What’s the deal with the red card?

If you’ve attended any or several Brewers game this year, you may have noticed an individual frequently popping up near the vistor’s dugout at Miller Park, holding up cards of various colors.  I don’t recall having seen anyone doing that before.  I started looking into it, and sure enough, it’s a new position: the “Field Timing Coordinator.”

replayThe new replay system can potentially wreak havoc with broadcasts, which typically break between half-innings.  What if a batter is called out on a close play at first?  Should the broadcast cut to commercial or remain on the field in case there’s a challenge?  And what happens if the television crew cuts to a commercial only to later find out that the third out has been reversed on review?

Basically, it’s the FTC’s job to deal with this uncertainty by specifically instructing the broadcasters, verbally and visually, what’s going on down on the field.  When, for example, the FTC sees a possibility of a replay (the manager runs on the field, or the crew chief convenes a conference), it’s the FTC’s job to delay the inning break until its decided whether there will be a review.

According to the official rules, the cards are color-coded to so that broadcasters, umpires, and players can easily tell what’s happening:

  • A RED card signals the beginning of an inning break or pitching change
  • A BLUE card signals when the pitcher should throw his last warm-up pitch (45 seconds remain in the break)
  • A YELLOW card signals when the batter should approach the batter’s box (25 seconds remain in the break)
  • A GREEN card indicates the break has concluded and play can resume; the umpires can’t resume play until they see this card

And what about the umpire’s inherent ability to manage the game, including all inning breaks as has been done historically?  Although the rules pay lip service to umpire authority, they pretty much cast it aside, requiring that the umpires “shall coordinate with the Field Timing Coordinators to ensure that the broadcasters shall be afforded the applicable allotted time for inning breaks (2:05 or 2:30) following close plays involving third outs (whether or not replay review is initiated).”

If you’re like me, and want continuous, uninterrupted baseball, I guess the key is to lift that red card out of the stack before the game.

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A few answers (but more questions) on in-stadium replay

By Nathan Petrashek

Miller-Park-scoreboard_display_imageWe’re tardy by a couple weeks on this, but earlier this month, @akschaaf from Ron Roenicke Stole My Baseball got busy handicapping a JSOnline chat with Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt. It’s always fun to watch a trainwreck, and especially fun to watch it with the RRSMB guys, so make sure you check out their continuing series of posts.   But one question in particular caught my eye.  Steve in Cedarburg wanted to know who’s in charge of replay at Miller Park, and complains that there’s “never a replay of a close play-ever!” And he wants to know if this is because the Brewers are just stingy, or part of some MLB-imposed mandate to obscure the truth.

A few years ago, Brewers Chief Operating Officer Rick Schlesinger (then Executive Vice President of Business Operations) addressed this topic at a Marquette University Law School forum (video here).  It’s a long interview, but there’s some fantastic inside baseball stuff there.  Anyway, at the time, the Brewers were getting ready to debut their shiny new 5,940 square-foot marvel of a scoreboard, and Schlesinger was asked about replay:

Q: When you’re talking about the scoreboard and instant replay, having gone to Bucks and Packers games, you can always see controversial plays on their scoreboard, but you can’t for the Brewers. I’m guessing that’s the umpire’s union?

A:  That’s one of the areas where I think Major League Baseball rules are antiquated, and behind the times, and need drastic reform.  Think about it, you go to another sporting event and you can see replays of controversial plays. You go to a baseball game, and because of MLB regulations, very restrictive guidelines about what we can show, we’re not allowed to show controversial plays where the umpires made the wrong call.  It’s really a vestige of the old “Kill the Ump!” mentality, which I think expired in 1947 or 1948 but still exists in the minds of some of those in baseball.

