Will MLB Have Time to Work out Instant Replay Kinks in Spring Training?

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 24, 2014

Plays like this will be reviewable this spring. Is MLB ready for that?
Plays like this will be reviewable this spring. Is MLB ready for that?Kathy Willens/Associated Press

When Major League Baseball announced that it would be expanding the use of instant replay in 2014, there was much rejoicing. After years of defending the "human element," baseball had, at long last, joined the 21st century.

But since that announcement happened just a short while ago in mid-January, there came a point when a concern popped into my head (maybe it popped into yours too): Maybe such a big decision had happened a little too close to Opening Day.

And now things have gotten even more complicated. MLB announced on Monday that a ban on home plate collisions has been approved for 2014 and that the new rules are subject to review. 

So now you really have to wonder: Uh, is this thing really going to be ready in time for Opening Day?

Judging from what's out there, it sounds like we can breathe easy, you guys. The league should have one major aspect of the new replay system squared away soon, and there's a plan in place for spring training that should be helpful in highlighting whatever kinks there may be in the rules.

The major thing that's almost squared away is the "replay command center," where all the reviews will be handled by actual major league umpires. That command center didn't exist before, but Paul White of USA Today says it is now up and running.

On top of that, 60 of the 70 umpires who will be used as replay officials have already been trained. Surely the remaining 10 will be taken care of in the roughly five weeks between now and Opening Day (March 30).

Since the command center is all set, MLB's actual replay protocols being ready to go for the regular season will come down to teams having a chance to test-drive the new system in spring training games.

To this end, most of it will be about managers tackling a learning curve. 

"I think there's some anxiety because we don't fully understand it yet," said Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona last week, via FoxSports.com.

San Diego Padres manager Bud Black agreed: "It's going to be baptism under fire."

Sentiments such as these make sense once you consider the complexity of the replay rules (you can check out my in-depth breakdown). For example, some managers may learn the hard way that the so-called "neighborhood play" at second base is not up for review. One lesser-known hitch, as Washington Nationals skipper Matt Williams told The Washington Post, is that balls that skip over third or first base are not subject to fair-or-foul reviews. 

The bigger question mark that must be resolved this spring, however, involves the timing in which challenges must be submitted.

As of now, the language used on MLB.com says that managers must "verbally inform the umpire of his intention in a timely manner." The "timely manner" part is what's really tricky, since what defines a "timely manner" is not set in stone.

Here are some of the points Williams made to the Post about timing:

  1. If a controversial play is the last play of a game, it must be challenged immediately. That's good, but the issue of timing is more complicated in other areas. Such as...
  2. If a controversial play happens and one manager decides to make a pitching change, the other manager must issue his challenge before the called-upon pitcher leaves the bullpen.
  3. Managers don't have to go directly to the crew chief. This leaves the door open for a discussion between a manager and umpire that, in turn, leads to another discussion between that umpire and the crew chief. Tick tock, tick tock.
  4. Managers don't need to challenge whenever they feel like arguing. They can still go out just to protect their players.
  5. However, Williams also said that managers can take up time arguing and then issue a challenge.

On top of all this is that there aren't just timing issues when it comes to communication between managers and umpires. Timing is also a factor when it comes to communication between a manager and his own video people.

The new replay system allows for people in the clubhouse to review plays and then help a manager determine whether a play should be challenged. 

Since managers must specify exactly what it is they mean to challenge, it's easy to imagine scenarios in which he has to stall the action long enough for the video people to look at everything and then relay what it is the skipper should be challenging.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - JUNE 7: Manager Buck Showalter of the Baltimore Orioles checks the phone to the bullpen before play against the Tampa Bay Rays June 7, 2013 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

For example, imagine a force play where a manager is sure his guy was safe, but isn't sure whether to tell an umpire to check if the guy beat the throw or if the tag was missed. Choose the wrong thing, and he could end up screwing himself over.

Take this into consideration along with managers learning the specifics of what they can and cannot challenge, and you get the sense that the spring training test-drive of instant replay isn't going to be a proverbial walk in the park.

However, there's hope.

For starters, MLB is rounding managers up in small groups and educating them face-to-face. Case in point, The Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated) reported that Williams was one of three managers to attend a session last Friday, along with Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and Houston Astros manager Bo Porter.

The league is also giving managers a decent number of chances to test out the new replay protocols in exhibition games. All 30 teams will have replay at their disposal in a minimum of five games this spring, meaning that MLB will have dozens of games worth of data/feedback to study.

And if other managers are thinking along the same lines as Atlanta Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez, each game with replay might end up being more action-packed than you might think.

"Those five games that we have the actual television, I'm challenging everything just to get a feel for it," Gonzalez told the AP. "I'm sure that the umpires will appreciate that."

Gonzalez is probably right about the umpires appreciating as many challenges as possible. That means more practice for them, more practice for managers and, of course, more for MLB decision-makers to sift through. In particular, maybe the abundance of challenges in these games will force MLB to consider installing a time limit in which challenges must be issued.

One thing that should also help the larger cause is that it doesn't sound like teams are only going to be practicing replay situations in games where replay is available.

Here's this from the AP regarding the Astros:

Porter said he and his staff will work on how they'll decide whether to challenge plays all spring, not just in the games where instant replay is used.

"It's more of getting into the practice and getting into the language you want to have transmitted during a close play and I think we can simulate it this spring," he said.

And this from MLB.com regarding the Miami Marlins:

Select games this spring will be equipped for replay, but even in games for which the equipment isn't available, the Marlins will monitor plays that potentially could be reviewed.

Miami's video coaching coordinator, Cullen McRae, will have access to the telecasts, and the video room will play a major role in the process.

And here's Philadelphia Phillies skipper Ryne Sandberg speaking to MLB.com: "I think we're going to have five TV games where I'll be able to practice it. I'll also find myself in spring training games just looking at some plays and getting the wheels turning about what I would do in that situation."

If most or all of the teams in MLB operate like this in spring training, I imagine there will be plenty of communication between teams and the league about realistic "what if" scenarios. Such communication could point the league toward flaws in the system that need patching and/or clarifying.

Make no mistake about it: Baseball implementing expanded replay is a huge undertaking. Managers must learn a whole new aspect of their jobs, and it's on the league to make sure this whole new aspect of the game itself isn't an embarrassment from the start.

But since MLB's replay system is ready to be tested this spring, and the league's managers have good ideas for how to go about this test-drive, expanded replay should be ready for The Show by Opening Day.

As ready as it will ever be, anyway.


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