Replay System Could Hurt More Than it Helps
As we all know, MLB has authorized increased use of replay next season. As it stands, pretty much everything except balls and strikes will be subject to managerial challenge. All in all, this is a good thing. Whenever possible, you want sporting contests to be determined by the players, not by whether an umpire was paying attention. In the larger sense, creating a method whereby an egregious error can be corrected is good for the game.
However, I feel that MLB has gotten the details wrong on this. If the goal is to right wrongs, then all wrongs should be righted, not just those that one manager elects to challenge. By putting a strategic element into the replay system you insert a degree of luck that means some calls will not get reversed. Will a manager challenge a call in the third inning, knowing that it means he may not have a challenge available in the ninth? What happens the first time a manager blows off a challenge because the pitcher is on deck, then the pitcher hits a home run? Will this be a strategic aspect that makes the game more interesting, or just a technicality to be manipulated? I suspect it will be the latter.
The other thing we will see with the challenge system is delays while teams decide whether to challenge. If a team enters the eighth inning with challenges available, they will check every call to see whether they have the basis for a challenge. How will they do this? By making extra visits to the mound, having hitters step out repeatedly, having the outfielders suddenly need sunglasses, until they decide if they have a basis for a challenge. Basically everything we see when a team is trying to stall during a rain delay, expect this will happen every night.
Let’s face it, two-thirds of stolen base calls are close enough that we don’t know for sure until we see a replay. So are calls like whether the second baseman actually touched second while he had the ball in his hand on a double play. So one manager or the other will want a second look at all of those calls before the next pitch is thrown. So there will be a thirty second delay while he communicates with someone who has access to a replay, longer if the call is too close to be obvious. We won’t officially know that this is happening until they challenge the call, but it will happen twenty times for every call that is challenged, adding another ten minutes to games that already have too much dead time.
In addition, we already know from the NFL that the challenges will take forever. The rule is that unless there is clear evidence that the call was blown, you uphold the original call. If this rule was adhered to, the refs in football would decide every challenge in less than a minute, because if they are not sure they would stick with the original call and move on. We know this isn’t what happens in the NFL.
There is a natural desire to get every call right, and this tendency will creep into baseball as well. A safe/out call on a steal of second is probably more subject to debate than anything that happens in football. If one of those gets challenged in the ninth inning of a close game the umps will take all night trying to make sure they get it right. Even after they decide, half of us will think they got it wrong, so has any purpose been served by looking at the replay?
Here’s what I would want from replay if I was the commissioner. Forget the challenges, and forget the bang-bang plays that you can look at ten different ways and get ten different answers. What you really want is to fix the obvious errors. If ten of us are watching a play and fewer than eight of us jump out of our chairs and say “hell, no!” as soon as the ump makes the call, then the call should stand. So have someone watching the game in the MLB offices, and if they see something that looks like a missed call, they buzz the crew chief to stop the game while the call is reviewed. Unless there is clear evidence that a mistake was made, move on.
A system that is administered properly will reverse about one call per week. If you think back over the last baseball season, you can remember 15-20 times a call was so bad that you wondered what the ump was thinking. Considering that the total number of calls made in a year is in the hundreds of thousands, this is a tribute to the skill with which the umpires do their job. If we use replay as a mechanism to fix those 15-20 calls, and we limit it to that, it will make for a better game. If we try to use replay to get every last call right, it will do more harm than good.
One more note: the major tennis tournaments have implemented a high-speed camera system that works much better than replays to determine if a ball was in or out. They show it on the scoreboard and there is no doubt whether the call was right. It seems like this could be used on fair/foul calls in baseball just as effectively, and possibly even on home runs. It may cost a bit to install, and some of the older parks may have outfield walls where it will be a challenge to track every ball hit with such a system, but if the point is to get the call right, this would be far superior to a guy standing under a hood. It would be nice for once if baseball did something before the NFL.