The other thing I find somewhat funny is that you have people at the game watching our game feed; if there’s a bad call by the umpires, you’re seeing it 7 or 8 times on replay on Fox Sports Wisconsin, whether you’re in your seat on a handheld device,* or in a suite, or in the concourses.  So you already have a segment of our market in the ballpark, seeing what other people can’t see, and now I have this 5,940 square feet of high definition scoreboard, and we’re restricted with what we can show.  I have talked to the Commissioner, and I know other teams have as well.  There’s sensitivity because of the umpires, but I think technology doesn’t really care about sensitivities, and I expect those rules to be reformed. I’ve also told our people candidly that we can push the envelope.  I mean, we want to play by the rules, we’re in Milwaukee two miles from the Commissioner’s office, and I don’t want to get fined, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sort of go right up to the edge of what’s allowed.  And if we get a warning letter from MLB that we’re being a little too aggressive with replay, well … okay.  So I totally agree with you, I would love to change the rules.  It will happen, it’s just not happening as fast as I would like.

Naturally, you might be asking, “What are those rules?”  Truth be told, we don’t know.  According to Schlesinger, they’re not for public consumption, but he told me they try to balance the “fans’ interest in seeing replays of close plays while protecting the safety of the umpires and avoiding inciting arguments on the field.”  Don Walker from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel appears to have gotten his hands on the MLB rules in 2010, but it’s not clear if this is the official guidance given to clubs or if these rules are still current.  In any case, he wrote:

The Brewers rely on MLB policy, which states, “Clubs must continue to use good judgment not to ‘show up’ the umpires, incite the crowd or distract players, but this admonition does not preclude showing close plays. Close plays may be shown, using good judgment and all plays must be reviewed by the scoreboard operator prior to being replayed on the scoreboard (and video monitors).”

Additionally, MLB won’t allow certain plays. They are: replays showing called balls or strikes from the current game or series; brushback pitches; or any instance where an umpire has clearly made an incorrect call.

Close plays can only be shown once and no close plays may be shown in slow motion or freeze frame.

If that is official MLB policy, it seems to leave plenty of wiggle room to show controversial plays at Miller Park.  The universe of absolutely prohibited replays is pretty small.  No balls and strikes, no pitches designed to move the batter off the plate, and no replays where the umpire has “clearly” made an incorrect call.  But “clearly” implies discretion and should be read hand-in-hand with the directive that a replay only be shown once and at game speed.  Say, for example, the runner is called out on a close play at first.  The scoreboard operator could replay if, at game speed, it appears the catch arrived simultaneously with the runner – even if super slow motion would show the runner beating the catch by a hair.

So, are the Brewers just stingy, or is it a massive MLB cover-up?  The answer seems to be “both.”  MLB doesn’t want fans at the game to see what *really* happened because they’re afraid of fan (or perhaps even player or manager) retaliation. But despite Schlesinger’s calls for increased latitude, the team just doesn’t seem interested in pushing the envelope as far as they could.  Based on my own personal experience, as an attendee of a good 30+ games every year, any play that could reasonably be called controversial seems to be off-limits at Miller Park.  Of course, without some system to compare the use of in-stadium replay to the television feed, it’s impossible to evaluate whether the team is appropriately blocking bad calls or taking a more expensive view of the rule.  Then again, if the team only refused to replay clearly incorrect calls, it’d be pretty obvious when there was an umpshow.

Even if the Brewers could do more within current policy, though, the underlying justification for the policy in the first place seems to have eroded.  Perhaps the rule made sense when there was a real fear of fan retaliation.  But as anyone who checks John Axford’s Twitter timeline can tell you, today’s fan is just as likely to be incited by a blown save as a blown call.  Yet I don’t see anyone lining up to prohibit road teams from hitting walk-off home runs.  Hell, I barely see anyone brave security to have their 30-second run on the field anymore.  Games are a very tightly controlled environment and fans just aren’t likely to risk their own well-being to physically engage an umpire or player.

But more than that, today’s high definition world values more information.  What fans won’t get at the game, they can get on TV or online instantly – and why would any team want to make attending a game less attractive?  Everyone knows umpires are not infallible, and most fans will understand (if not forgive) an occasional lapse in judgment as long as the umpire shows some sign of humility.  That’s exactly the trait Jim Joyce demonstrated when he apologized for blowing one of the biggest calls in history a few years ago, depriving Armando Galarraga of a perfect game with one out remaining.

So what is MLB really protecting with its restrictive replay policy?  Nothing more than the right of the umpire to be wrong and arrogant.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of those types already in baseball.  Let’s not encourage them to remain that way.

