MLB Hits Home Run with New Replay System Worth Waiting for

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2014

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It's happening at least a decade later than it should have, but a proper instant replay system is finally coming to Major League Baseball.

And for the most part, the league got it right. In fact, you might be surprised by how right the league got it.

First, here's the news if you haven't caught wind of it yet:

The MLB Players Association and the World Umpires Association have signed off as well. Expanded replay has officially moved from a thing that could be happening to a thing that is happening. 

Cue rejoicing, and an obligatory statement from commissioner Bud Selig. Via

I am very pleased that instant replay will expand to include additional impactful plays. The new system will give managers valuable recourse in potentially game-changing situations. The opportunity for our fans to see more replays in our ballparks is also an important modification that the clubs and I favored.

MLB has been using instant replay for controversial home runs since 2008 but had been dragging its feet in expanding its use to other calls. Selig didn't apologize for that, but we'll just assume it slipped his mind.

Selig shouldn't be apologizing for what the league came up with, however. While it's short of perfect, the instant replay system going into effect in 2014 is good enough to be deemed worth waiting for.

Pull up a seat and we'll break it all down together.

Reviewable Plays

Oct 14, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Second base umpire Jeff Nelson (left) watches as Detroit Tigers second baseman Omar Infante (in grey) tries to dive back to second base against New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano in the 8th inning during game two o
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

According to Paul Hagen of, approximately 90 percent of plays are going to be subject to review. Given the plays that are covered by the replay system, that's believable:

  • Home runs
  • Ground-rule doubles
  • Fan interference
  • Stadium boundary calls (fielder into stands, ball into stands)
  • Force plays (except for "neighborhood plays" at second base)
  • Tag plays (including steals and pickoffs)
  • Fair/foul calls in outfield only
  • Trap plays in outfield only
  • Hit-by-pitches
  • Timing plays (whether a runner scores before a third out)
  • Touching of a base 
  • Passing runners
  • Record keeping (ball-strike count, outs, score, substitutions)

The ability to review force plays and tag plays could have a monumental impact on the game. Sit down long enough, and you'll think about dozens of games in which the outcome was swayed by a bad out or safe call. The likelihood of that happening just got lower.

One also approves of the prospect of there being fewer phantom hit-by-pitches. In addition, the ability to slow down and really look at timing plays, runners touching bases and runners passing each other on the bases are where reviews might be most helpful.

If you're griping about this list, it's probably over the fact that the "neighborhood play" at second base won't be reviewable. Also not reviewable are judgment calls like unusual infield fly calls and, say, controversial obstruction calls.

But it's easy enough to read MLB's intentions. Letting the neighborhood play be non-reviewable is surely based on a desire to protect middle infielders, who can easily avoid injuries by merely flirting with second base on double plays. With judgment calls, replay isn't guaranteed to turn a "wrong" call into a "right" call and vice versa. Since it's all about interpretation, right and wrong depends on who you ask more than which video angle you consult.

It's hard to say where the league should go next. Some are sure to continue arguing for replay on balls and strikes. Though that's probably out of the question in the immediate future, who knows? Maybe MLB will eventually decide that balls and strikes should be reviewable in high-leverage situations.

We'll see. For now, the list MLB has is a good one. The protocol the league has dreamed up for putting its new replay system to use, meanwhile, is at least solid.

Manager Challenges

Don't worry. There's still room for this stuff to happen.
Don't worry. There's still room for this stuff to happen.Elsa/Getty Images

Yes, there will be a manager challenge system. Since it's somewhat complicated, we'll go through the key points one by one.

  • Managers get one challenge per game. When they want to use it, they do so by verbally indicating to the crew chief in a "timely manner" (the guidelines for that are pending).

First off, the "timely manner" aspect of this is going to be tricky.

Another new addition is that clubs can now keep a "video specialist" in the clubhouse who can determine whether a play should be challenged. He or she will communicate with the dugout via phone. That leaves the door open for some lag to occur in between a play and a manager's decision to challenge.

Still, giving clubs the ability to preview what they're challenging absolutely had to happen, and a general rule of one challenge per game is an idea I was hoping for a year ago.

One challenge isn't going to slow down a game too drastically, and keeping it to one challenge will introduce a new strategy into the game. Does a manager challenge a bad call in the second inning, or does he hold on to it in case he needs it later? 

