Replay great for game, but data shows it won't be needed much
Time for a quick quiz. There were 2,431 major league games last season. Guess how many times an umpire blew the call on a "catch or no catch" play in the outfield -- you know, one of those plays we see all the time when the outfielder dives for a ball.
Okay. Time's up.
Yep, that's it. Seven. All year. Once every 347 games, or about once a month, an umpire blew the call in the outfield on whether the ball was caught or trapped.
There are two takeaways you get from that kind of statistic, which was provided by MLB after video review of every play of the 2013 season. One, major league umpires are really, really good at what they do (and we are really, really good at highlighting and dramatizing the occasional moments when they aren't perfect). Two, worries that the groundbreaking expanded use of replay this year will bog down the game with more dead time probably are not necessary.
Will there be bugs to work out? Sure. The NFL still tinkers with its replay system 15 years later. And the replay Monday in the Twins-Blue Jays game that took two minutes, 34 seconds wasn't a true representation of the finished product. (The high-tech replay bunker in New York isn't up and running yet, and the game was telecast with three cameras, not the minimum of 12 for a typical regular season game.)
But start with this: The use of expanded replay is the best thing to happen to baseball since ballpark nachos. Baseball now has the ability to get most calls right. Replay does away with the shame of a ballgame being decided by an obvious blown call and the resultant ignominy for the umpire (Denkinger, Garcia, Joyce, et al). It also allows the paid customer in the stands to finally see what the couch potato does, because while a play is under review, teams are permitted for the first time to show replays on the video board from the home television feed.
Replay also adds another element of strategy. Managers get one replay challenge per game. They can "earn" a second one if their first challenge is successful, and that's it, even if they win the second challenge. There is one safety net for the managers who are out of challenges: Starting in the seventh inning, umpires can initiate a challenge themselves. That means that even if a team is out of challenges late in the game, the manager should be fairly confident an obviously blown call will get overturned. My guess is that umpires will err on the side of using replay review rather than taking a chance that a possible blown call stands.
"We have numbers that show the [number of] challenges should be enough," said MLB vice president Joe Torre. "If we find at the end of the year it's not enough, we will re-evaluate. We'd rather do that than say, 'Oh, my goodness, we gave them too much.'"
The creative tension from what, when and if to challenge adds drama to the game. And whether you are the Giants' Bruce Bochy, who has managed 3,060 big-league games, or the Reds' Bryan Price, who has managed none on any level, replay is an equalizer; every manager is a rookie when it comes to using the system. The decision on whether or not to challenge should be more influenced by leverage (i.e., possible scoring plays or runners on base) than simply the inning.
For instance, some managers already are talking about the importance of "saving" their challenges. That bang-bang play at first base in the first inning? Some managers are of a mind to let it go on the thinking that if you challenge and lose, you have no replay recourse until the seventh inning, when possible review is left in the hands of the umpires. Based on MLB's 2013 video review numbers, that could be a mistake. Blown calls simply don't happen as often as you think, especially with strikeouts happening in record amounts. Only 39 of the 54 outs in the average game occur on balls on play, which leaves 28 percent of outs not even subject to review.
"We're not overstressing about it," Padres general manager Josh Byrnes said. "[Manager] Buddy [Black] and I are not holding meetings trying to figure out angles and strategy about it. For the most part, I think it's going to be self-evident. The important thing is that for the obvious blown call we'll be able to get it right."
Said one manager, "I think we'll have a pretty good idea when to challenge. But I'm going to tell my players straight up, we're not here to get you a hit. We're here to win games. So I don't want guys coming to me and begging to use a challenge just because they're trying to get a play changed to a hit."
Here is more data from MLB's 2013 video review that managers should keep in mind:
• Umpires missed a total of 377 calls all year. That's an average of one blown call per 6.4 games. But because each team has the ability to challenge, the more applicable rate is one blown call for every 12.8 team games. "Well, I know they missed 200 calls against our team," quipped one NL manager, "so they must have been really, really good against everybody else."
