missed one safe/out call during Game 3 of the Cardinals-Nationals NLDS, the only missed non-ball/strike call that game.

Arguments in favor of instant replay expansion include the familiar justice-centric concept of "getting it right," while those opposed maintain their own go-to motif, that of "the human element."

Some point to the success of instant replay in Little League Baseball, where coaches receive a limited number of challenges and umpires—including replay officials—retain the right to initiate instant replay review of their own volition.

One of Little League's authorized uses for instant replay is to answer the question of safe or out, the same dichotomy posed to umpire Nelson at second base during Game 2.

Flip the coin, however, and you'll see that MLB umpires have a much higher accuracy rate than Little League umpires, as evidenced by their instant replay track record, as it relates to home runs.

In 2011, for instance, of 67 total boundary calls reviewed by instant replay, just 17 resulted in reversal—a reversal rate of 25.4 percent or one reversal for every 143 major league contests played in 2011. 

Based on this information, if replay were to be expanded in accordance with the present Little League model, fans could expect approximately one reversed call every game or two with between four and eight reviews being conducted per contest.

Such discussion, however, will remain cold comfort for Yankees fans on the wrong end of two missed calls during the first two games of the ALCS vs. Detroit.

Do not despair, for the debate perennially rages on.

 

Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.

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