What does last night’s Lakers vs. Celtics game mean for replay in baseball?

Three times in the final two minutes of last night’s NBA Finals game, play was stopped while officials consulted a monitor to review calls made on the floor. The system, new this year, is similar to one of the more popular proposals for replay in baseball: the officials have the autonomy to check their work. No red flags for the coaches, no numeric limit on number of reviews. Instead, replay is confined to the last two minutes of the fourth quarter (or overtime). How replay review affected last night’s game raises issues concerning how replay might work (or not) in baseball.

First, there is a procedural problem. As is somewhat common in the NFL, one of the plays last night was only reviewed because one team (in this case the Celtics) took a time out, giving the officials more time to consider reviewing a play. This raises a related issue of teams’ influence on the process. Would umpires in baseball be more likely to review a play if badgered by the arguably-injured team? Would we see pitching coaches take visits tactically-timed to allow the umpires further opportunity to review a call? These problems aren’t at all instant death to the idea of umpire-driven review in baseball. That said, such issues must be considered in developing a replay system specific to our stick-and-ball game.

Another interesting scenario implicating review occurred last night on a contested rebound. The replay, which clearly showed the ball last touching the Lakers’ Lamar Odom before bouncing out of bounds, also showed that Rajon Rondo fouled Odom on the play. This, too, is common in football. Often, a review of a sideline or end zone catch also shows contact between the receiver and a defender which might have been flagged. Football and basketball deal with this situation the same way: the officials simply ignore any judgment calls when reviewing yes/no issues–in or out, catch or trap, etc.

While people clamor for replay in baseball because getting the calls right is the highest priority, what happens when a review somehow indicates a badly-blown ball/strike call? Or perhaps a staying-in-the-baseline issue? Or worse, what if a review catches a pitcher with an illegal substance? Again, I don’t believe these issues should prevent implementation of replay in baseball. Still, the MLB powers that be need to contemplate the implications of an entire play being slowed down and reviewed, not just the out/safe, fair/foul, and catch/trap parts.

A third issue displayed last night is the length of time spent reviewing three plays in the last two minutes of a hotly-contested game. Critics of a review system will also point to replay in the NFL growing into yet another commercial break. I don’t think either concern is especially worrisome in the baseball context. Baseball’s system need not be modeled after football’s. Indeed, it ought not be. And basketball, in my opinion, simply generates a greater number of review-appropriate scenarios. Unlike baseball, the officials do not have an opportunity to position themselves ideally prior to every play. Furthermore, baseball’s action features fewer moving pieces per square foot* than either football or basketball. For a variety of reasons, baseball has relatively few yes/no calls so close as to require a quick review. While somehow limiting the number of reviews might be an appropriate step down the line, I think the system should be open-ended at first. Given time, we’ll develop a better feel for how often review is warranted.

*Baseball’s newest inane stat!

Broadly speaking, the most important takeaway from last night’s NBA game is that all three calls were reversed, correcting mistakes made during play. The competitive balance of a championship series game was improved by the implementation of review, and the system’s effectiveness damns baseball’s tardiness in the area. MLB should carefully examine existing replay structures in other high-level sports and construct a system tailored specifically to baseball. In doing so, review procedure, unintended consequences of review, and frequency of delay should all be considered. Unlike Selig’s anti-review “baseball people,” however, the decisionmakers here should not consider other systems’ flaws as fatal to the idea of replay in baseball. Rather, other systems’ shortcomings should be regarded as opportunities for MLB to do better.

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