It's only a matter of time before Major League Baseball gets expanded replay, but first the league has to figure out a protocol for how to go about using it when it's needed.
The big question: Should instant replay be used liberally whenever a situation calls for a review, or should it be the managers who get the ball rolling?
More to the point: Should managers be given challenge flags, just like NFL coaches?
According to ESPN's Jayson Stark, this is one of the biggest hurdles standing in instant replay's way, and one of the reasons expanded replay won't be put in place in 2013. Support for a challenge system for managers isn't exactly widespread, in part because nobody's sure how it should work.
However, I have a few ideas that I don't mind sending MLB's way. Here's a challenge system that would work.
Start with One Challenge Per Game and Go from There
One of MLB's chief concerns is that dozens of replays will be reviewed every game, if replay were to be used at the first sign of trouble (i.e. screaming managers). Hence the reason the league is open to a challenge system that would give managers one or two challenges per game.
The number should be put at one...but only for the first nine innings, and with a few strings attached.
One challenge may not sound like enough, given all the things that can happen throughout the course of a game, and I'll tip my hat to Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk for making a good point by arguing that MLB should be worried about getting all calls correct rather than just a few.
But one must consider the context in which bad calls take place. Not every bad call is created equal.
Not every blown call at first base is going to take place in the ninth inning with the game on the line. Not every trapped ball is going to cost a team a run or two. Plenty of strange occurrences happen in non-pressure situations and end up being much ado about nothing in the end.
If managers were to be limited to one challenge for the first nine innings, they'd therefore have to be strategic with it. They'd have to pick their battles.
Coaches in the NFL do it all the time. There could be a questionable spot on a carry that went for a first down, but why waste a challenge on it when there are 12 minutes left in the first quarter and the first down only moved the opposition up to its own 30-yard line?
It would be the same in baseball. Let's say a runner is called safe at first base when he was clearly out, but the bases were empty with two outs in the second inning, with the team that got jobbed holding a three-run lead.
What's more, let's say the hitter who reached happened to be the other team's No. 8 hitter. What's even more, let's say we're talking about a game between two National League teams, meaning the next man up is the pitcher.
A manager would be annoyed in that situation, but it would be a bad time to waste his only challenge. Odds are his team is going to get out of that inning unscathed, and that the non-wasted challenge will come in handy later on when a call goes against his team in a potentially game-changing moment.
If a manager makes a challenge in a pressure situation and wins, there should be a rule that grants him another challenge. The catch is that this second challenge should only be applicable in the eighth and ninth innings, when one bad call can be the difference between a win and a loss.
This rule would encourage managers to actually use their challenges, yet it would also keep the flow of the game somewhat consistent. A manager won't be able to win one challenge in the fifth inning and then challenge another play in the sixth inning, thus making the middle innings a real bore.
If a game goes into extra innings, managers should be given an additional challenge on top of the challenge they haven't already used. It wouldn't matter whether it's the one they started the game with or the one they earned for the eighth and ninth innings after a successful challenge. If they used both, they'd go back up to one in extra innings.
If a manager does have multiple challenges in his pocket, there should be no restrictions on when he uses them. This would open the door for the game to slow down, but why worry about rate of play then? The game is already several hours old and has likely already lost several thousand viewers. It's already doomed to be an endurance contest, so it may as well be an endurance contest with no screw-ups (ahem, Jerry Meals) rather than a quick endurance contest.
Concerns over the running times of games are overblown anyway. An MLB.com report from back in 2010 revealed that games are much slower now than they were decades ago, yet game attendance is growing, and everyone and their uncle is willing to pay a fortune to broadcast games on TV. Longer baseball games aren't killing the league.
Besides, real fans aren't worried about how long it takes to play a game. Many of them are more worried about baseball finally joining the 21st century.
No Challenges on Home Runs
The challenge flag is one page MLB can take out of the NFL's book. The league should also look to duplicate the rule the NFL has for scoring plays.
There are no challenges allowed on scoring plays in football because they're automatically reviewed. This is something of a headache for the NFL, but MLB wouldn't have nearly the same problem if it were to use automatic review rules for everyone's favorite scoring play:
The home run.
Home runs are the only plays subject to replay review now. When replay expands, they should be the only plays that are not up to the manager to challenge, but up to the umpiring crew to get right.
This would certainly be agreeable to managers, as it would allow them to save their challenge flags for other plays. Umpires, meanwhile, could make it work by taking a "better safe than sorry" approach.
The majority of home runs aren't controversial in the slightest, as the ball is oftentimes going to end up deep in the stands and well away from either foul pole. It's the ones that barely scrape over the fence before bouncing back onto the field, the ones that barely sneak around the foul pole and the ones that get touched by fans that pose the problems.
In the challenge-flag era, home runs such as these should result in all four umpires getting together and deciding that a closer look is warranted. That closer look would then be taken with or without encouragement from either manager, and then the correct call would be made.
Even if the umpire who made the call in the first place was dead certain he made the correct call, it would have to be up to his three comrades to overrule him and tell him that it looked too close to call from where they were standing.
Basically, it would come down to umpires accepting that a play worth one or several runs is just too important to be decided by one man's eyesight.
No Challenges on Judgment Calls
When MLB finally expands replay, it may only be expanded to include fair or foul calls and trapped balls. Stark's report, however, opened the door for a much bigger expansion that would also include plays on the bases and plays at the plate.
If so, good. Wonderful. The more the better, says I.
Not everyone will be satisfied with only these things, however. There will surely be a movement for replay to expand once again to cover balls and strikes, infield fly calls and other such things that essentially come down to an umpire's judgment (not the same as his eyesight, mind you).
These things should never be subject to review, let alone challenges.
Yes, this would mean that calls like the infield fly rule call that screwed over the Atlanta Braves in the National League Wild Card Game would not be subject to review. The general consensus about that play was (and still is) that a very poorly timed call was made, but it wasn't necessarily a bad call because of how loosely the term "ordinary effort" is defined in the rule book.
Had the umpires gone to instant replay in that situation, there still would have been no clear-cut right or wrong answer. Even with slow-motion replays on a monitor from several different angles, the definition of "ordinary effort" would still be hazy.
Things are less hazy when it comes to balls and strikes, but a video replay doesn't always help show when a borderline pitch should have been called a ball when it was called a strike. Even fancy-pants computer systems that simulate strike zones have their issues.
Major League Baseball should want to expand instant replay, but only so far as to only include plays that have definitive right and wrong calls. There's no such thing for judgment calls.
Don't Leave It Up to the Umpiring Crew on the Field
MLB is going to have to get over its fear of lengthening games in order to put a challenge system in place, but there's a compromise the league can make that would even things out.
Instead of having the four umpires on the field be responsible for taking a look at the video, put it in the hands of a fifth party somewhere else.
Stark mentioned this as a legitimate possibility, noting that MLB could either put a fifth umpire in every ballpark or have all replays handled by an umpiring crew at an off-site location. The latter option would most likely involve calls going to a crew in New York.
My vote would be for a fifth umpire in every stadium, who could be located in the press box area with a monitor or several monitors at his disposal. He could communicate with the crew chief via a headset, just as referees consult with the replay official in college football.
The process would still take a few minutes to play out, but it would be a lot quicker than having all four umpires retreat beneath the stadium to look at the video. In addition, a fifth-umpire system would be a way for MLB to avoid managers and players getting huffy and puffy about people hundreds of miles away making a crucial call that decided a ballgame.
Oh, managers will still complain. Don't you worry about that. Managers complaining has always been a part of the game, and no amount of technology is going to change that.
They'll only ever be made to complain less, and the challenge system I've laid out is a means to that end.
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