Earlier this month, Major League Baseball took a rather massive step into the 21st Century when the players union and umpires association both agreed to expand the use of instant replay, and the vote was unanimous among all 30 clubs, too.
This is no small feat, considering how baseball typically operates slowly and in measured methods, particularly when it comes to vast, sport-altering changes like the widespread adoption of replay.
From late in the 2008 season until now, only home runs were reviewable, and simply to determine whether the ball was fair, over the fence or interfered with by a fan. Under this new system of video review, though, all sorts of plays, actions, bounces and calls will be candidates for closer inspection.
As replay committee chairman John Schuerholz told Anthony Rieber of Newsday:
It's the first time in the history of the game where managers have an opportunity to change the call of a play that may have adversely affected their team, that may have cost them a game, that may have cost them the division, may have cost them the World Series.
Still, even with replay, it's impossible to cover, well, every base.
Heck, the National Football League still has issues with replay on occasion, and that league has been at it for two decades. MLB, by comparison, is a replay newborn—there is going to be stuff in need of changing.
The good news is that baseball has been busy brainstorming and beta-testing the review system—the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League got to break things in last November—and has come up with a design that is ready to go for the start of the 2014 regular season.
For all of the details on who were the key decision-makers involved along the way, as well as a full list of the new ways replay is being implemented, the league has a breakdown of the specifics.
Here, though, is an outlet to raise, consider and discuss some of the potential pitfalls and can't-yet-be-certain consequences that may arise under the the sport's new and expanded replay system.
Arguably the biggest criticism that comes with extra replay is the expectation that it will mean extra time.
Baseball games, the argument goes, already are long and slow enough as is, so why add opportunities to stick a fork in whatever rhythm that existed in the first place?
This isn't just about the length of time it will take for reviews, either. There's a good chance that players and managers will find ways to stall after a close play to allow time to check if a review is worthwhile. Penalties for stalling have been mentioned, as Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports wrote, but what they would be and even what exactly constitutes stalling remains a gray area.
Still, as the AFL experimentation showed, reviews can be done easily and quickly, as in under two minutes. Given that, it's reasonable to expect that cut-and-dry video footage could get to the bottom of things—and get the call correct—faster than the typical manager-coming-out-of-the-dugout-to-argue routine that happens pretty regularly.
A Challenging Strategy
Because managers are limited to a maximum of two reviews per game through the first six innings—as long as the first challenge is correct—there will be lots of hand-wringing over when and whether to ask for a review prior to the final nine outs. (Reviews from the seventh inning on are at the umpires' discretion.)
Should a manager risk using and losing his challenge on a questionable call in the first or second inning...or save it for the possibility of a questionable call that never comes?
As Jonathan Bernhardt wrote for Sports On Earth:
...it keeps the coach/manager at the center of attention for what really should be an internal umpiring decision, and second, it shifts the focus of replay review from its proper goal—getting the call on the field right—to some sort of strategy mini-game, where the coach/manager has to weigh the value of the call in question and his likelihood of getting his challenge upheld against any future mistakes that the officials could make in calling the game.
This application is ripe for both first- and second-guessing, where the managers do the former and everyone else does the latter. Certainly, there will be games when a skipper correctly challenges two calls and even needs a third (or fourth) review, which won't be available under these rules.
Ultimately, though, that should be a rare occurrence, and managers will get used to the if-then that comes with this element.
The Danger Zone
Since the strike zone is now the primary area of the sport that is absolutely un-reviewable, any egregious missed calls on balls and strikes will be subject to that much more scrutiny, controversy and outrage.
With just about everything else up for replay, how long will it be before a strike-three call like this becomes a very real debate?
At this point, baseball doesn't exactly seem all that interested in the idea of incorporating a computerized strike zone as part of the replay system, even though just about every broadcast around displays one.
Hey, the demand for robot umps calling balls and strikes just isn't there. Yet.
Umpires have been under all sorts of scrutiny in recent years, as the technology has amped up and made human error all the more visible.
The good part about expanded replay is it will be that much easier to get calls correct, if not the first time then at least on the second one. That, ultimately, is what this is about—accuracy.
So what happens when a close call is reviewed and—gasp—they still get it wrong? Sorry to say, but this is bound to happen, although (hopefully) only very, very rarely. Then again, it did occur just last May.
Remember this fiasco?
When that happens again, the men in blue are going to face a lot more—and much harsher—criticism than they do already. Never mind the fact that on-field umps won't be doing the actual reviewing themselves; that is entrusted to umpires at the official-sounding Replay Command Center in New York.
A missed call in real time on a too-close-to-tell play is one thing, but a missed second-look, slow-motion review from the replay official situated in an entirely different location from the ballpark? That's something else entirely.
Plus, in this age of accessible information, it's all but guaranteed that someone somewhere is going to be tracking the failings of umpires based on the number of calls overturned and making the statistics part of the public forum.
The final aspect of all this? Because replay challenges are at a manager's disposal in the first place, and on-field personnel are prohibited from arguing the replay official's ruling, there's bound to be fewer and fewer manager-yelling-in-the-umpire's-face outbursts.
Sure, there still will be some, but those curse-filled, manic-gesturing feuds in turn will result in the offending skipper getting suspended or fined as punishment.
On the plus side, as mentioned, that should save some time. On the downside, hey, who doesn't enjoy an occasional blow-up?
The Bottom Line
Just because baseball is adopting expanded instant replay doesn't mean the sport is suddenly going to get everything right—whether the initial calls on the field, the reviewed calls in the replay center or the overall process in general.
Expanded replay will make baseball...
Certainly, though, there will be fewer mistakes that cannot be fixed, which is not only good but also the point of all this. Because, yes, expanded replay is improved replay, and getting the calls and the review process right is the goal.
The league should get credit for being open about the fact that this is, in fact, a learning process—one that will need to be tweaked from time to time, especially in the first year or two—as much as anything else.
In a way, then, instant replay itself will be, well, under review.
"This is a start. This is a great, giant step. It is in three phases," Schuerholz said via Paul Hagen of MLB.com. "We'll check on how well we did after Year 1, again after Year 2. And after Year 3, we expect to be as near to perfection as we humans can get."
And if not, well, there's always robot umps.
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