Instant Replay: The Good, the Bad, and the Unbelievable

By Abram Erickson

On the night of June 2, 2010, after over 210,000 games played in Major League Baseball history, in which only 20 perfect games had ever been thrown, Armando Galarraga had pitched 8 ⅔ innings, allowed 0 hits, 0 walks, his team had made 0 errors and he had hit 0 batters.

One out was all that was remaining between Armando Galarraga and baseball history.

After a routine ground ball to the first baseman, it seemed that the final out was exactly what Galarraga was going to get. However, what he ended up receiving was the short end of the stick in what became debatably one of the worst calls in the history of baseball.

Jim Joyce, the first base umpire, ruled the runner safe, although replay clearly showed that the runner was out. Galarraga was robbed of his perfect game, while Joyce was robbed of his reputation. “I took a perfect game away from that kid over there,” Joyce famously said after the game. And though he apologized profusely and made amends with Galarraga, that doesn’t change the outcome of the game. As of 2010, baseball had no provision for this call to be reviewed under instant replay.

In the sports world, instant replay can have serious implications: It can alter the course of sports history forever.

Now take a look at the flip side. Eight years after Joyce’s blown call, in the bottom of the 13th inning in the 2018 National League Wild Card matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the Colorado Rockies, Cubs outfielder Terrance Gore saw an opportunity.

Gore, a speedster with only one hit in 16 career at-bats, was at the plate when Rockies pitcher Scott Oberg fired a fastball high and inside past his left shoulder. Gore flinched, and, after a pause, ran to first base as if he was hit by the pitch. To the naked eye, it was imperceptible whether or not the ball hit Gore. However, as soon as Gore reached first, Rockies manager Bud Black signaled to the umpire that he wanted to challenge the umpire’s call.

After a short delay, replay review revealed that the pitch did not hit Gore. He was sent back to the plate and subsequently struck out, stalling any chance of a Chicago rally, and eventually ending their season.

In today’s baseball environment, this play seems unremarkable. However, just a short five years ago, this bad call would never have been rectified. And though it is too late for Armando Galarraga, thanks to a relatively new concept in baseball—the coach’s challenge—Gore’s trickery was caught.

Viewpoints: Instant Replay

While instant replay seems commonplace to sports fans today, it hasn’t always been. In fact, the first instant replay ever ran during the 1963 Army-Navy football game. Originally used only for television broadcasts, instant replay nevertheless had a profound and immediate impact on sports, though it wasn’t until 1986 that the NFL became the first professional sport to make instant replay a part of the game.

Major League Baseball, however, waited 22 years to finally surrender to technology, when it became the last of America’s four major sports to adopt instant replay in 2008.

Baseball, the nation’s oldest professional sport and national pastime, has been hesitant to wholeheartedly adopt replay due to the opinions of many baseball fans who believe technology hinders the game. Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem once said, after being shown a photograph insinuating he had made the wrong call on a particular play, “Gentlemen, he was out because I said he was out.” This statement echoes the sentiments of many baseball purists, who believe the human element brought to the game by umpires is invaluable and would be tainted by instant replay.

Others simply dislike the amount of time replay adds to the MLB’s already dragging game times. From 2007 to 2017, the average length of an MLB game rose from 2:51 to 3:05, according to Baseball Reference. And while this increase may not be fully attributed to instant replay, a 14-minute increase over the ten years following the introduction of replay speaks for itself.

Another cohort of baseball fans sees instant replay as a boon to the game, and a way to prevent tragedies like what happened to Galarraga. Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor, in a 2010 article on instant replay, put this feeling into words, saying, “Umpires’ mistakes are random events, outside influences on the competition that neither team can possibly prepare for. Those mistakes take the results out of the hands of the competitors; the more they can be kept to a minimum, the fairer the competition is.”

Replay’s Effect

A 2010 study by ESPN found that MLB umpires miss about 20 percent of calls that are close enough to use replay review, scoring a huge win for those in favor of instant replay. However, the study also found that those close plays only come about around one time every four games, bringing MLB umpires’ total success rate up to 99.5% overall. Those against instant replay say that this 0.5% is just enough human error to keep the game interesting.

Despite one’s personal opinion on the decision, after being introduced, instant replay truly had an immediate effect on baseball’s play. On an extremely restricted basis, from 2008 to 2013, the instant replay system reviewed 329 plays and overturned about 37% of them (132).

This small taste of instant replay gradually developed over the course of six years, and eventually led the league to submit to more pressure from those in favor of expanded replay. In 2014, after preliminary testing in the minor leagues yielded positive results, the MLB adopted the NFL’s popular “Coach’s Challenge” format for instant replay.

Introduced by the NFL in 1999, the premise of the coach’s challenge is simple: If a coach believes an official made a wrong call, he signals the official that he wants to challenge the call, and the play will be put under replay review.

Coaches are not allowed unlimited challenges, however. Current MLB rules allow for each manager to be given one “challenge” at the beginning of each regular season game. A manager does not lose his ability to challenge until one of his challenges fails. As long as managers continue to challenge calls that are overturned by review, they can continue challenging until their challenge is not rewarded with the call being overturned.

The coach’s challenge has completely revolutionized strategy in baseball. According to the MLB, in the past five years that the coach’s challenge has been in effect, 6739 calls have been challenged, with 3200 (47.5%) being overturned, and 3539 (52.5%) upheld. For the first time, managers can strategically combat bad calls, and they are certainly seeing results.

Replay Moving Forward

Questions still abound on where the MLB will move next with instant replay. Baseball continues to strive to appeal to the younger, more technologically advanced demographic, so some speculate that replay’s role in baseball will continue to shift. At the same time, baseball still struggles with a pace-of-play problem, which replay only exacerbates. Some fans are pleased and others are up in arms, but it is indisputable that replay review puts the game in the hands of players and managers more than ever before.

Baseball fans are passionate about the game they love, and while they may be divided on this important issue, it is because each fan understands the weight of this decision. The decision on instant replay carries historical implications. In just ten short years, we’ve seen that instant replay can be the difference between a great game and a perfect game, or a finished season and a playoff run.

The debate is sure to continue between those for and against instant replay, but a complete consensus is unlikely to be achieved on a complex issue with such strong opinions on each side. In situations like this, it’s always important to remember that for every Armando Galarraga, there’s also a Terrance Gore.