• Force plays and tag plays accounted for 86.4 percent of all blown calls.
• Not once last season was there a game in which umpires missed more than two calls against one team. Here's why that is important: Everybody is worried about the worst case scenario in which a team is out of challenges and loses a game on a blown call that is not challenged. At least according to MLB's numbers, that was a statistical impossibility last year. That's not to say it could not happen, but at least you get an idea of how remote is that possibility.
Remember, when it comes to MLB's numbers, we are talking only about clearly blown calls, not the "gray area" ones that are close enough to challenge. So just because you get one missed call every 12.8 team games doesn't mean you will get one challenge every 12.8 team games. For instance, the NFL coaches' success rate on challenges is about 45-47 percent (up from 29 percent in 1999 when the current system began). So with that as a guide, you might expect about 800 challenges this year, or one challenge every six team games. But you also have to remember that the NFL automatically reviews all scoring and change-of-possession plays; there are no automatic reviews in baseball. So the baseball rate of challenges should be higher -- but not so high that managers should worry about "saving" challenges.
Here's what else you need to know about the system:
• Teams are designating "replay advisors," the person who will watch a replay monitor just outside the dugout to advise the manager whether or not to challenge. This is a tactically important job and requires someone with extensive knowledge of rules and the right demeanor to make quick decisions under pressure. The replay advisor must be versed in the same protocols and definitions that replay umpires use. For instance, on force plays, a fielder is judged to have caught the ball as soon as it hits the inside of the glove, not when it is controlled or the glove closes around the ball. The Angels will use their coordinator of major league player information, Nick Francona, son of Indians manager Terry Francona. (Can't wait for the first time Nick advises Mike Scioscia to get a call overturned against his dad.) Byrnes said the Padres will use "two or three different people" to serve as their replay advisor.
• Eight umpires on a rotating crew basis will be assigned daily to a bunker at the MLB Advanced Media headquarters in New York to serve as the replay officials. Each umpire will be assigned to monitor one or two games at a time. The umpire will have access to 12 camera angles determined prior to the game and provided by a combination of home, away and national broadcasts. The umpire can begin reviewing those feeds even before viewers at home see a replay, which will enable him to expedite the process. For instance, when the system was tested in Arizona Fall League games, in some cases the review official had a ruling in hand even as the umpire put on the headset to convey the challenge to New York. MLB estimates the challenge process should take about a minute.
• Teams have begun using the replay system this week in spring training games. Each team is expected to play five spring training games with the system. The system will not be used for the two opening regular season games in Australia between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.
• The replay official will decide on one of three possible calls: The call is overturned, the call is confirmed or, in the case of inconclusive evidence, the call stands. Replay officials are required to see "clear and convincing" evidence to overturn a call.
• All 30 ballparks will be outfitted with a high home camera -- the equivalent of the "all-22" in football. That look is especially important when an out call is overturned and requires the replay official to make a judgment as to where the runners should be placed.
• There are no red flags to throw. To issue a replay challenge, the manager must simply tell the umpire he is challenging the play.
You can expect tweaks here and there to the system. As many hours as MLB officials invested in studying the possibilities, there is bound to be one scenario nobody anticipated. Such unpredictability is part of baseball's beauty. A World Series game never ended on an obstruction call for more than a hundred years -- until it did. (And no, obstruction is not reviewable.)
What's important is that this a major step forward for baseball. It should all but eliminate the infamous blown call and it should inject more drama into a game. Imagine fans hollering for their manager to challenge after a close play. Imagine a manager calculating whether he should burn one of his challenges or not. Imagine the minute or so of tension when the outcome is in doubt -- perhaps the difference between a run or an out -- and the fans can react to replays in that charged space.
Alas, the beginning of an era may be the end of another. The old-time, dirt-kicking, hat-tossing, expletive-flying argument between a manager and umpire will become more rare. You still may get a few of them when it comes to balls and strikes. But now managers have a recourse that, while less colorful, actually can affect change. Isn't technology amazing?