The Physics of Replay Reviews

There are real, physical constraints on video replays of close plays such as this one (via James G).

There are real, physical constraints on video replays of close plays such as this one (via James G).

I guess I am a curmudgeon. When I first heard that baseball was adopting replay I saw it as the end of civilization. However, now that it is firmly in place I have to admit that MLB has done an excellent job implementing the replay review system. A  team of umpires reviews controversial calls from the Replay Operations Center in New York instead of at the ballpark – a major improvement over the NFL system.

The umps at the park, now absolved of responsibility for the decision, implement the call from the replay center. We are spared the once inevitable and time wasting arguments on the field. Finally, the decisive video is shared with the crowd,  providing some chance of maintaining civility in the stands.

Nonetheless, there are physical limits to what you can seen in video replays. While researching this article, I attempted to get information about the technical details of the cameras and the signals they provide to the Reply Operations Center. This proved to be impossibl,e as MLB seems to guard information more closely than the NSA. As a result, the data presented here are based upon typical sports video production cameras, not the specific ones used by MLB and its broadcast partners.

Let’s start with a basic description of the typical video available from broadcast television. Only a limited number of broadcasts use cameras specifically designed to produce slow motion replays. So, we’ll deal with just standard speed cameras where the slow motion is generated by just showing the images at a lower rate.

There was a day when TV broadcasts were simply sent to your set as 30 still pictures every second. Since it takes your eye and brain take longer than a 30th of a second to make sense of the image, the video appears smooth and continuous. Today, the situation is wildly complex.

The data your TV gets depends upon whether you collect your signal off the air or from cable/satellite and your provider. The image you see is determined by the software in your set. The still images may be presented at 30 frames a second (fps), 60 fps, or a combination known as “interlaced.” The frames are composed of horizontal lines. Interlaced signals are made from every other line of the last image and the rest of the lines from the current image. Bottom line, most cameras produce an image every 60th of a second.

So, one of the physical limits is associated with what happens between images. In other words, what can change in a 60th of a second? Table 1 describes several situations where motion is occurring.

Distance traveled between 1/60s frames
Description Typical Speed Distance
A ball thrown by an infielder 80 mph 2.0 ft
A runner at top speed 20 mph 0.5 ft
A sliding runner 10 mph 0.25 ft
Home run coming down 50 mph 1.2 ft

On a close play at first base, the ball has about two feet between images and the runner has covered six inches. These numbers alone explain why the umps usually have it right when you see the replay. They have a surprising amount of room for error that cannot be detected by typical cameras.

Then there are those homer calls where we need to know if the ball hit above the yellow line. The ball travels about 14 inches between camera frames. If the collision is with a solid wall, the ball will be in contact with the wall for much less than a 60th of a second. So, you are unlikely to have a still frame where the ball is touching the wall.

A second consideration is the time it takes to produce a single frame. This is called “shutter speed.” Shutter speeds can vary depending on the amount of light available for the camera. In the bright sunlight of a day game the shutter speed might be 1/1000s. At a night game it might be lower, say 1/125s. Table 2 illustrates the distance objects move during the creation of a single frame at both speeds.

Distance traveled during a single frame
Description Typical Speed Distance 1/1000s Distance 1/125s
A ball thrown by an infielder 80 mph 1.4 in 11 in
A runner at top speed 20 mph 0.35 in 2.8 in
A sliding runner 10 mph 0.18 in 1.4 in
Home run coming down 50 mph 0.88 in 7.0 in

The motion during the time the image is constructed explains the blur of the ball or the runner in a slow motion frame. A ball traveling at 50 mph will look like a thick horizontal line more than twice as long as it is wide.

The third physical limitation is the camera angles. The angle from which a play is observed is crucial, so much so that getting a good angle is central to the training of umpires. I would contend that a large fraction of blown calls are due to the umpire having a bad viewing angle whether because of his poor choice of position or the vagaries to the play.

Major league broadcasts use between seven and 12 cameras. The high number is from the Yankees’ exceptional quality YES broadcasts. Not all cameras follow every play, so there seem to be rarely more than three distinct angles to review.

In summary then, there are three physical limitations for replay reviews:

  1. The 60th of a second between video images.
  2. The time to construct a single video image, the shutter speed, which can vary.
  3. The limited number of camera angles.

On May 20, Tyler Colvin of the San Francisco Giants hit a ball down the left field line ruled foul by the third base umpire, who was in perfect position to make the call. The video illustrates all three limitations – I’ll wait a few minutes while you view the clip.

There seem to be three camera angles. The one from high above home plate shows the play at normal speed at the beginning of the clip. The view from the camera high above first base is shown at 19 seconds into the clip, and several times later at different levels of zoom and varying speeds. A camera near the left field foul pole looking in toward home is 32 seconds into the clip and is shown in slow motion.

The slow motion views from both the high first base and the left field cameras clearly show the effects of the time between the frames and the blur from the shutter speed. By a stroke of good fortune, the high first base camera actually has an image of the ball striking the ground, but the shutter speed leaves the call ambiguous.

