Opinions, Sports

Schapiro ’19: MLB uses a double standard on replay reviews

Sports Columnist
Friday, April 21, 2017

The Mets played an exciting game last week against the Marlins: Deadlocked at 8-8, they fought into the 16th inning before a Travis d’Arnaud home run and a Hansel Robles save. Hidden within that marathon of a game was a less visible issue, but one that may well be more important. In the top of the seventh, on a bang-bang play at the plate, Yoenis Cèspedes was called out. The way in which the conclusion was reached poses a remote but real threat to baseball’s integrity.

I’ve previously written about replay in baseball. That time, Adrían Gonzàlez — who was called out at the plate — contested the required “clear and convincing evidence” standard and thought that the call should have been changed. But I disagreed.

“While it may appear that Gonzàlez may have touched the plate before being tagged, I can’t say definitively that he did,” I wrote.

That time, the replay umpires got the call right — they avoided the temptation to rule by instinct, and instead, examined the actual evidence available. This time, they did the opposite.

As Cèspedes sprinted home, Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto caught the throw and reached back to make the tag. Watching the play live, it wasn’t clear whether he’d made contact with Cèspedes or not. Home plate umpire Àngel Hernàndez thought he had not. Hernàndez called Cèspedes safe, and the Marlins challenged. And that’s when “clear and convincing evidence” came into play.

Watching the enhanced, slow-motion replays, I had no idea whether Realmuto had tagged Cèspedes or not. If he had, it had been by the absolute slightest of margins: His glove hadn’t changed direction at all. If he had missed him, it was not by much: No space was visible between Realmuto’s glove and Cèspedes’ pants. The replay lasted almost four minutes, and not one shot on the broadcast provided a definitive answer.

On replay, it looked like Cèspedes was probably out. A preponderance of evidence pointed that way — but barely. Fortunately, replay reviews aren’t determined by the balance of evidence: Rather, by rule, a call can only be changed if replay umpires detect “clear and convincing evidence” that the original call was wrong. It’s essentially the baseball equivalent of the justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” — no call can be changed unless it is certain the change is correct.

So, by standing replay procedure, there was no way that Cèspedes could have been out. The clearest shot of the play was a zoomed in, blurry, overhead shot — barely Zapruderian in quality — certainly not clear and convincing.

But Cèspedes was called out. On the basis of a tag that looked like it was there, but that no one could actually see, they changed the call and took the pivotal go-ahead run off the board.

But what’s the issue with this? What’s wrong with calling it as you see it, and not worrying about showing clear and convincing evidence?

Once again, I’ll look to the justice system. There’s a reason we require proof beyond a reasonable doubt: no person’s status should ever be changed from “innocent” to “guilty” unless guilt is beyond doubt. If it appears likely that someone committed a crime, that doesn’t mean they can be convicted for it: So long as there’s any level of doubt, a defendant remains innocent. It’s not hard to see that branding a person a criminal and sentencing them to receive punishment is unjust if there is doubt as to whether they actually committed the crime.

Return to baseball, and the parallels are clear. Baseball doesn’t have such a default: There’s no “innocent until proven guilty.” Rather, its default is simple: the call on the field. If the call on the field cannot be clearly and conclusively disproven, then it stands.

Why is this correct? Because a call should never be changed from one that might be right to one that might be wrong. If there’s no conclusive evidence either way, then the call cannot be conclusively made either way — which means the original call on the field must stand. There’s no justification for switching it.

When an MLB manager challenges a call, there are three possible outcomes: call confirmed, call stands or call reversed. Call confirmed means that replay proved the original call correct, and call reversed means that the original call was proven wrong. Call stands is in the middle — and it’s what should happen in the vast majority of cases. It means that there’s no evidence on replay to make a definitive call either way — so the officials stick with the original call, because that’s all they can use.

I still don’t know whether Realmuto really tagged Cèspedes. I believe that he may have, but that’s not the question. The question is whether I, and the umpires reviewing the play, can tell for certain. In this case,  ­ they could not. No one who saw the replay could have, because there’s simply no evidence either way. He may not have made the tag — and if that’s the case, as it very well may be, the umpires changed a call and cost the Mets the go-ahead run, despite making the correct call all along.

That should never happen. And that’s why we need the “clear and convincing evidence” standard — and why replay officials need to actually uphold it.

James Schapiro ’19 can be reached at james_schapiro@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.