There should be far fewer arguments between managers and umpires with a challenge system in place. (David J. Phillip/AP)
Expanded instant replay has gotten the green light, at least from those footing the bill. At their quarterly meetings in Orlando on Thursday afternoon, major league owners unanimously voted to approve funding on a system that will be put in place for the 2014 season. The exact rules will be approved in January following the completion of negotiations with the unions for umpires and players, and via a report from the Associated Press, it appears that they could differ slightly from those proposed at the owners meetings in August.
The new system will move beyond the current limitation of boundary calls to incorporate fair/foul, trapped balls and outs on the basepaths, but not balls and strikes or hit-by-pitches. The mechanism to review a call will still come via a challenge by a manager, and the reviews will still be conducted by a centralized crew at MLB Advanced Media headquarters in Manhattan while the umpires remains on the field, connected via headsets. What appears to have changed is the number of challenges.
Back in August, the proposal that came out of the owners meetings was for each team to be limited to three per game, with one in the first six innings and two in the final three. Since then, replay was tested during five Arizona Fall League games earlier this month, with managers allowed an unlimited number of challenges so as to help iron out the system's kinks. After seeing that plan put into action amid some fairly chaotic situations — including one where two different calls were challenged on the same play — the latest proposal limits each manager to two challenges in the entire game, regardless of inning. Under both the August plan and the current one, a successful challenge won't count against a team's limit, so a manager will at least have some recourse against a particularly inept umpiring crew. Furthermore, via the AP report, "If a manager is out of challenges, umpires likely would be able to call for a review on their own," though no additional details were provided on that front.
Indeed, further details on the topic are sparse, though a few more points emerged via tweets from various reporters in Orlando, some of them relaying the words of MLB chief operating officer (and likely successor to Bud Selig) Rob Manfred:
• From Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, "Rob Manfred said fans can expect expanded in-game video on stadium boards in conjunction with expanded replay." Currently, replays of the most controversial plays generally aren't shown on in-stadium systems, likely as a crowd control measure given the amount of unruly behavior that might result with a call against the home team. Ideally, the league's efforts to treat fans like adults will pay off, but it's unclear if they'll take any additional steps to alleviate concerns when emotions are particularly heightened.
• From Manfred via a pair of tweets by MLB.com's Richard Justice, "The current thinking is that if a manager comes out and argues, he can’t challenge that play… You no longer spend time arguing. In return, you have a right to challenge." Such a policy could minimize lengthy delays, in that a manager can go the low-tech route and kick up an on-field fuss if he disagrees with an umpire's call, or he can go high-tech and challenge it, but he can't do both, at least without being ejected.
• From USA Today's Bob Nightengale, "The MLB owners were told that a good chunk of the instant replay funding should be provided by commercial sponsorships during breaks." This makes sense, in that somebody was always going to have to pay for the equipment and personnel to run the expanded system, a cost previously reported to run between $2 million and $3 million per team to start. Given that every challenge will involve at least some amount of downtime without on-field action, it makes sense that broadcasters would cut away for at least one 30-second spot, and it's not hard to imagine some major corporation turning replay into a sponsorship opportunity: "It's time for the [beer brand] Instant Replay Challenge. Go back for another look, but first go grab another beer," or whatever (you're welcome, Madison Avenue).
In all, it's still not too hard to take issue with the emerging system because it shifts the burden of being correct away from the umpires and onto managers, and because an arbitrary limit on challenges implies that umpires are off the hook once teams have run out. Even if there is some mechanism for umps to request reviews themselves, the lack of detail thus far provided on that front is cause for skepticism. One can hope that a crew would rise to the occasion to put their heads together at a key moment as the umpires did — without benefit of replay, of course — during Game 1 of the World Series, when they overturned Dana DeMuth's obviously incorrect call of a forceout at second base as the ball glanced off Cardinal shortstop Pete Kozma's glove. But without some assurance on that front, it's all speculation.
Still, the bottom line is that expanded replay is coming, and not a moment too soon. The new system may be imperfect, but that doesn't mean what goes into effect for 2014 will govern baseball forever. Again via the AP report:
Manfred said the initial rules likely won’t be the final ones.
“The system will see some continuing evolution until we get to a point of stability, similar to what you saw in the NFL,” he said.
Expanded instant replay won't solve all of the sport's problems with umpires
, not so long as strike zones vary widely from one to another and some of the more obstinate umps not only remain employed but draw high-profile assignments. Still, the ability to reverse calls that could have multimillion dollar consequences -- such as the difference between victory and defeat when the stakes are at their highest -- means the new system will be a major improvement.