Replay system, banning collisions mark big steps forward for game

Wednesday December 11th, 2013

Engel Beltre (right) and Devin Mesoraco were just two of the players who in 2013 demonstrated how painful home plate collisions can be.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- How Major League Baseball games will be played changed dramatically on Wednesday. Based on committee work at the winter meetings, umpires' calls on the field of play will no longer be the last word, and catchers will no longer have to be carted off the field because a baserunner intentionally crashed into him. Baseball, often criticized for changing at a glacial pace, used the power of common sense in both cases to take a giant leap forward.

The outline of a replay challenge system was presented to major league managers Wednesday, while the Rules Committee began drafting a proposal to ban collisions at home plate. Both developments are expected to be in place for next season.

The replay challenge system remains in the final development stage and still needs further input and approval from umpires. Until now, only so-called boundary calls -- mostly potential home run balls down the line or near the top of the outfield wall -- were subject to being overturned by video review. For the first time many calls on the field of play -- but not all -- will be reviewable at a manager's discretion. Highlights of the system presented to the managers included:

• An industry standard for monitors near all dugouts so that teams have equal access to television replays when deciding whether or not to challenge. One AL team, for instance, already had decided to install a monitor around the corner from its dugout, but baseball rightly decided all teams should have equal access. Said one AL manager, "They said it should take only about 10 to 15 seconds. In most cases you're out there arguing already. While you're arguing, you just look back to your dugout and you either get a thumbs up or thumbs down" from a coach, who signals whether or not to challenge.

• The allowable number of failed challenges is still being decided. What baseball has decided, however, is that some discretion is needed -- possibly from the umpires -- to allow for an obvious replay challenge if a team is out of challenges. Baseball does not want games decided on clearly blown call that cannot be corrected because a team is out of challenges.

• There is a long list of types of plays that cannot be challenged. Those plays include: whether or not a batter has been hit by a pitch; whether a runner left a base early when tagging up; fair or foul calls on balls that carry over the first- or third-base bag; any play involving the 45-foot runners' lane leading to first base; the so-called "neighborhood play" at second base in which middle infielders leave the bag early on double plays to avoid contact with the runner; and any trapped balls in the infield (trapped balls in the outfield, however, are reviewable).

Meanwhile, the proposal to take the home plate collision out of baseball ends what had been a traditional yet increasingly violent and dangerous part of the game. Throughout history contact-seeking baserunners such as Ty Cobb and Pete Rose were lionized for their "toughness," as were catchers such as Mike Scioscia who absorbed the hits. But increasingly horrific leg and knee injuries to catchers and the increased awareness and effects of concussions turned the overriding sentiment from "it's part of the game" to "let's protect the players."

Two major proponents of the change, Giants manager Bruce Bochy and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, both former catchers, met with MLB Vice President Joe Torre Wednesday morning in advance of the Rules Committee meeting to press their case. Matheny, whose career was shortened and his retirement affected by multiple concussions, stressed the importance of the "quality of life" risks associated with the collisions. Bochy, who saw his catcher and franchise icon Buster Posey wrecked in a home plate collision in 2011, said he was motivated to protect all catchers and baserunners, not just his own.

Bochy said when the formal discussion occurred Wednesday afternoon with the Rules Committee, the support for eliminating collisions "was unanimous. Everybody agreed, 'It's time.'"

Said Bochy, "To know that it can't happen again, it warms your heart. It's better to be proactive, rather than wait for somebody to be carted off the field paralyzed -- which was going to happen. Look at all the other sports. They are sensitive to it."

When asked how he would respond to critics who regard the home plate collision as "part of the game," Bochy said, "It's not a necessity. It's not like you go to the ballpark to see a home plate collision."

Baseball still needs to draft specific language to outlaw the play, then send the formal proposal to the players association for approval. That approval is expected as early as January, allowing the rule to be in place for next season.

Home plate will essentially be treated the same as the other three bases: a fielder cannot block the base without the ball, and the runner cannot simply run over a fielder. The rule will also be adopted in the minor leagues, which means the home plate collision, which has been banned for years on all amateur levels, will be legislated out of baseball completely. College rules, for instance, specify that the runner has to make an attempt to score, and contact above the waist of the catcher -- the goal of which is to prevent the catcher from holding on to the ball -- is not regarded as an intent to score.

Baseball really had no choice but to adopt this important rules change. Imagine if baseball decided against it, and a career was ruined and maybe even the quality of life of a catcher compromised by a collision. Imagine the legal exposure of MLB by deciding to do nothing when a proposal was on the table, when the public information on the effect of concussions is ubiquitous and changing other sports, and when baseball was concerned enough about concussions previously to establish a separate disabled list for that specific injury.

As Bochy said, "It's time." The game is better without the home plate collision. Better still, the players are safer.

How teams should use their bullpens

Bryan Price, the first-year manager of the Cincinnati Reds, is prepared to use his closer for more than three outs. Such is the devolution of the modern bullpen -- and such was the conservative manner in which Dusty Baker, Price's predecessor, used Aroldis Chapman -- that Price's plan qualifies as big news.

"Sure, that's absolutely something I would consider," said Price, who praised Baker for how he "conditioned" Chapman, who was trained as a starter, to grow accustomed to closing. For instance, Price said that when Chapman first converted to closing he wasn't efficient enough with his mechanics or control to reliably get more than three outs and still be available the next day. Price said he now considers Chapman as available to enter games in the eighth inning.

Chapman's pitches per inning dropped from 2011 to 2012 (17.7-16.8), but rose last season (17.3). The Reds, with Baker as manager and Price as pitching coach, used Chapman last year for only 63⅔ innings. In 90 save opportunities for Baker, Chapman threw more than one inning only five times.

The Reds simply adhered to what has become standard procedure around baseball: spend more and more money on setup relievers and "save" the guy with the best stuff, the closer, for ninth-inning save opportunities.

The Philadelphia Phillies last season provided one of the most obvious examples yet of how to waste money on the best arm in the bullpen. They paid Jonathan Papelbon $13 million to throw 61⅔ innings. He pitched 61 games -- all of them exactly one inning except for one outing with another two outs thrown in.

The Phillies paid him $210,834 per inning -- many of which could have been picked up by just about anybody. Only 14 times did Papelbon save a game in which he entered with a one-run lead.

In lockstep, teams have decided that in addition to pitching starters less (presumably for preventative health) they will pitch closers less (for reasons that are not quite as apparent). Night after night managers are willing to risk losing a game just for the potential of having their closer available the next night. What they should realize is that with so many setup men becoming instant closers (Koji Uehara, Joaquin Benoit, Trevor Rosenthal, etc.), you actually have more than one guy in your bullpen who can close a game. Imagine that.

Closers should be throwing about 80 innings or more if managers want to leverage their team's investment in them as well as the opportunities to win games. But those days are over -- and have been for years. Nobody in the past six years has thrown 80 innings while getting at least 30 saves. The last one to do it was Kevin Gregg in 2007 for the 91-loss Marlins and manager Fredi Gonzalez.

The last year somebody did it for a winning team was 2004, when Keith Foulke (Red Sox), John Smoltz (Braves) and Eric Gagne (Dodgers) all did so for playoff teams. From 2000-05 it was done 18 times and from 1982-93 it was done 53 times.

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