The left field camera seems to clearly show the ball hit the ground foul, but careful analysis reveals the camera doesn’t have an image of the ball hitting the ground. It has one slightly before and one slightly after.

The decisive image is really due to the perspective provided by the high first base camera seeing the chalk or paint or whatever it is spray from the collision between the ball and the ground. This spray was along the baseline, so the high home and left field cameras couldn’t distinguish it from the white background of the line itself. The third base ump had the same problem. It turned out he had a bad angle for viewing the spray.

I hope this discussion illustrated the physical limitations of replay reviews based upon constraints of video cameras. Given these limitations, it is surprising over the first two months of the season, almost half the challenged calls had been reversed. I will try to be less of a curmudgeon in the future, but that may just be wishful thinking.

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  1. Thiago Splitchange said...

    I really think the replay system would be better off without gamifying it. Teach the umps at school to be more willing to go to their partners or replay to ask for help and “take it upstairs” themselves. I’m not a big fan of the challenge-based system in MLB or the NFL. The only benefit is that it lets managers be in control so they don’t complain when an ump doesn’t choose to review a blown call, although that can happen now if they incorrectly challenge.

  2. David said...

    I’m not sure that I agree with your comment about umpires being out of position. I think they’re most always in the best spot on challenged calls I’ve seen. I think some kind of helmet-cam would give us a better review than the traditional tv angles we see. Other than that, some good info here. Thanks.

  3. bucdaddy said...

    You remember the stories about players getting hit in the foot with a pitch, and convincing the umpires by showing them a ball with shoe polish on it? I wonder if it would be possible to mix something in the chalk along the outfield foul lines that would show up on the ball under a black light or something, help settle situations like this.

    MLB may have done OK implementing replay (though like Thiago I think they could do better than the challenge system), but it sure butchered new rules (or new emphasis on old rules) early in the year, such as the fiascoes involving catcher interference and that whole catch/no catch idiocy. I still cannot understand why all of these changes weren’t field tested for at least a year in the minors and spring training to iron out all the bugs before that got used in real games, costing real teams real wins.

    Unless, you know, if was just all about ramming them through while Bud was still the High Potentate.

    So nothing about this can rate better than a C-minus from me. If it’s worked out well, it was probably more by accident than design.

  4. Caseman said...

    This specific game situation is to me a perfect example of how the video replay system is implemented to get the call right. The most significant part of the review ( the moment the ball hit the ground) would have been obscured to the naked eye of the third base umpire. The ball hit the line and sent some paint or whatever they draw the lines with into the air. This would likely have not been so obvious to the umpire with the background of the rest of the line but is pretty obvious with the first base side camera angle. Also, since the ball went into the crowd, the best possible situation for the Giants in this case is a ground rule double.
    This play is also an example of how close plays in baseball can get. Whether they be at first base or on a home run or on a hit down the line. The ball is put in play sometimes on such a fine line that it can be controversial and with the outcome of the call being either positive or negative for the teams involved. This would be the case without the video replay system. One team would benefit from a call and the other would not. At least they can get it right for the deserving team.
    What a discussion replay is. How many calls over the decades would have been reversed???
    Baseball is great.

  5. Pennsy said...

    If challenges were left totally at the discretion of the umpires, and they could review as many plays as necessary, the people complaining about pace of game now would become apoplectic. Every close play, a manager would run out to the umpires and make a show of wondering about the call, waiting for the signal from the dugout to REALLY start stamping his feet for a review. Because he’d have no way to really force the issue as he does now by simply saying “I’d like to use my challenge.”

    The system is surprisingly clean now as it is, managers know they’re responsible for making the call on reviews and take that initiative. Though, I would prefer it be more of a three strikes system. It puts more of the onus on the manager to know when to challenge a play, and to not challenge overzealously, versus constant meetings between the umpires and managers to argue the merits of each potential review. Managers can challenge as many calls as they need to, until they’ve lost three of them. Which really does feel like more than enough, doesn’t it? After three lost challenges they no longer have the option to force the issue for however long the game continues on, and a manager would be tossed if he came onto the field to argue a call again. So that team could only have a call overturned if the umpires themselves feel a play warrants review. Which, after having interrupted the game three times for nothing, would be a perfectly suitable punishment.

  6. Jason said...

    I know that hockey often has at least one camera on the net that shoots at something like 500fps. I wonder if MLB has access to some higher fps cameras that they use for replay, but don’t share with the viewing audience.

  7. Chuck said...

    The only bias I’ve seen so far is that towards the Yankees (of course). I’ve seen announcers extol Joe Giradi on his high overturn %, the best in baseball, and we all know it’s because it’s the Yankees. Just ask the A’s front office. I saw one on Fox Saturday that was obviously a “not enough evidence” and they quickly overturned it in the Yankees favor.

    Just remove the Yankee bias that’s always existed, and the game would much improve.

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