MLB Instant Replay: Home runs calls could and should be better

USA TODAY Sports

Marlon Byrd hit a home run on Monday night, but it was called a double after instant replay review. The play was just one example of what's wrong with baseball's review system.

During the ninth inning of the Mets’ victory on Monday night, Marlon Byrd hit what would have been a game-tying home run if Major League Baseball’s instant replay worked properly. He wound up coming around to score on a single by Josh Satin, rendering the blown call moot, especially since the Mets wound up winning the game. But the missed call was a great example of baseball’s flawed replay review process.

Major League Baseball’s current replay rules are very limited. Only borderline home runs can be reviewed, and the process is much slower than it should be. Umpires typically gather in a group on the field, sometimes at the request of a manager, to discuss whether or not they should review the play in the designated location beneath the stands at the ballpark.

If the umpires decide to go take a look, three of them trot off the field and out of sight to take a look at a 19-inch Panasonic flat-panel monitor underneath the stands of the ballpark. Unsurprisingly, they don’t always return with the correct call.

The Problems

First, a 19-inch monitor seems pretty small, especially since larger screens are commonplace and not at all expensive. MLB is pretty secretive about the details of the replay process and equipment involved, but unless that monitor is connected to some outstanding video editing software and the umpires are well versed in using it, it’s foolish to dedicate so much time to such a non-ideal solution.

Second, the replay review process depends entirely on the television cameras in the ballpark, which is where Byrd’s non-home run serves as a great example.

Citi Field’s fences are a bit awkward. In left and center field, there’s a solid surface immediately behind and above the orange home run line on the blue portion of the wall. That was the case in left field even before the fences were moved in, but the confusing setup now stretches more than half the distance of the outfield wall. Citi Field isn’t alone in this regard, though. Sometimes it’s very difficult to see whether or not a baseball hits a surface above the home run line.

The problem with the whole replay system, though, is that television cameras are really bad at providing an accurate view of what happens on a borderline home run. Anyone watching the game on SNY was shown a replay that made it appear as though the ball Byrd hit had not made contact with the fence above the orange line and was therefore not a home run. But that wasn’t the case.

Below are three GIFs of the play, all of which are slowed down and loop from forward to reverse to emphasize the spot where the ball makes contact with the fence above the line. Even with the loop, it’s hard to detect that spot in the angle that was shown on SNY. Here it is:

If you don’t see the spot where the ball hits the fence yet, it’s understandable. These camera angles force the viewer to suffer the parallax effect. Because of the angle and zoom of the camera, it’s damn near impossible to see what actually happened.

But the camera angle used on the Diamondbacks’ broadcast showed a very different picture: the ball hit the fence above the orange line and immediately ricocheted down and hit the orange line on the fence. On the SNY feed, the first instance of contact was not obvious. Here’s a GIF from the Arizona feed, taken very shortly after the play happened in real time.

The bounce is pretty apparent there, but here’s a super-zoomed version of the GIF to illustrate the point even more.

That was not one magic loogie. There’s no reason the umpires should have gotten this play—or any play like it in any other game—wrong.

The Solutions

The solution to the first problem above has been mentioned by many: MLB should use a centralized replay center in the same fashion as the NHL. There’s no doubt that time could be saved and calls could be more accurately made—even without further changes to the system—if officials with video expertise and access to better equipment were reviewing these calls in a state-of-the-art facility.

Regarding the second problem above, it’s hard to figure out why baseball relies solely on television cameras for its review of home runs. The league is not alone, of course, as the NFL relies solely on television cameras for instant replay review. That doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.

If PITCHf/x cameras can do what they do so well—tracking an incredible amount of data about every pitch thrown in Major League Baseball a long distance from home plate—it would seem MLB could easily install a better camera system to track home runs.

Like the camera that hangs above the goal line in NHL arenas, these cameras could be set up in fixed positions so that they’re perpendicular—or as close to perpendicular as possible—to the home run lines on the outfield walls. PITCHf/x is obviously set up very specifically to detect pitch movement and location between the mound and home plate, but it’s incredibly accurate. Major League Baseball tested cameras for detecting close fair-or-foul-ball calls down the lines in both of New York City’s ballparks last year, but the league was hesitant to implement such a system immediately.

If there are real problems with a PITCHf/x-like camera system automatically detecting home runs, traditional small video cameras placed properly along every ballpark’s fences seem like a relatively inexpensive solution and would provide umpires—or their centralized counterparts—a much better angle of close home run calls. Cameras that are closer to the baseball on these plays and at a better angle would be a major upgrade over the television cameras tracking fly balls from near home plate.

Instant replay review is very limited in Major League Baseball, and it should be expanded to include other types of close calls. For now, the system that is in place should be as accurate as possible.

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