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Expanded instant replay necessary, but challenge system is the wrong move

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After discussing the matter at this week's quarterly owners meetings, Major League Baseball has announced its plan to expand instant replay. According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, starting in 2014, MLB will implement a challenge system via which managers will ask for replay reviews but be limited to three challenges per game, one in the first six innings and two for the later innings. According to ESPN's SportsCenter, the reviews will be done by a crew at MLB headquarters.

The need for expanded replay is long overdue, and it shouldn't be overlooked that MLB is finally ready to move beyond the current system of boundary calls to cover fair/foul, trapped balls and outs on the basepaths, but not balls and strikes. Nonetheless, the creation of an NFL-style system with its artificial limits on the number of calls that can be reviewed in a game appears to be a less-than-ideal solution. It shifts the burden of being correct away from umpires and onto managers while squandering the rich technological capacity to ensure the proper calls are made as often as possible -- calls that can have multimillion dollar consequences. Bad call after you've exhausted your challenges? Tough luck.

On Wednesday, MLB executive vice president Joe Torre and subcommittee members Tony La Russa and John Schuerholz made a presentation to an executive committee headed by commissioner Bud Selig. On Thursday, it was presented to representatives of all 30 teams. The final proposal, of which full details haven't been reported, will require the unions for the players and umpires to sign off as well before the system is put into place for 2014. The New York Post's Ken Davidoff does have some of the specifics:

Upon a manager’s challenge, the decision would fall to a crew of umpires positioned in the MLB Advanced Media headquarters in Manhattan. If the umpires’ ruling is upheld, then a manager would lose his challenge. If the ruling is overturned, then the manager would retain his challenge.

Schuerholz said that 89 percent of umpires' calls -- including apparently all safe/out calls -- would be reviewable. The 11 percent of “unreviewable” plays includes balls and strikes and whether or not a pitch hit a batter.

Home run calls, currently the only play subject to replay, would still be driven by umpires, and therefore a manager wouldn’t have to use one of his challenges for disputed home runs.

The idea of limiting challenges comes from a fear that implementation of the new system will slow down the pace of games. That's a reasonable concern, even though the current system, which has been in place since 2008, hasn't significantly done that. Via data from Baseball Prospectus, the average time of a nine-inning game vacillated between two hours and 51 minutes and two hours and 52 minutes between 2007, the last year with no replay, and 2011. That time shot up to two hours and 56 minutes in 2012, according to the Boston Globe, but the roots of that increase appear to have more to do with enforcing existing rules regarding players dawdling between pitches rather than excessive use of replay.

It's possible to envision a situation where without some artificially imposed limit, a manager could abuse the system by requesting an excessive number of reviews, either as a means of being vindictive against an umpiring crew that he finds disagreeable or as a way of covering for a lack of a completely warmed-up pitcher. But the latter could happen even with a limited number of challenges, because getting the right reliever into the game may trump the chance to review a call later in the game. One way or another the bigger problem with a challenge system -- particularly one that effectively penalizes a manager for questioning a call that's upheld -- is that it shifts the burden of getting the play right away from the umpires, turning it into a question of managerial strategy like the deployment of a given pinch-hitter or reliever. Once that card is played, it's gone.

The impulse to steer reviews toward higher-leverage situations instead of more frivolous ones is on target. But the implication of a limited challenge system is that once the umpires have done the "heavy lifting" of reviewing a given allotment of calls, they're let off the hook for the remainder of the game, even if they make egregious mistakes in the later innings -- or in extra innings, if they're tied after nine. Those mistakes can turn games, and under the new playoff format, a single game in the standings can be the difference not only between going to the postseason or not, but between playing in a single elimination game as a wild-card winner, with no margin for error, and a five-game series as division champion.

Those are multi-million dollar consequences for each franchise, and they shouldn't hinge on whether an umpiring crew is free to go back to an older standard where they can't take advantage of advanced technology. It's not as though the replay system should be treated like a rechargeable cell phone, where once the battery expires, all access to electrical means of restoring power disappear and further communication is limited to telepathy, smoke signals and shouting.

You want shouting? Tell Jim Leyland that the call the umpire blew at home plate isn't subject to review, because one time earlier tonight he was wrong to question you, and because of that you'll be damned if you're going to work an extra two minutes. You'll spend those two minutes and more arguing with Leyland over something you're no longer empowered to change, and the replays of your error will run around the clock among the day's "highlights."

In other words, such a system has the potential to increase tensions between umpires and uniformed personnel rather than defuse them, to worry about who is right or wrong, and who's being shown up in front of thousands or millions of onlookers, rather than making sure that the action proceeds according to what transpired on the field as best as possible.

A better way, and one that could do more to encourage umpires to buy into the plan by creating additional jobs, would be to add a replay umpire -- an "eye in the sky" -- to each crew. Armed with the best technology (whether on site or at a centralized headquarters) and trained appropriately on its use, that umpire would identify plays where calls (again, not including ball and strikes) are close enough that they may be disputed, a number that for each game should still be rather small. If there's enough video evidence to overturn a call made on the field, that umpire would communicate with on-field officials so that appropriate action could be taken to correct the situation before play continues. Alas, that doesn't appear to be the route MLB has chosen.

On the positive side, putting the reviews in the hands of a centralized crew at MLB headquarters (presumably the same headquarters where MLB Advanced Media is based, on the west side of Manhattan) instead of the on-field umpires does appear to be the right call. The biggest umpire-related controversy this year remains the blown home run call in a May 8 game between the A's and Indians in which a crew led by the always-controversial Angel Hernandez reviewed video of a potentially game-tying ninth-inning home run by Oakland's Adam Rosales and still made what MLB conceded was the wrong call. Given that both teams are vying for playoff berths, that screw-up still looms large.

Wednesday's report suggested that implementation of a new system in time for this year's postseason was possible, and such an in-season change already had a precedent given that replay for home run calls was added late in the 2008 season. The implication from Nightengale's series of tweets is that such an idea was ruled out, which is understandable given that costs for implementing the new system are estimated to be $25 million to $40 million. An eye-in-the-sky system certainly would have needed an offseason to put in place.

No matter what route is taken, for change that's so long overdue, it's worth getting right with proper implementation and training rather than rushing a glaringly imperfect system into being for the sake of expediency. It's disappointing that MLB didn't opt for a system that puts the emphasis on the right call above the strategic deployment of an artificially scarce resource, and it's certain that the challenge system will have its critics, its conflicts and its controversies. Perhaps it will evolve over time, reviewed at this point next year and tweaked if there's widespread dissatisfaction.

The good news is that there's a new system headed our way that should drag Major League Baseball further into the 21st century, but it remains to be seen whether it goes far enough.

Bob Melvin and Angel Hernandez MLB is hoping to avoid repeats of the controversy that erupted after Angel Hernandez's umpiring crew mistakenly cost Bob Melvin's A's a game-tying home run back in May. (AP)

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