While it won't fix the blown calls that two umpiring crews made last week, or provide help during this year's postseason, an expanded replay system is coming in 2014. On Thursday at the quarterly owners' meetings in Manhattan, MLB executive vice president Joe Torre provided an update of the league's progress on the matter.
In late 2008, MLB introduced technology allowing umpires to use available television camera feeds to review whether a potential home run cleared the fence or landed in fair territory — so-called boundary calls. The Collective Bargaining Agreement reached in 2011 allowed for an expansion of the system to include fair/foul and catch/trap calls. After testing the camera-based Hawkeye System (used in tennis) and the radar-based Trackman system (used in golf telecasts) at the two New York ballparks and in the Arizona Fall League last year, the league decided to wait another year, in large part due to the desire for a more comprehensive system that could aid with safe/out calls on the basepaths.
Torre said his decision to examine a vast expansion came after Jeff Nelson blew a call at second base in the second game of last year's AL championship series. Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano tagged Detroit's Omar Infante, and Nelson ruled him safe instead of calling an inning-ending out. Detroit stretched its lead from one run to three and went on to a 3-0 victory and a four-game sweep.
"That really caught my eye and caught my attention with the fact that there was more conversation about that instead of the game itself," Torre said. "There's no question we're considering much more than the trap play and fair/foul. But again, one of the decisions we have to make is how much of this do we want to do without really disrupting and putting people to sleep?"
Unfortunately, whatever new system is agreed upon won't be in place in time for this year's postseason, less because the league is reluctant to introduce a new system in-season, as it did in 2008, than because the cost of the equipment and the time to install it are not trivial. As Jeff Passan wrote at Yahoo! Sports:
The financial figure, by the way, is no drop in the bucket. The final cost will depend on how much replay gets implemented. If it does what it should – a full replay hub in New York, with high-speed transmission of multiple camera angles that allow the centralized officials to render unbiased judgments on the umpires' calls that they themselves cannot – the tab will run well into eight figures. Should MLB contract out any proprietary technology to build what it wants rather than retrofitting another company's systems, that only will add to the cost.
Replay proponents should sell that cost to the owners this way: The league wants to ensure human error does not ultimately aid and abet sporting injustice. For $2 million or $3 million per team to start, replay can ensure baseball gets it right almost every time.
From here, the extra money would seem to be worth it relative to the damage done by the erosion of the sport's credibility every time an incident such as the ones from last week occur. After all, one week later and the various media are still talking about them, just as it was with the ALCS gaffe.
As to the actual nuts and bolts of what the new system will entail, Torre said that a three-man subcommittee consisting of himself, former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, and current Braves president John Schuerholz is evaluating various issues, and hopes to have proposals in place by the time of the next owners meeting on Aug. 14-15. At issue are whether or not to use a challenge system, whether or not to allow replays from any point in the game and whether to use a replay official in the booth at each ballpark or to centralize the review system, presumably at MLB.com headquarters in Manhattan. Using replay to reverse ball/strike calls is not part of the discussions, so any foretelling of the Robot Ump Apocalypse will have to wait.
A manager in the majors for 29 years, Torre reiterated concerns about the extent to which reviews would burden managers with additional choices ("Managers have to make enough decisions…We've tried to stay away from technology telling us what to do.") or would slow down the game ("You could start replaying stuff from the first inning on and then time the game by your calendar. That would be crazy…").
As I noted last fall, the introduction of replay for boundary calls hasn't significantly lengthened game times, which haven't varied by more than a minute from year to year since the system was introduced. An expanded system would introduce far more opportunities for review in each game, but on many such reviews, the proper call can be determined fairly quickly. It's been pointed out with regards to last week's blown home run call in the A's-Indians game that the Oakland announcers did so within two minutes, though why Hernandez and his fellow umpires couldn't do the same is still a mystery. The addition of another couple of minutes per game — time that will probably be filled by another commercial break — is minor, particularly when compared with the tens of millions of dollars in revenue at stake that come with a team making the playoffs or not on the basis of a game-turning call. As frustrating as it may be to wait for a more comprehensive system, it's worth it for MLB to do this right. A slapdash midseason implementation could backfire if crews aren't fully trained or if the technology proves glitchy. Let's just hope that MLB umpires do better going forward than they did last week, so that the absence of instant replay in this season's biggest games never becomes an issue.