The Case for ... Fixing Replay

April 14, 2014

AFTER THE first week of MLB's new replay system we know two things: Replay works, and it can work much better than this.

Calls are getting reversed, with more than a third of the 44 reviews through Sunday producing a change from the initial umpiring decision. That means fewer games are being decided by middle management—umpires—and more are being decided by the actions of the players. While many of the reversals are mundane, some have had significant consequences. Against the Reds last Saturday the Mets used a reversal of an out call at second base in the bottom of the ninth inning to key a rally capped by a walk-off grand slam by Ike Davis. A number of bang-bang plays at home plate have been reviewed and confirmed.

But the benefits of the replay system are not as far-reaching as they could be. On April 1, Giants manager Bruce Bochy used his one challenge to question the call on a fourth-inning pickoff attempt of the Diamondbacks' A.J. Pollock, who was ruled safe at first base. The call was upheld, and two batters later Pollock scored on a close play at the plate following a passed ball. Replays showed that Pollock was out—but Bochy was out of challenges, and the umps can't initiate a review on their own before the seventh inning (except for home run calls and decisions on whether catchers adhered to new plate-blocking rules). The Giants lost 5--4. The restriction on manager challenges builds in an assumption that close calls and umpiring errors are evenly distributed, but we know some games will feature multiple close or even blown calls. Replay should be available to fix umpiring errors without limitation.

The biggest concern of replay opponents has been the dead time that reviews add to the game. For the most part this wasn't a problem in the season's first week; many reviews were completed in under two minutes—although a review of a tag play at the plate in Oakland on April 2 stretched to nearly five minutes—and the holdups due to replay are often simply replacing delays that were caused by arguments. If the visuals aren't quite as enthralling (no base throwing, no hat slamming, no dirt kicking), the new system produces results in a way the old one never could.

Still, there are kinks, and the biggest one, aside from the challenge limit, is this: Managers aren't the ones deciding when to challenge. There's no way they can decide without access to video in the dugout, and teams have constructed elaborate games of telephone to connect their "replay coordinator" in a small room inside the stadium with a bench coach in the dugout. The coach signals the manager, who is usually on the field, chatting with an ump and stalling. That critical Mets review? A replay coordinator named Jim Kelly told bench coach Bob Geren to tell manager Terry Collins to tell second base umpire James Hoye to challenge. These decisions are being made by men even more anonymous than the umpires. It's that process, not the reviews themselves, that slows the game.

You can fix these problems with one change: Take the teams out of the process. MLB has spent heavily on a review center in its New York City offices, tricking it out with dozens of high-definition screens and wiring it to all 30 ballparks. That room can just as easily be staffed to instigate reviews, which could be done more quickly than the on-site phone relays that now start the process. And that center could review all the plays in the first six innings, not just one or two.

Replay review is here, and it's making the game better. Now, baseball has to make replay review better.

Replay should be available to fix umpiring errors without limitation.

PHOTOMORRY GASH/AP

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)