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The Strike Zone

Putting instant replay to a new test

Replay reviews for home runs have been in place since 2008 and expanded use of a replay has several benefits. (Reuters)

Last week, a Yahoo! Sports report revealed that Major League Baseball will begin testing two advanced replay systems at the two New York ballparks starting this week as a means of exploring expansion of the current replay system for next season. MLB will test radar- and camera-based systems, similar to ones used in other professional sports, to allow for review of fair/foul calls down the left and rightfield lines as well as trapped balls.

Neither system will be used to overturn calls in the games to be played at Citi Field (where the Mets face the Rockies and Astros this week) or Yankee Stadium (where the Yankees face the Blue Jays and Orioles next week). The setup at Citi Field will be the camera-based Hawk-Eye system used in tennis, while the one at Yankee Stadium will be the radar-based system used to track golf shots on television broadcasts. The latter has never been used to review calls in any sport. Baseball will also test the systems during the Arizona Fall League, then present the results at the owners' meeting in November, where the discussion for 2013 implementation would presumably enter its next phase.

This is a significant step forward for baseball, because hardly a day goes by without one umpire-related controversy or another. During Friday night's Orioles-Tigers game — a game between two playoff contenders, no less — umpires overturned an apparently correct out call at first base. Tigers batter Jhonny Peralta hit a sharp grounder to Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, who backhanded the ball; his subsequent throw sent first baseman Mark Reynolds sprawling in the dirt in order to catch it. First base umpire Jeff Kellogg called Peralta out, but first base coach Tom Brookens and manager Jim Leyland argued that the throw pulled Reynolds off the bag before Peralta arrived. After consulting with his fellow crew members, Kellogg reversed the call. Reynolds and Orioles manager Buck Showalter were ejected for arguing, but replay appears to show that the original out call was correct. Peralta didn't score, but the Tigers, who were down 3-1 at the time, tied the game against Orioles starter Tommy Hunter in the next inning and went on to win, 5-3.

Instant replay first entered baseball in 2008, when MLB implemented a system to review boundary calls (home run/foul ball/in play/fan interference). The system, which has produced about 80 reviews a year according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal — roughly one every 30 games — hasn't significantly slowed games down. According to Baseball Prospectus, the average time of a nine-inning game vacillated between 2 hours and 51 minutes and 2 hours and 52 minutes between 2007, the last year with no replay, and 2011.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement hammered out between the owners and players last winter allows for expansion of replay via fair/foul and trap calls, but because MLB couldn't reach an agreement with the umpires' union, they couldn't implement a system in time for the 2012 season. Since then, commissioner Bud Selig has sent mixed messages regarding enthusiasm inside the game for additional change. "People in our sport don't want any more," he said in early July. Just over a week later, at the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game in Kansas City, he said replay would eventually be expanded. "We're going to expand instant replay when we have the technology to do it… Among all the people I talk to, nobody is anxious to increase instant replay. And I concur with that. That doesn't mean we won't continue to review it… I can tell you that the appetite for more instant replay in the sport is very low." Roughly two weeks later, Selig told ESPN Radio's Waddle and Silvy show, "When I said there is no appetite for further replay I wasn’t kidding. There’s none." Yet just days after that, he told ESPN Radio's Mike Lupica that changes were coming.

Selig's concerns about pace of game aren't entirely trivial. Via Rosenthal, officials estimate that the addition of fair-or-foul calls could produce a need for 20 reviews per day, a bit over one per game, a rate that could potentially lengthen the average game by a couple of minutes. The system won't come cheap, either. Rosenthal reported that the Hawk-Eye system could cost $10 million in hardware, and $20-$30 million a year in operational costs, and noted that the system would risk obsolescence if baseball decided to expand replay further to include calls on the basepaths. If that estimate — which is essentially matched by that of Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan in last week's report — is accurate, that's not much more than $1 million per team. Weighed against the huge windfall of making the postseason — estimated by Society for American Baseball Research president Vince Gennaro, an economist, to be over $30 million — the expenditure to prevent incorrect calls on what could be game- or season-turning plays seems small. Whatever delays are produced by reviews would likely include additional television commercials, perhaps creating sponsorship opportunities that could increase revenue.

Expanding replay on traps and fair/foul calls won't solve all of the ills that plague MLB umpiring. It won't create a means for reviewing "bang-bang" safe/out plays at each base, improve enforcement of uniform strike zones, or curb overzealous application of the balk rule. It may not improve umpire accountability — the biggest underlying problem — either. But as with replay's introduction into boundary calls, it will result in the correct call being made significantly more often, and avoiding egregious mistakes such as the Carlos Beltran shot down the leftfield line that would have ended Johan Santana's no-hitter back in June. By increasing the likelihood that the actions of players, not umpires, will determine the outcomes of games, that's a step in the right direction.

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