The Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets are preparing for the 2015 World Series, and now is as good a time as any to look at a possible rules change. Jimmy Wulf explains why the MLB’s instant replay needs a makeover.
Baseball has alway been known for its unique and timeless pace, shaped by the day-in, day-out grind of the 162-game schedule. Languid, but consistent, pitch-catch, pitch-catch, like a metronome set to the beat of “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”. The bursts of action are not so frequent nor so prolonged that they can disrupt that tick-tock flow for extended periods of time. It is, in short, not American football, and this excellent piece by Deadspin’s Tom Ley recently made a compelling case that instant replay is instituting a football-like cadence which can both painfully disrupt the action and focus our attention on things previously considered minutiae.
Now, the sky isn’t falling. Much like a similar disruption introduced decades ago with the arrival of multi-pitching-change innings, replay is a necessary evil driven by the evolution of the game, and is more likely to settle in as an irregular occurrence than become truly pervasive. However, it’s certainly worth looking at scenarios where instant replay is doing more harm than good; causing NFL-style obsession over trivia while not producing proportionate or desirable outcomes. Ley, and later Joe Posnanski, both highlight one specific area where we can clearly see instant replay having a definite and frankly silly impact. Multiple times this postseason, replay challenges have been used to try to get a safe runner called out because he lost contact with the base while finishing his slide for tiny fractions of a second. Infielders making sure to keep tags on sliding baserunners, just in case they lose contact with the bag for a single identifiable frame, have already become a thing. I’m sure there’s a rule-stickling argument for that being a good outcome, but does it make for better, more ‘right’ baseball? The answer isn’t always cut-and-dried when one looks at the spirit of the rules rather than the letter.
If I’m not parsing the rulebook, but just sitting in the cheap seats, it seems to me the most generically fair outcome is that if a runner reaches a bag before the ball tags him, he’s reached that base safely until he leaves it. Is losing contact for a quarter-second as a sliding body is flying over the bag really what the rules were intended to enforce? Going full-speed into a base and making sure you keep contact the whole way, no micro-exceptions allowed, is really hard and requires a lot of bendy limbs. It’s not something we want our $100 million superstars doing on a regular basis, if they could be doing pop-up slides or going in headfirst hand-to-foot instead. The new instant replay rule is enforcing an old baserunning rule which never envisioned that the runner would be under stricter scrutiny than a human eye, and as a result is creating a high-risk new required ‘skill’ that hasn’t previously existed.
It’s an out by the letter of the law, but one that takes away what feels like a rightfully earned accomplishment by the runner. Innings that change because replay calls a runner out in that scenario always seem like they’ve been altered for the worse, not ‘corrected’ for some egregious wrong. The near-inevitable result of the way things are going is a couple of freak injuries and a decline in aggressive baserunning. Does that sound like a good thing for baseball or its fans?
It’s not a large problem, but it’s an increasingly annoying one, and narrow enough that we can just nip it in the bud and move along without any more fuss. An easy rule fix could prevent this scenario, while not affecting baserunner rules in general (and we all know the MLB rulebook has never seen an excessively narrow rule it didn’t love). Simply allow baserunners a 1-second immunity from being tagged out when they first reach a ’new’ base, should the umpire judge their loss of contact with the bag to be incidental. Easy-peasy, right? Narrow, non-disruptive, and the integrity of the game is still sleeping well at night. Let runners be runners and keep giving max effort while running and sliding, without having to worry about dislocating their shoulders hanging on to a white brick for dear life. Additionally, the 1-second guideline still allows umps to punish the rare fools who go tumbling whole feet away in full-on-failure slides, and avoids stranger or more wide-impacting solutions such as Posnanski’s plea to only allow the replay official to watch video at full-speed.
When instant replay was instituted, the “neighborhood play” for middle infielders turning the pivot on a double play was specifically designated as un-reviewable, because there was widespread recognition that actually doing so is both particularly difficult and dangerous, and we thought the game would be better off without replay shining a light on that one element. The 2015 playoffs have provided several examples of how sliding safely into a base is equally so on both counts and merits the same treatment. MLB needs to address slide contact rules in the offseason, and the most elegant way they could do so is to leave umpires with some ‘incidental’ wiggle room if the runner succeeds in reaching the bag before the tag, which in spirit is the point of the whole baserunning endeavor.