*Mr. Schlesinger was perhaps unaware of MLB.tv’s draconian blackout policy.

Toucherception

By Nathan Petrashek

We don’t often cross over into the world of football here at Cream City Cables, but the controversy over the final play of Monday Night Football has some pretty significant lessons for baseball, too.

In case you’ve been stranded out in the desert with no telecommunications equipment for the past 48 hours, let me explain.  Or, well, we’ll just the NFL do it:

In Monday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, Seattle faced a 4th-and-10 from the Green Bay 24 with eight seconds remaining in the game.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass into the end zone. Several players, including Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings, jumped into the air in an attempt to catch the ball.

Naturally, you’re going to have a lot of defensive backs in the end zone on a hail mary play.  Golden Tate was surrounded by gold helmets, including corner Sam Shields in front of him.  The NFL’s statement continues:

While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.

The NFL concedes there should have been a penalty on the play.  Had there been a penalty, the play would have been negated and, as time was expired, the game would have been over.  But what’s next is really shocking, and relevant for baseball purposes.  As the players came down, the side judge signaled touchdown.  The back judge signaled timeout.  The referee did not bother to ask them what they saw; the call on the field was apparently a touchdown by simultaneous possession (though no one has been able to point to me where that call was actually made on the field).

But that’s okay!  We have replay.  Here’s what happened next:

Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

The result of the game is final.

And that’s that.

The NFL’s statement even, quite helpfully, gives us the rule on simultaneous possession:

If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.

Remember, a valid catch requires a player to secure and maintain control of the ball, even while going to the ground.  You might recall the Calvin Johnson rule from a few years ago:

The NFL concluded that was not a catch.

Now, back to Monday night.  We’re going to conduct our own little replay review.  Here are some photos of the play on Monday night as it progressed:

The ball, incoming. Clearly M.D. Jennings has elevated himself above Golden Tate.

M.D. Jennings catches the ball. Golden Tate’s hand isn’t even on it.

Yep, that’s an interception.

The only thing Golden Tate caught is M.D. Jennings.

The infamous conflicting signals from referees. M.D. Jennings still clearly has possession of the ball. Tate clearly does not, making this an obvious interception.

Just in case you needed more proof.

There you have it.  If Calvin Johnson’s catch was not a touchdown, there is no possible way that Golden Tate can be found to have caught the ball and maintained possession.  There was no simultaneous catch.

One thing to keep in mind is that the replacement referee is not the only one who blew this call.  The NFL has officials – real NFL employees, not replacement referees – assisting with the administration of rules.  According to the NFL, one such official, Howard Slavin, was assisting with the review.  He got it wrong.  And apparently the entire NFL Officiating Department blew the call, too, because there is no way – simply no way! – you can review that game footage and determine that Golden Tate had possession of the ball at any point, let alone that he maintained control through the fall to the ground.

The obvious implication for baseball is that the blown call undermines much of the case for expanded review or automation.  The Commissioner has taken a very careful approach to replay in baseball, first permitting it for borderline home runs calls in 2008.   It will be expanded to fair-or-foul calls and trapped balls, but the system has so far resisted calls for further expansion (for example, on baserunning calls).

What is plain from Monday night’s fiasco is that replay review is not an infallible system.  Review officials will still get calls wrong.  Teams and players will still get screwed.  Error is inherent in any system in which human judgment comes into play (a scary thought when you consider that there are approximately 154,000 U.S. jury trials per year).

What’s more, a replay system is not a system without costs.  There are monetary costs, though one can argue these are not unacceptably high; the Bengals purchased equipment last year for $300,000, plus, of course, the additional cost of review officials and operations staff.  In baseball, the more troubling cost is time.  Every game requires one team to produce at least 27 outs, and baseball is the only major team sport in the United States without a clock.  As of 2010, the average length of a nine-inning game was just under three hours, and that because of dedicated efforts by the Commissioner to speed up the game.  Compare that to 1970s, where the average regulation game lasted under two and one-half hours.

