Umpiring controversies will endure even after the anticipated expansion of instant replay next year.
Consider Saturday’s events at Comerica Park, which surely will serve as a case study for baseball officials studying the issue.
In the fourth inning of Detroit’s 6-5 win over Kansas City, Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar checked his swing on a 2-2 curveball in the dirt. Even though Escobar didn’t bring the bat around, he tipped the pitch after it bounced off the ground.
It should have been ruled a foul ball. Tigers catcher Brayan Peña figured it would be, so he didn’t retrieve the ball once it skipped away. But home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski saw it differently, ruling the pitch a ball because he didn’t notice Escobar had made contact.
Muchlinski conferred with the other umpires, but the original call stood. Detroit manager Jim Leyland argued and was ejected. Peña protested and was tossed, too. The umpires’ mistake affected the inning, because Chris Getz advanced from first to third on the “wild pitch” and scored on Escobar’s double.
None of that will happen next year, right? The umpires will check the replay and reverse their call.
Actually, they might not.
Remember: MLB officials have said consistently that balls and strikes won’t be reviewable. The commissioner’s office (correctly) wants umpires to remain the sole arbiters of that aspect of the game. And even though this call indirectly involved the advancement of a baserunner, it was – at its core – a question of Muchlinski ruling on a ball or strike.
When a pool reporter asked crew chief John Hirschbeck if a similar play would be reviewable next year, he said, “We don’t know. They said specifically balls and strikes, but it’s in the infancy stages. They haven’t told us any of the details.”
That fits with recent statements by Braves team president John Schuerholz, who is part of the committee studying the issue and told reporters some specifics of the plan are still being discussed. The system is based on each manager initially having three challenges per game.
My opinion: While I strongly support the expansion of replay, MLB needs to draw a line somewhere or risk incessant disruptions to play. Balls and strikes are a reasonable boundary. So – as much as I wouldn’t want an incorrect call to stand – instant replay should not be applied in future cases like this.
Not that I expect everyone to agree with me.
“But this is a foul ball,” Peña countered. “This is a checked-swing foul ball. It’s not like a ball or strike call, you know what I mean? This is not an inside pitch, down low, something like that. We’re talking about somebody who swung and hit the baseball. This definitely would have to be reviewable.”
I’m not so sure. As has been – and will be – the case for umpires, managers and players, the debate is far from over.