It hasn't been a strong start to the season for MLB's replay review system. Controversial endings to the Phillies-Braves game Sunday night and the Mets-Marlins game last week have prompted many to wonder how baseball could improve its process for reviewing disputed calls.
So how should baseball fix replay review? SI's MLB staff considered some possible improvements:
The replay system works very well but it could use two upgrades: transparency and speed.
The transparency involves putting a microphone on the crew chief to make sure paying customers actually understand what just happened. It’s insulting to leave them without explanation when calls are upheld or changed. Thankfully, this change should be coming by the end of this season or next season, per an agreement with the umpires.
Transparency also means we know who made the call and why it was made. Name the replay official working in New York who made the call and provide a one-sentence, specific reason why the call was made. Don’t leave us guessing.
Most people don’t know the umpires in the replay center not only have access to every available camera angle but also can blow up multiple camera angles while replaying them synched up—such as super close-ups of when the throw hits the back of the fielder’s glove and when the runner’s foot hits the base. They have more tools than what you have at home.
As for speed, some calls are so obvious they should be made before the umpires make that slow walk to put on those Radio Shack–era headphones. Just wear an earpiece. Or hey, send a text! MLB has shortened the delays from when it started the system, but anything that streamlines the process further is welcome.
Finally, people need to stop bellyaching about the call when the runner slides safely at the base but is tagged out if his foot leaves the base by a fraction of an inch. Once we went down the rabbit hole of replay, we signed on to a very literal, binary game. Either you are safely on the base or you are not. There is no amnesty for being “almost safe.” There is no way to write or enforce a rule of being “almost safe.” If you are tagged when off the base, you’re out. Deal with it.
I have two thoughts on replay:
Umpires should be allowed to look at replay only at real speed. If you can't see a guy pop off the bag, then he didn't. No more of this slowing it down to identify the single frame with air between a runner and the base.
The umpires in New York should have to watch plays on replay without knowing what the call on the field was. There is surely some subconscious desire not to embarrass their peers by overturning them, and not knowing what their peers said would help with that.
This is an idea that hadn't occurred to me before I saw former Braves outfielder Lane Adams share it on Twitter last week, but the more I think about it, the more I like it: Don't share the call with the review crew before they get a chance to look at the play.
As the rules work now, there must be clear and convincing evidence for a call to be overturned. But I think that language creates an unnecessary hurdle. The question shouldn't be, "Is there sufficiently convincing evidence to overturn this call?" It should be, "Is the runner safe or out?" The goal should be to get the decision right, regardless of how it was originally called on the field, and I think that gets complicated by placing the burden of proof like this. Just have them assess the play itself! Maybe place a time limit on the process, and if the reviewers cannot make a decision quickly enough in New York, revert to the ruling on the field. But I think a shift like this would be useful for reframing the process—with a focus on making sure calls are right.
I grew up rooting for the Braves, so the Mets and Phillies scoring game-winning runs on incorrect calls—with the latter coming at Atlanta's expense—should stir up the furious fan side of me. But I must admit, I haven't been able to work myself up too much about it. At least, it hasn't pushed me to back a radical reform of the replay review system. Let's consider the big picture.
Last season, there were 526 reviews in 898 games. That means in a 162-game season, each team can expect to be involved in about 95 reviews. If each team has only a couple to gripe about at the end of the season, that's not so bad. We've gotten off to a memorable start when it comes to replay in 2021, but we shouldn't let recency bias or fan outrage cloud our judgment. New York's bizarre walk-off HBP was not reviewable, and perhaps should be when robot umps are calling strike zones. But until then, it doesn't sit right with me to have a replay official either rule on a pair of judgment calls—that is, a hitter's intent of moving out of the way or if the part of his body struck by the ball was in the strike zone.
The only change I'd make would be not to consider the original call one bit when consulting the replay. Last year, 223 calls (42.4%) were overturned and 181 calls (34.4%) "stood," which is the equivalent of a "no contest" in court. There's not enough evidence to convict/overturn, but there's something fishy going on here. That's a lot of cop-outs. If Alec Bohm hadn't originally been called safe in Philadelphia's win Sunday, it's hard to see how anyone viewing the replay would come to that conclusion themselves. I think replay review officials should go into each call blind; that is, not knowing what the original call was. Then, with world-class technology at their disposal, the official can decide on their own instead of deferring to a call that was made in a split second. Isn't that what this system is for, anyway?
As others have suggested, the umpires in New York reviewing the play should not know the call on the field. Instead, they should be able to use all the tools at their disposal to make the correct call, whether it confirms or overturns the original ruling.
Also, teams shouldn't have 30 seconds just to decide whether they want to challenge the call on the field. Instead, challenges should be immediate. The purpose of replay review is to correct the bad calls, not to have a replay coach review the play before deciding if it's worth challenging. If a call is so egregious, the manager should be able to see that in real time and challenge it.
Having replay reviews in sports is a good thing, but it very clearly has its drawbacks. For MLB, those drawbacks feel more pronounced. In all sports with replay review, fans complain they take too long, a mostly a palatable inconvenience if the end result is we get the right call. But ask Braves fans how that's worked out for them lately. MLB clearly needs to strengthen its guidelines for when officials can overturn the call on the field. Without clear guidance on that front, the whole system fails. Other issues—like length of replays or what types of plays are or are not reviewable—are important to be addressed as well, but reliably getting the right call is a fundamental necessity. Otherwise, what's the point?
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