MLB’s Instant Replay: A Good Thing (or a Bad Thing)?

World Series - New York Mets v Kansas City Royals - Game Two

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Major League Baseball implemented its current form of instant replay in 2014. The league’s intent in doing this stemmed from many missed calls and an overall need for some sort of reviewable system on potential game-changing plays.

So in Game 1 of the World Series on Monday night, when the Fox truck experienced electronic failures and the broadcast switched to an international carrier for an extended period of time, it meant that neither team had the option of reviewing calls. That brief moment practically sent baseball back into the dark ages; the time when an umpire’s call on the field was final. Or did it?

While it seemed like the bigger issue was the delay in the game and the short time span where viewers couldn’t watch the game, the lack of instant replay could have played a pivotal role — i.e. the exact reason the league instituted replay in the first place. Fortunately it did not. There weren’t any controversial calls and all was well when the normal broadcast and replay system returned. However, the question still remains: Is the current version of instant replay and the coaches’ challenge system that the MLB employs really better for the game?

DETROIT, MI - JULY 22: Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus #7 watches the action during the sixth inning of the game against the Seattle Marinerson July 22, 2015 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan.

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Now, no one is saying here that instant replay is bad for the game. Any system, even one wrought with issues, that clarifies questionable calls and allegedly assures the correct call should be used. Especially when, say, a World Series title is on the line. That doesn’t mean, though, that the system is good — it just means it’s not bad for baseball.

First, we have the issue of when a call gets overturned — or doesn’t in many cases. Just as in the NFL, the call made on the field plays a crucial role in the replay analysis. It’s burden shifting. The replay booth in New York gives a great amount of deference to the call made on the field. Thus, the burden of proving or overturning a call falls on the team challenging the play. Insufficient evidence to uphold the call made on the field isn’t enough; there needs to be clear and sufficient evidence to overturn the call. And history has shown that this is a difficult burden to meet.

As the year progressed, coaches have complained (see Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus) that the standard of review has too many discretionary problems. One time the review will find sufficient evidence, and then the next time, in a nearly identical play, there won’t be sufficient evidence. Until the league can tighten up its system — and in turn its standard of review — instant replay and the coaches’ challenge will continue to be a problem.

in Game Two of the 2015 World Series at Kauffman Stadium on October 28, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Second, instant replay makes a slow game slower. There are a majority of fans that say that the game play is too slow, and thus boring, which is a fair point when you consider how long one at bat can take. You have the pitcher stepping off the mound, you have the batter readjusting his batting gloves every three swings and you have 15-pitch at-bats because the pitcher can’t strike a batter out. All of these necessary evils make baseball what it is: a game of finesse and skill. But these aspects also make baseball long and relatively boring.

There’s no doubt that the ability to review potential game-winning home runs, or very close calls at home plate, for example, can singlehandedly shift the tide of a game. Again, though, a system that makes it so difficult to overturn any call made on the field unless it’s a glaring mistake — which has happened more often than you’d think — seem like it’s not worth it. Thus, when replay wasn’t an option on Monday in the World Series, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, baseball did manage without instant replay and coaches’ review for more than a century.

Moving forward, instant replay is here to stay, as it should be. Technology has made impressive strides over the last 20 years, and this affects how the game is played and reviewed. But the policy needs to be fixed. The system of review needs a set of standards beyond substantial and sufficient evidence. Then again, there very well might be a wrong call on a game-changing play during this World Series, and if replay gets it right, it’ll be heralded as the savior. But until that happens, it’s merely a necessary evil; a useful card in a coach’s hand only when there’s no other option.