Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/9/13
I’ve often wondered what would happen if a group of umpires came together to make a call that was so obviously wrong, so over-the-top blatantly inaccurate as to be completely nonsensical. Like, what if a pitcher threw a pitch, and the batter grounded out, and the umpires signaled for an automatic double? Obviously, the defensive team’s manager would get ejected, and a bunch of other guys would probably get ejected too, but, then what? If the umpires all agree that the batter doubled, who steps in to prevent the double? Does the defensive team leave the field in protest? Are they then given a forfeit? Does the commissioner get involved? The commissioner would have to get involved. But this is a thought experiment — of course, something like this would never happen. But, you know. There are bad calls every day. Some of them are dreadful. Inexplicably dreadful. And now we have one that even followed a video review. You already know all this by now, but Wednesday night in Cleveland, in a high-leverage spot, the umpiring team did something nonsensical, and shortly thereafter the A’s were handed another loss. At least, Oakland should’ve played a bottom of the ninth. They didn’t, and won’t. The quick summary, for anyone who somehow missed it: the A’s were trailing the Indians 4-3 in the top of the ninth with two outs and nobody on. Adam Rosales then hit a long fly ball that caromed back into the field of play off the top of the wall, or thereabouts. The call on the field was a double, but then the play was reviewed, and slow-motion instant replays on TV showed the fly ball to have bounced off a railing behind the official yellow line. The video was conclusive — Rosales hit a home run, and the A’s had the game tied. Then Angel Hernandez and the umpiring crew re-emerged from their box, and Hernandez pointed to second base. Rosales’ double was upheld, and the A’s didn’t have the game tied, and a few minutes later the A’s lost. Later, Hernandez would refuse to offer much of an explanation. His word of choice: “inconclusive.” Basically, the wrong call was made on the field. But that was understandable, because from a distance it would’ve been hard to tell what the ball hit. That’s why instant replay exists, and the system worked perfectly, right up until Hernandez and the rest of the umpires watched slow-motion video and still got it wrong. Given the aid of slowed time and better vision, the umpires still couldn’t figure out what happened in the baseball game. If it’s solace you want, then, all right, the umpires didn’t cost the A’s the game. The umpires cost the A’s several points of win expectancy, but even if Rosales were given the home run, the A’s still would have been the heavy underdogs, on account of having two out in the ninth. They could’ve lost anyway, and they could’ve lost soon. Additionally, video replay isn’t automatic. Video replay still comes down to a judgment call, and because judgment calls are made by humans, they won’t be 100% accurate. They’ll approach 100%, but they won’t be literally perfect, so every now and again you’d expect a call to be made wrong, anyway. This was one such call, and in the big picture these calls are going to happen. People screw up. Given a do-over, people will still screw up sometimes. But if that’s some solace, it isn’t much. What happened was genuinely unforgivable and genuinely inexplicable. Said Hernandez: “It was not evident on the TV we had that it was a home run. … I don’t know what kind of replay you had, but you can’t reverse a call unless there’s 100 percent evidence.” Initially, I figured that maybe the umpiring crew didn’t have very good camera angles to work with. Again, from a distance, the play’s hard to judge conclusively. I’d get it, even if that were still problematic. But here’s Ken Rosenthal: Told that Hernandez and umpiring crew were seeing broadcast feeds, same as all of us. #Athletics #Indians. — Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) May 9, 2013 I don’t know if they were watching the Oakland feed or the Cleveland feed. I do know that it shouldn’t matter. Here’s a clip from the Oakland feed: Here’s a clip from the Cleveland feed: Based on their replays, the Oakland announcers agreed that this was an obvious home run. Based on their replays, the Cleveland announcers agreed that this was an obvious home run. Both sides were utterly shocked when Hernandez and the rest of the umpires kept Rosales at second. Regarding the play, there wasn’t any mystery. Regarding the decision, there was nothing but. And I just don’t know what there is to do. In the past, whenever a call was made wrongly, the Internet would be flooded with articles calling for more instant-replay review. Here, there was instant-replay review, and still it made no difference. So there’s no system