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O’Neil: Mariners join Seahawks in struggling with instant replay

JaCoby Jones may have been out on this play had the Mariners used a challenge. (AP)

I don’t have any delusions about my ability to coach a football team.

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There is one in-game element that I believe I could manage better than Pete Carroll, though. His use of replay challenges.

As good of a coach as he is – and I think he’s great – he regularly makes an illogical hash of those situations, losing timeouts on plays that had virtually no chance of being overturned and winning challenges that are almost entirely meaningless.

And after watching the Mariners botch a replay challenge that probably cost them three runs in a one-run loss, I’m starting to think I could be a cross-sport specialist.

I didn’t even need to see a replay of Mike Zunino’s tag on JaCoby Jones in the bottom of the sixth inning on Saturday to believe the Mariners should challenge the play. And once I did see the replay – even the first time when I thought Zunino missed the tag – I still thought they should challenge the play.

And when they didn’t … well, it was a pretty inexplicable missed opportunity that underscores a reality that transcends a specific sport: Teams regularly fail to take full advantage of the benefits of instant replay, and that is a missed opportunity.

Seriously, put aside your opinion of instant replay and its effectiveness (or lack thereof). It is a part of modern professional sports, and to not intelligently use it is to waste a resource that your team is allotted.

Knowing how to use instant replay is a skill. You can debate how specialized or how important, but it is a skill that requires an understanding of the rulebook, the criteria used in evaluating instant replay and a basic sense of probability and risk management. And if a coach isn’t able to logically, strategically diagnose the proper use of a challenge, he should defer those decisions to someone on his staff who can.

Essentially, you have to balance three different things:

• a) The likelihood a given play will be overturned;
• b) The importance of the play itself;
• c) What you will lose by challenging the play if it is not overturned.

Separate out all those elements and the decision should be fairly straightforward. Let’s take Saturday’s play for an example:

• a) Probability of success: 75 percent

I think it was pretty clear Zunino tagged Jones on his shin before Jones’ toe touched the plate. But this is Major League Baseball, after all, where C.B. Bucknor and Angel Hernandez are not only allowed to umpire games, but are paid for it. After the initial replay, I would have said the chances of it being overturned were less than 50 percent because it was tough to see when and where, exactly, Zunino’s tag was applied. Subsequent replays clearly showed he was out.

• b) Importance of the play: Ginormous.

The play couldn’t have been more important. It resulted in a run. The game was tied. There were two outs in the inning. Had the play been overturned, the score would have remained tied and the inning would have been over. And while we can’t say whether shortstop Jose Iglesias would have still homered in his next at-bat, we can state that had he homered to lead off the bottom of the seventh it would have been a solo shot instead of the two-run homer he hit after the Mariners declined to challenge the play at the plate. It’s hard to imagine a more important play in which a challenge might be used.

c) Risk to Mariners: trivial

This is what’s most puzzling about Seattle’s decision not to challenge: The downside was extremely minimal should Seattle have lost the challenge. The Mariners wouldn’t have been able to challenge any more plays in the game had they lost, which actually sounds way worse than it is because beginning in the eighth inning the crew chief is allowed to initiate his own challenges. Not only that, but a boundary question on a home-run call (i.e. fair or foul or whether the ball went over the fence) is always reviewable. Essentially, Seattle would have lost the ability to have instant replay reverse a bad call for the seventh inning. That’s it. That was all that Seattle would have lost.

I should pause here for a little bit of perspective. There were some extenuating circumstances. Manager Scott Servais was absent, attending a family function. Bench coach Manny Acta was the acting manager and responsible for initiating a challenge. He indicated afterward there was a miscommunication about what the replay showed. He didn’t want to single anyone out, but it was pretty clear that either he was told the replay showed Jones was safe or he absolutely did not understand that the guy on the other end of the phone was indicating he was out.

Let’s look closer at the chain of command: The fact that men were in different roles than normal doesn’t dilute the significance of the mistake, but it does have an impact on the most important question that should arise from a mistake like that: How likely is it to happen again? That’s really what you should be concerned about unless you’re the pound-of-flesh kind of fan who wants to see someone publicly suffer for a mistake (in which case you probably spend a lot of time on social media complaining that people like me don’t do enough to “hold people accountable,” whatever that means).

I don’t think the Mariners’ mistakes regarding instant replay have been chronic. In fact, I think they’re pretty effective, so comparing the Mariners’ mistake on Saturday with the Seahawks’ use of instant replay under Carroll is unfair in this regard: The Mariners made a mistake, the Seahawks have a pattern.

We have eight years of evidence that Carroll is fairly bad at that element of game management. He has consistently challenged plays early in games that result in what are – in the overall scheme of things – fairly insubstantial. The problem is that even if you win that challenge, it impacts the number of challenges a team has at its disposal.

But Carroll’s real penchant is for challenging hugely important plays despite very low odds of a reversal. A great example was last year’s game against Atlanta when he challenged a fourth-quarter pass to Doug Baldwin that would have sustained a Seahawks drive at a time Seattle trailed by 11. It was close, but replay clearly showed the ball hit the ground.

And unlike baseball, the cost of a lost challenge in the NFL is a timeout, which is hugely important. There isn’t anywhere near that big of a downside in baseball, which is why challenging that play at the plate should have been automatic.

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