Any expansive replay system is going to impose time costs.  NFL games, after expanding replay review to all scoring plays last season, and all turnovers this season, are lasting longer and longer in 2012, and it isn’t all due to replacement refs.  Expanded replay slows the game down.  It also takes the emotion out of a game when you’re not really sure if your guy just scored a touchdown or hit a home run until five minutes after it happened.

I am not opposed to replay, but I must be persuaded that the benefits outweigh the significant costs.  When the NFL Officiating Department can reach such absurd conclusions even after careful video study, it undermines the case for replay in every sport.

UPDATE

In today’s Ask Vic segement on Packers.com, Vic Ketchman reaches much the same conclusion about replay review:

Norm from Orange Park, FL

I think you have been present to witness two of the most controversial plays in NFL history, one in Pittsburgh and the one on Monday night.

Replay review was used for one and wasn’t available to be used for the other, but Monday’s play and the Immaculate Reception have one thing in common: Replay review was meaningless for both. Forty years later, replay of the Immaculate Reception still can’t confirm whether it was Frenchy Fuqua or Jack Tatum who deflected the ball to Franco Harris. It makes me wonder why we even use replay review if it can’t render a verdict on plays such as these. Aren’t these the plays for which the creation of the system is intended to be used? These weren’t low-profile games. One was a playoff game and the other was a Monday night game, national telecasts with a horde of cameras positioned throughout the stadium, and TV couldn’t produce one angle to help make the call. The thing I don’t like about replay review is that we’ve come to rely on it to correct mistakes, and that’s created an attitude among fans that we no longer have to live with mistakes. The bottom line is mistakes still happen and we still have to live with them.

On Automated Officiating Generally

As a follow up to my previous post regarding automation of ball and strike calls, some general thoughts on automated officiating.  I’ve consistently heard advocates for instant replay in limited situations – i.e. fair or foul balls and out calls on the bases – defend their view as if there’s some sort of limiting principle in play:  “It’s not like I’m asking that someone review ball and strike calls.”

I don’t see that there’s any way to craft principled limitations to instant replay or other forms of review in baseball. If we do it for home runs, why not plays at the plate?  If we do it for plays at the plate, why not plays at any base?  And from there, why not ball and strike calls?  In our merciless drive to take error out of the game – after all, we owe that to the players and to ourselves as fans – what is above scrutiny?

In that sense, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve finally gone beyond simple review, in which umpires still perhaps have a meaningful role, to complete automation.  Zettel’s argument is important insofar as it illustrates that even review will not placate the perfectionists.

The Elusive Strike Zone

Over at Bernie’s Crew,Nicholas Zettel argues, “Use the technology that is available to make the strike zone calls automatic.”  Apparently frustrated by bad calls during the past few series, Zettel appears ready to cast the umpire into the dustbins of obscurity, relegating him to largely ceremonial tasks like “keep[ing] the pace of the game … and lineup cards.”  At essence, Zettel’s argument is that “the strike zone is set in the rulebook according to certain standards, and the umpires cannot execute that aspect of the rules.”

The problem is that neither can technology.  And that is because the strike zone changes from pitch-to-pitch.  According to the official rules, “The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.”  (See diagram)  But here’s the kicker:  “The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”

Zettel manages to devote an entire ten-paragraph post to his argument without ever acknowledging how the strike zone is established.  Although he correctly notes that the strike zone is set in the rulebook according to “certain standards” – which I’ve outlined above – he fails to recognize that according to those standards the strike zone is not set until seconds before the pitch is thrown.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of technology Zettel is talking about implementing to make the ball and strike determinations; he never specifies.  There may well be technology out there that is capable of rapidly drawing the necessary strike zone boundaries, but I haven’t seen it.  All those fancy FOXTRAX graphics you see on the game broadcasts are simply estimates of where the strike zone boundaries will be when the batter prepares to swing.

And in any event, even assuming there is technology available that can make the necessary calculations and call balls and strikes with unwavering precision, it may be a solution in search of a problem.  As Zettel observes, the strike zone is one of the most basic, foundational aspects of the game of baseball, which is precisely why we should avoid messing with it without good cause.  I’ve seen a few bad calls here and there, but I’d want to know how prevalent those errors are, and how likely it is they could be avoided, before endorsing a wholesale change in the way the game is officiated.