Instant replay one more unneeded change in baseball

Detroit manager Jim Leyland makes a point with an umpire.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland makes a point with an umpire.

Trying to perfect baseball is a fool’s endeavor.

Baseball was doing just fine for about a century before the owners and their commissioner started trying to make it more like other American sports, diluting its essence.

Changes we really didn’t need include the designated hitter, divisional playoffs, interleague games, wild cards, the All-Star Game’s forced new purpose, and now…the creeping curse of instant replay.

Once baseball started allowing instant replay for home run calls, the push to expand it was inevitable, and soon we’ll have to endure it for fair/foul calls and trap plays vs. catches, then eventually for all safe/out calls, and someday even for balls and strikes. So you’d better get ready for games that are five and six hours long and a lot more of those annoying waits as umpires huddle around a TV monitor.

If technology exists, our culture is tempted to use it. And no logic can defeat it. Instant replay is a foolish quest for an unreachable precision. Don’t you see the irony in Bud Selig’s push for more instant replay following closely on the heels of the umpires blowing a home-run call even after they saw the replay?

Baseball is by its nature an endeavor that eludes the quest for perfection. In baseball, you fail more than you succeed, because the tasks are so difficult. Umpires’ jobs are just as hard, and frequent failure at them is also an inevitable part of the game.

Baseball mocks attempts to tame it, to rob it of its inherent serendipity.

What makes a no-hitter a huge achievement is the difficulty of retiring twenty-seven batters who can put the ball into play somewhere. It’s damned hard to get Joe Mauer out four times in a game. Just ask Anibal Sanchez. The joy is in the pursuit of perfection, which is nearly always elusive. (But it sure would help if your manager thought to make defensive changes at third base and center field when you are pitching a no-no in a blow-out!)

So please, Bud Selig, stop trying to make baseball conform to the demands of modern culture’s obsession with virtual reality. Sometimes the old way is better. Stick to vinyl.

That said, a few procedural matters that have nothing to do with the actual game could be changed.

For example: why is five innings a magic number? Watching the agony of Justin Verlander in Cleveland as the tarp came on the field, I pondered how nonsensical both the rainout rules and the pitcher win rule are.

If I were commish, all games suspended by weather would be resumed at the point of suspension and completed later. No game should be official until nine innings are played, even if it means you play early the next morning and a team flight is delayed. (I suppose you could have a mercy rule exception to avoid sending everybody back out to finish a blow-out: something like five runs after eight innings, eight after seven, and ten after five or six. I mean, if a game is that lopsided and it’s raining, umps are apt to call for the tarp anyway and pull the plug.)

Another thing: Why does a starting pitcher have to go five innings to get credit for a win? Well, just because someone long ago made up an arbitrary rule. Which opens up a larger question: Aren’t pitcher wins and losses a ridiculous statistic anyway?

Consider this: you can pitch nine innings, give up no earned runs, and not get the win. You can pitch five innings, give up eight earned runs, and get the win. You can pitch a third of an inning, give up three runs, and get the win.

No other stat is as team-dependent and as unreliable as a measurement of performance yet is still so popular. (Yes, you can make the Jack Morris argument, and say a great pitcher pitches to the score, and that may be true, but it doesn’t invalidate the point.) The guy with the better W-L gets the Cy Young even though most voters know better (see David Price vs. Verlander, 2012). Because W-L is the first thing fans think about when evaluating pitchers. But it’s a badly flawed measurement.

I already ranted about saves in an earlier column. But pitcher wins and losses are just as misleading and irrational. If not abolished, I’d rather see them awarded by the official scorer; that would be no less ridiculous than the present system. Better yet, ditch them entirely. Use ERA, not such a bad measurement, and add in WHIP and WAR and K minus BB, and anything else you’re fond of.

The game would survive just fine, just as it did before the DH and wild cards.



About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.