to change, no improvement to be recommended. It’s possible, I suppose, that the umpires had the right camera angles, but they had to watch on a small and terrible screen. Given low enough surface area and sufficient pixelization, I see how something like this could happen. I don’t see how Major League Baseball would supply its umpires with awful television sets, but since I don’t know any details, this could be a thing. Maybe the necessary improvement is better video resolution, for when replay review is necessary. MLB could make that improvement at the cost of practically nothing, to them. At the cost of one umpire’s salary. Seems to me the right thing to do, after the fact, would’ve been to reverse the call and resume the game on Thursday morning. I saw Buster Olney suggest this first, since by Thursday morning everybody knew the call was screwed up. The A’s and Indians were already preparing to play a matinee, and so while it wouldn’t have been as perfect as getting the call right in the first place, at least it would’ve been justice. The A’s would’ve been given their due opportunity. This didn’t happen, even though there is some precedent in the Pine Tar game. Of course, having the commissioner intervene to overrule the umpires would kickstart the whole slippery-slope argument, since there’s a steady stream of bad calls in every baseball game that’s played. If you overrule one, why not overrule another? Where do you draw the line? What baseball game could ever be completed, if every bad call had to be reversed after the fact? It’s not an easy situation, but like everything, this would need to be handled on a case-by-case basis, and in this case it would make all the sense in the world. Every team in baseball gets wronged by the human element. The A’s were wronged by instant-replay review, which shouldn’t ever happen, given the whole purpose of having replay review in the first place. Maybe that’s where you draw the line. The A’s shouldn’t be punished because you’re worried about some hypothetical future disaster scenario. As for Angel Hernandez, there’s been a lot of talk already about umpire accountability. Surely, Hernandez is going to hear about this from his superiors, if he hasn’t already. This is a blemish for the game, a blemish caused by Hernandez and the rest of his crew. It is worth remembering that Hernandez didn’t make this decision on his own, that several eyes were watching the slow-motion replay. It was a group decision to keep Rosales at second base, so the other umpires shouldn’t be ignored. Hernandez, though, is the face of this episode. It didn’t help that he was stubborn and evasive in his post-game interview. People want for Hernandez to be fired, or at least to be disciplined significantly. Hernandez’s reputation is among the worst in the game, and it’s not like he hasn’t earned it. Hernandez should be disciplined, somehow, but let’s think about this instance. I’m trying to figure out what Hernandez did wrong, where things went awry. He would’ve gone to the replay trying to make things right. I don’t believe for a second that Hernandez had a reason to uphold the double, if the evidence suggested to him otherwise. He didn’t see conclusive evidence. I don’t know how, or why, but it’s not like Hernandez forgot a rule. He just…inexplicably didn’t see something. It’s kind of like the football ref who got the coin flip wrong. This is bizarre, fluky. Hernandez should be punished, but maybe the replay-review screen just sucks, and punishing Hernandez isn’t going to make matters improve. As for firing Hernandez, given his mounting resume of controversies, it isn’t as simple as pointing out that Hernandez is considered to be among the league’s worst umpires. The league only has so many umpires, and some of them are going to be good, some of them are going to be bad, and some of them are going to be okay. That’s how distributions work. It isn’t whether Hernandez is the worst of the MLB umpires. It’s whether there are better umpires who could take his place. Maybe there are, in the minors, but I certainly don’t know for sure. And now we’re straying from the point. The point is: what? What happened? A close call was reviewed, as it should’ve been. The review was interpreted wrongly. The A’s lost a game that should’ve at least lasted a few minutes longer than it did. During a discussion of the controversy on ESPN, Aaron Boone tried to talk and just wore this expression of helpless disbelief. That’s the expression I’m wearing while writing this. This isn’t a case where we need to call for MLB to adopt expanded instant replay. This is a case where we need to call for MLB to…I don’t know. It’s probably too late to make things right. And things are never going to make sense. There’s no clear lesson. There’s only what happened.
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