Play and Replay: What Can Baseball Learn From Cricket's New Replay System?

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My knowledge of cricket extends no further than the better parts of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book I did not even finish. But a cricket article published this weekend in the Wall Street Journal merits all kinds of Serious Consideration—even if you don’t care or know about cricket, and not just because its author, Richard Lord, has a name perfectly suited to a well-mannered British colonial export.

The gist of the story, is this: An extremely advanced version of instant replay has utterly changed the way cricket is played. Not the ergonomics of batting and bowling, but the game’s underlying tactics. The replay system is called, creatively, the Decision Review System. It sounds like something out of science fiction, boasting infrared sensors, and predictive ball movement technology. Here’s Lord himself on its impact:

The DRS gives fielding sides the opportunity to appeal a not-out decision, and they were swiftly overturned after it was introduced. Umpires took notice and began shifting their parameters, giving out decisions they wouldn't previously have considered. The result is that LBW has replaced caught as most spinners' main threat.

The bold is mine because that clause is important to our purposes as baseball fans; the rest of it is cricket-talk and as such a little opaque, with “replaced caught” a double-strength brow-furrower. Technology changed the way umpires approached their jobs, which in turn has changed the way players approach theirs. The comparison doesn’t work perfectly, but this is akin to allowing baseball players to appeal balls and strikes to a machine with the intention of creating a more accurate strike zone, and with the unintended result being that pitchers start throwing over the middle more, resulting in more home runs. (Or vice versa: batters become fearful and begin swinging at bad pitches, resulting in more of the weak pop ups to the second baseman that Mets fans have nicknamed “Jason Bays.”)

Rule changes come for a number of reasons: To protect the heads of quarterbacks, to turn hockey into a sport that Americans might actually watch, to give Donyell Marshall the chance, decades later, to knock down a dozen threes in a game while seemingly in the middle of a nap. Instant replay, on the other hand, is all about accuracy, precision, integrity. This makes sense for things like fumbles, foul balls, buzzer beaters, tennis serves. However, the notion that there is any kind of perfect integrity, any kind of unimpeachable scientific truth about where a ball went, or in this case, where a ball is going, feels Quixotic. Replay advocates in baseball want, quite justifiably, more integrity than is currently on the menu. But we can only have, let alone stand, so much.

As fans we tend to believe that perfect accuracy is, if not attainable, then at least highly desirable. Nobody likes an unfair call, unless it benefits your team. But using technology to solve the problem can be self-defeating. If the new technology changes how the game is played, then purity goes out the door anyway (sort of like a variation on the observer effect. As Lord demonstrates, a cricket match with DRS is entirely different from a cricket match without one. DRS (or, perhaps, instant replay in an American sport) enters the playing field via the psyches of the players and coaches, it becomes, like any other rule, an object of strategy, and a potential edge to exploit. Nothing is perfect, even machine-calibrated perfection.

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Was it deliberate irony to put an Indian player's picture in an article about DRS? One of the bigger issues with DRS has gone from being mandatory in all Tests to optional, in large part because of objections by the Indian cricket board. Its absence is conspicuous.

One of the important factors when considering this kind of thing in baseball is the frequency of its use. Its only usable for wickets in cricket, and depending on the match, those can be few and far between. It would be rare to see more than 2 or 3 challenges in an hour of play, which means the inevitable pauses in play don't interfere too much. If it were to be limited to ball/strike, perhaps only on 3rd strike pitches, how often would it end up being used in a baseball game?