Now to...

  • The manager can request that multiple portions of a play be reviewed, but he must specify what it is he's challenging.

Makes sense. Baseball doesn't want managers going to umpires and saying, "You got something wrong! I don't know what it was, but I'm pretty sure you're wrong! And ugly to boot!"

  • If any portion of a challenged play is overturned, the challenging manager gets another challenge. There are, however, no more than two challenges allowed per game.

Same idea as in football, where a coach is granted a bonus challenge if he wins his two initial challenges. But where coaches lose a timeout if they lose a challenge in the NFL, MLB won't penalize managers if they miss the mark on their first challenge. A good call, that.

  • If it's after the beginning of the seventh inning and a manager is out of challenges, a crew chief can still decide to go to replay in a situation that calls for it. He's not obliged to go to replay if a manager asks him to, though.

Once again, same idea as in football, where coaches need not challenge a controversial play inside of the two-minute warning for it to be reviewed. This is how it should be.

For those who worry about instant replay killing manager arguments, this is a good way for them to happen. There are bound to be a few run-ins every season between a manager out of challenges after the seventh inning and an umpire who is resisting a profanity-laced appeal for a challenge.

  • Home run calls can't be challenged. Those will still be reviewed at the crew chief's discretion, though managers are allowed to request a challenge.

Good. The NFL doesn't allow challenges on scoring plays because it reviews those automatically. Baseball is going with the same general idea, as it should.

Is it a perfect challenge system? Of course not, if for no other reason than the phrase "perfect challenge system" is a contradiction in terms.

Any challenge system is going to allow for bad calls to happen just because a manager has already used his challenges. That means that, yes, there will still be several instances throughout a season of teams getting screwed by bad calls.

And yet I do sympathize with why MLB decided to go with a challenge system.

The league is surely aware of the general opinion that the games already take too long. If it were to introduce a system that would allow for limitless replays per game, it would be running the risk of making games even longer.

Maybe that would prove to be a turn-off for casual fans. And, you know, MLB needs them, too.

As for how plays are going to be reviewed...

Review Process

It's no longer up to the guys on the field.
It's no longer up to the guys on the field.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It won't be the umpires on the field who are reviewing plays. In fact, they won't even have to leave the field.

MLB's system calls for all replays to occur at a "Replay Command Center" located at the headquarters for MLB Advanced Media. The Command Center will be run by major league umpires who will have "direct access to video from most cameras in the ballpark in real-time, regardless of whether they are shown on the live broadcast."

The guys at the Command Center will review the play in question and communicate their verdict to the field umpires via a communications setup near home plate. If the field umpires don't agree with the verdict, tough. They're not allowed to argue.

Oh, and here's another bonus: Teams can now show replays of close plays on the jumbotron, even if they're not plays that are being reviewed.

This beats the heck out of the alternative: having the umpires disappear into the depths of the stadium to review calls. The system MLB has put in place will certainly be quicker. And by removing the call from the authority of the umpires on the field, possibly less biased, too. And to pass the time, the fans at the ballpark will be allowed to catch a glimpse of what just happened.

Since that about does it for the particulars, we can move ahead to some final thoughts.

Some Final Thoughts

I'm obviously in favor of what MLB has come up with. This is mainly because I'd been worrying that MLB's first foray into expanded replay would cover only a handful of plays and would involve all replays being handled on-site.

Yeah, imagine my surprise. The list of plays covered by expanded replay is way longer than I ever figured it would be, and having all replays handled at a central location was the way to go all along. On these two notes, I think we can all doff our caps.

As for the challenge aspect, listen, MLB wasn't going to score a total victory there no matter what it did. Those who argue that the league should want to get all calls right aren't wrong. Those who sympathize with MLB's desire to keep games as short as possible aren't wrong. What you think of the challenge system depends on where you stand.

The thing everyone needs to keep in mind, however, is that this is just the beginning.

It's not going to take long before the system's various kinks and weaknesses are revealed. It's then that MLB will have to have an open mind about making changes. Fortunately, Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk says the league is willing to do that. 

MLB's instant replay system is bound to look a little different a few years from now. Maybe even drastically different.

But as far as starts go, the league has conjured a darn good one.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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