An under-appreciated benefit of instant replay is how often it rewards well-executed elusive and acrobatic slides. For most of baseball's history, the outcome of a tag play was largely determined by whether or not the ball beat the runner to the bag. That is no longer the case. Tag plays are now scrutinized and placed under magnification. With the increasing accuracy of base running calls, well-crafted escape slides are a more valuable and important part of the game than ever before.
According to BaseballSavant.com, 405 tag plays have been reviewed already this season, with 197 overturned. That is almost 1.5 corrected tag calls every day of the season, or one every eight games.
"It's a positive part of the game because for so many years a guy would say, ‘I was in there, I was in there!' and the umpire would say, ‘Yeah, right. The ball beat you, yeah right,'" Padres' base running coach, Tarrick Brock said. "But, you know, guys are actually getting in there now. And it is good in the sense they are getting rewarded [for their effort]"
There are many legitimate complaints about the implementation of instant replay, but it's undeniable that baserunners who possess special skills of creativity, improvisation and solid sliding technique are reaping some benefits. And to the extent that it makes for a more exciting, athletic and tactical game around the bases, it is a welcome, if unintended, development.
Josh Harrison's escape slide Tuesday night at PNC Park is precisely the type of play that instant replay is rewarding. Watch Harrison's pull back his arm and twist his body at the last moment to avoid Ryan Schimpf's tag.
The JHay swim move. https://t.co/PvmK66cPDR— Pirates (@Pirates) August 10, 2016
Harrison was initially called out because the ball beat him pretty clearly to the bag. Moreover, the tag looked just close enough to be convincing to the naked eye. But under the closer and slower inspection, not only was the artistry and athleticism of the slide apparent but, more importantly, proper recognition was conferred in the form of a corrected call.
"I tried to pull the best magician's act I could to avoid the tag," Harrison said. "It's just instincts and trying to avoid the tag."
By rewarding magician's slides like Harrison's, Brock says that instant replay has changed the culture of major league base running in a good way. Creative escape slides and the ability to extend rundowns through quick twist and turns are skills more highly valued these days. Indeed, he observes that today's base running reminds him a lot of a popular game most of us played in our backyards as kids.
"It's more like what I grew up with when we played pickle." Brock said. "We'd do everything we could to stay in there and wear them down, and you notice that guys are doing that more the last two or three years. [In addition} they're having their hand exposed and then bringing it around, more often. We practice that slide and bringing the hand around. It's called the swim or backdoor slide."
Clint Hurdle echoed Brock's sentiment that creative slide adaptations, like the swim or backdoor slide, are becoming more and more part of the game.
"You're just seeing more of it," Hurdle said. "I guarantee there are some guys that haven't seen it before that are now going, ‘Wow, that's something I'm going to try to keep in my back pocket.' To pull that out when it needs to be pulled out is pretty special."
The payoffs that players are seeing from successful escape slides is also creating a renewed interest in and emphasis on basic sliding techniques.
"It is reinforcing the basic teaching of the figure-four slide and understanding the different variations of the figure-four," Brock said. "There is the figure four slide where you just stay down. Then there is the pop up. Then you start with the figure four technique and go into the hook slide. There are just different things that need to become part of your game now more than in the past. Because if not you're just sliding into the tag."
As we noted last year when we first looked at how instant replay is changing base running, defenders are slowly adjusting to the new reality. The drop tag is being replaced by the swipe tag, and managers are stressing the need to stay with the play and to be more physical.
"There is a way for us to combat that, and it is getting in there with our legs into the guy and drive through the tag," Padres' manager, Andy Green, said. "Not to hurt him, but if a guy is going to elude you, you have to really tag him with a measure of aggression to keep that from happening. You can't just set the tag down in front of the base anymore."
After Harrison's slide contributed to the Pirates' decisive four run outburst Tuesday night, Green got on the phone Wednesday afternoon and sent a message to the rest of the Padres' organization.
"I talked to our Triple-A manager today and talked about how throughout the organization we have to really do a much better job, even if it costs us at the minor league level, of holding the bag longer and holding tags longer, driving tags through guys." Green said.
So, instant replay continues to change the dynamic around the bases on tag plays. And while defenders are adjusting, players with special skill sets like Harrison will continue to gain small benefits from their unique abilities.
"JHay is a beast," Brock said. "He plays in the clouds."
Instant replay is flawed, but it's helped us appreciate a new set of abilities like perhaps never before.