So much of the focus of the 2014 Major League Baseball season in recent weeks has been on the Tommy John surgery epidemic, the ever-growing list of injured star players (Ryan Braun, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Jason Kipnis, etc.) and the historic, can't-miss performances by a pair of rookie phenoms in Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu (who is now hurt, too). It's almost as if arguably the biggest plot point heading into the campaign—the inaugural year of expanded instant replay—has been overtaken.
With so much else going on, that's understandable. Plus, the league acknowledged that the expanded instant replay system wasn't going to be perfect off the bat, and as such would remain a work in progress to be tweaked and adjusted for the first few years.
"It is in three phases," said Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who was part of the committee who helped implement the new system. "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."
That's a wise approach, but it doesn't mean we can't do a status check along the way. Because in its first season with a wider scope and new and different circumstances, replay is impacting MLB in a few major ways outside of, say, fewer manager ejections.
The biggest impact expanded replay has had is on giving teams a chance to have umpires take another look at a close play in a big spot in a game. Turns out, challenged calls are being overturned at a rate of about 50 percent, writes Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star:
According to MLB data through Friday’s games, 291 calls have been challenged, of which 137 have been overturned for a rate of 47 per cent. The umpire’s original call has been confirmed in 25.4 per cent of reviewed plays, while the play has been deemed “inconclusive” in 26.5 per cent of reviews.
How often are umpires wrong? Roughly once every 4 1/2 games, which is slightly more frequent than the league’s own preseason estimate of approximately once every 6 1/2 games. But with only a quarter of the season played, perhaps those numbers will even out.
There already have been numerous occasions in which a game-altering decision has been reviewed. None has been bigger than the one that happened when Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle challenged the third out on a play at the plate in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game against the San Francisco Giants on May 6.
The result? After one minute and 14 seconds, we had baseball's first walk-off review:
...But Not Always
The occasional gaffe still happens, even when a play (or sequence) is looked at again.
Like, for instance, on April 22 when Yunel Escobar of the Tampa Bay Rays was called out on strikes—on a 4-2 pitch:
This actually happened. Some things are just hard to believe.
The league issued a statement afterwards to admit the mistake, saying: "An error was made when replay officials and supervisors mistakenly thought one of the pitches was a foul ball, when it was actually a ball."
The same after-the-fact admission of error happened on April 12 when Dean Anna of the New York Yankees ever-so-briefly lifted his foot off second base—with the tag still applied—after sliding into second with a double against the Boston Red Sox.
Manager John Farrell had the umpires check the play, which wound up being confirmed as safe in a game the Red Sox ultimately lost:
MLB did not have immediate access to conclusive angle on Anna play at second. Acknowledges that call should have been made differently.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) April 12, 2014
Clearly, that's something that cannot be happening and needs to be fixed.
Speaking of fixes, already one change has been made because it is so important to the fabric of baseball it was necessary to fix during the season: Ruling when a catch is considered a catch.
Remember when everyone was in an uproar over the fact that umpires were being much more strict about players having to complete the entire process of a catch by transferring the ball from glove to hand without dropping it?
Kudos to MLB, because that was taken care of right quick before things really got out of hand. That proves the league is serious about evaluating replay and making changes.
If there's one aspect of instant replay that is most deserving of criticism or most in need of change going forward, it's the need for managers to challenge an umpire's decision. There are two factors at play here.
First, this requirement creates too many awkward occasions where, having witnessed a close play, a manager will leave the dugout, enter the field of play, approach the umpire and chat for a few moments—all while awaiting a signal from his bench on whether to risk a review.
Alas, there is no data on how often this happens and how much time it wastes, per Kennedy:
What Major League Baseball does not have stats on are the number of times a manager stops play without using a challenge — one of the more annoying quirks of the new system. As part of the new system, each team is allowed to have a member of the coaching staff watch the same video feeds as the league and communicate with the dugout via two-way phone whether a play should be challenged or not. A manager can decide after he takes the field whether or not to use a challenge.
"You knew there was going to be some growing pains with this system, and all and all I think it’s doing its job," Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey told Kennedy with regards to the manager-umpire conversations that lead to a non-challenge. "It’s just I wish it wouldn’t interrupt play so much."
More than awkward, it's unnecessary, time consuming and easily done away with: Just have an umpire in the Replay Command Center in New York take it upon himself to double-check any close call, which would happen after he alerts those on the field that just an extra minute or two is required to do so before play can resume. Or simply make it an automatic challenge whenever a manager steps out of the dugout.
Either way, that would do away with what has become the silliest aspect of the expanded replay system and simultaneously speed up the time of games.
Secondly, the inherent "strategy" that comes with deciding when to use and when to save the challenge would be gone. While there's some intrigue to this will-he-or-won't-he concept, it's also ultimately problematic if a manager loses the challenge and then no longer has the ability to have a play reviewed later that ultimately has a bigger—or potentially, outcome-deciding—impact on the contest.
This happened to longtime skipper Bruce Bochy and the Giants back on April 1, and the whole thing felt a little like a cruel April Fool's joke:
Let's be clear: Baseball is better off with instant replay, and expanded replay is working well for the most part. Plus, the average time of review is now under two minutes, as Richard Justice of MLB.com notes, which is manageable.
The goal, though, should be to get calls right as often and as quickly as possible, and it's pretty clear so far that there are ways to improve both.
Fortunately, Major League Baseball understands this and already has shown that the review process itself is under review.
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