Challenging Replay Challenges

Major League Baseball is finally moving ahead with expanding its use of instant replay on close calls in 2014. I’ve been reading commentary about this for two days now, and one cannot help but notice how much the conversation around the issue has changed. The online discussion in the wake of the announcement was about the execution of the idea, rather than the legitimacy of it. Whether because of the never-ending string of game-changing mistakes correctable by replay, the acceptance of its use on home-run calls, or a combination of the two, we’ve moved into a different phase of the discussion: not whether, but how and how much. This is progress.

Yet the plan that’s been proposed for increased replay in 2014 is terrible, so bad that I hope the owners and players reject it and send it back to the whatever commissioner’s  committee dreamed it up. Of the many, many lessons MLB could take from the National Football League, it has adopted one-game playoff rounds and a challenge system for replay. Remember that when you’re watching Bud Selig’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

A challenge system barely works in the NFL, and because only after a quarter-century of changes it now has scoring plays and turnovers reviewed from the booth. The NFL, though, has structures in place that at least make a sideline challenge system feasible. Head coaches are wired to coaches in the booth who have access to video, and controversial plays are usually replayed on stadium scoreboards. There’s a fixed amount of time between plays and penalties for exceeding that time.

Baseball has, well, none of that. Screens are prohibited in the dugout. Controversial plays are never replayed on the big scoreboards, although broadcast feeds on televisions within the park usually provide much of the crowd access to replays. Stalling — sending players to the mound to talk to the pitcher — is already part of the game because there is no fixed period of time between plays. It is not at all clear how managers, watching a play from the dugout — which is not the best view for seeing a ballgame — are going to be equipped to determine whether a play is worthy of a challenge. They don’t have video or communications with people who have video, and absent a policy change, they won’t have the key play up on an 18′ x 18′ screen for their viewing. Barring significant changes to baseball’s rules about showing controversial calls on the stadium scoreboard and access to video feeds in the dugout — remember, this is the industry afraid of dugout iPads — there’s no way managers will be empowered to make sensible decisions on whether to challenge calls.

The proposed system, which allows three challenges per team per game, will encourage managers to challenge most any close calls. The “use it or lose it” element of the first challenge will work much like the “use it or lose it” first-half time-out in college basketball — look for lots of sixth-inning challenges that may be designed both to take a what-the-heck shot and provide a break for a struggling starting pitcher or an opportunity for relievers to warm up.  And why one challenge per team in the first six innings, but two per team in the last three?  This feeds (arises from?) the misconception that runs scored later in a game have more value than those scored early. All runs have the same value, no matter when they are scored, and so challenges should not be apportioned as if those later in the game mean more.

If you wanted replay to be a fiasco, this is the system you would implement. It’s complicated, it’s slow, it shifts responsibility for getting the calls right from the umpires to managers. It makes an assumption — that the number of erroneous calls is evenly distributed between home and visiting team — that is demonstrably false. It grandfathers in, for no earthly reason, the current process of reviewing home-run calls, with the idiocy of all four umps leaving the field.

The core frustration is that the right answer to replay in baseball is obvious. Add a fifth umpire to every crew and make one of them the replay specialist. Replay umps would be chosen from the ranks of veteran umpires, as a means of giving the system instant credibility and working around the politics of field umps being overruled. You’d be adding twenty-five percent more jobs for umpires.  (If you think that’s a bribe, you’re right.  In fact, I think umpires should be paid a lot more than they are.  The current top pay for an umpire is $300,000 per year, less than the minimum for a major league ballplayer.  If we paid umpires a million dollars a year, we’d get better umpires.)  You can solve this problem with money, so go ahead and do it. Give the replay ump a seat in a booth, access to monitors and a means of reaching the crew chief.

The proposed process turns managers into umpires. My process turns umpires into umpires. The proposed process involves a long string of people, not all of whom are trained to make these decisions. My process involves one umpire. The proposed process will create delays as decisions get made and passed up the line and back. My process cuts out most of that and gets it down to one man with authority, technology and experience. The only argument against this system is the argument against replay itself, and that argument has ended.

If you’re going to have a replay system, have the best replay system. The proposal on the table is far from that and should be rejected.



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