Saturday, January 18, 2014

MLB Instant Replay - It's Already A Flawed System

On Thursday afternoon Major League Baseball announced that the owners had unanimously voted for an expansion of the instant replay system. It is structured as a challenge system much like we see in the NFL. Meaning, a manager must request a replay. He must challenge the ruling on the field in a timely manner. If correct in the first challenge, managers will be rewarded with a 2nd challenge. If incorrect, there doesn't seem to be any penalty at all. It's not like you can just arch off 5 yards and keep moving along.

OK I'll quit with the NFL analogies. The fact that MLB's new system seems to mimic the one the NFL has had in place for almost 25 years is bothersome to me. But I'll get to that later. Back to he new system. Major League Baseball shared all the details of the system in a press release. Not all plays are allowed to reviewed. As we've all read the "neighborhood play" will stay in place. I'm grateful for that. The very reason an umpire will call the out there is for player safety. If the fielder happened to push off the bag a split second before receiving the ball, there is no reason to penalize him. More often than not a runner is sliding right in to that base for his own safety as well as to maybe break up a double play.

Let's be honest. If it didn't hurt so much runners would be trying to crash into fielders at full speed in hopes to jar the ball loose. But they don't. What do they do? They slide as a safety precaution. It's self preservation. That's all the "neighborhood play" at 2nd base is during a double play. A built in safety measure to try and protect the players. So just because the replay is going to show us that yes, in fact, the fielder's foot came off the bag before he caught the ball, it does not need to be overturned. You have to look away. There's more to it than just black and white there, and I'm glad that won't come under scrutiny.

Major League Baseball issued a press release and in it was an outline of what can and cannot be challenged.

The following play types will be subject to review:

Home run
Ground rule double
Fan interference

Stadium boundary calls (e.g., fielder into stands, ball into stands triggering dead ball)
Force play (except the fielder's touching of second base on a double play)
Tag play (including steals and pickoffs)
Fair/foul in outfield only
Trap play in outfield only
Batter hit by pitch
Timing play (whether a runner scores before a third out)

Touching a base (requires appeal)
Passing runners
Record keeping (Ball-strike count to a batter, outs, score, and substitutions)

All other plays will not be reviewable; however, the Umpires may still convene on the field at any time to discuss the play.

There will be designated communication locations in each stadium. The umpires at the park will be connected to the Replay Command Center (MLB's term, not mine) in New York, where one of eight MLB umpires will be watching the game on monitors. The same replays will be relayed to each clubhouse so that teams can know when to challenge. It is also beneficial to fans because from now on all replays will be shown in game. No more screens going to something generic after a close play. That used to lead to murmuring and not the discussion that public replays will bring.

Bud Selig was also quoted in the release touting the new system:
I am very pleased that instant replay will expand to include additional impactful plays. The new system will give managers valuable recourse in potentially game-changing situations.
Upon reading this my mind immediately filled with more questions. That's not a good thing when something is supposed to be a solution. I know that Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre had a lot of input in presenting options to the club owners. What I can't seem to get past is how all 30 teams voted yes. Why wasn't there single dissenter? Someone to step up and say, it's still broken. Because this new system is very flawed and fragile. Don't get me wrong I'm thrilled that there is at least something in place, but I think there are better solutions.

The quote above from Bud Selig is very telling. I think using a phrases like "impactful plays" and "game-changing situations" is very reckless. I really don't understand how 2 recent Hall Of Fame managers could allow Selig to sell certain plays as impactful and others as not. Any situation can turn out to be a game-changing situation. Among the rules of this new system is that after the 7th inning the umpires can initiate a review themselves. So on any of the above plays if they are unsure after it's over, they can contact the replay booth. If a manager has a challenge still at that point they can use it. But that's pretty pointless. If there's a blown call most likely everyone is going to see it and know a replay is coming. Umpires are correct just under 100% of the time. I think you'll be surprised at how few stoppages we see.

No longer will we have to live with Jim Joyce blowing a call for a perfect game while everyone in the building knew he blew it. It can be fixed. And although Jim Joyce showed himself to be a stand-up man the next day, he never should have had to deal with it in the first place.

After all, that's what an umpire wants. To get the call right. When an umpire is zeroing in and making a call, that's all he's thinking about. Calling a bang-bang play correctly is a source of pride for an umpire. That's what they want, to get it right. That's why I don't quite understand this whole system. Why put the challenges in the hands of managers. Has there been some sort of template to say that managers will make the right decisions? In going back to the comparison of the system the NFL uses let's look at how often these challenges are actually correct. In 2011 coaches were able to get the call overturned 52.6% of the time. In the few years before that the number was never better than 50%. So, does that mean NFL coaches are dumb? No it just means that another strategic decision is on their plate. And that burden now falls on MLB managers. In a split second they have to decide if this is the one "impactful play" worth challenging.

It gets complicated with the replay feeds coming straight in to the clubhouse. Now teams will have to send a coach or veteran bench player back to monitor the situation. Who wants to be the player that told his manager to challenge and then it's wrong? No one. So then a coach maybe? But then which one do you choose. All the coaches are constantly working in that dugout. Duties are spread around among them. One coach may position the infield, another the outfield. I really think teams need to hire a specific "replay consultant". It doesn't sound like a pretty job and I wouldn't want to do it.

This is a whole lot to get through huh? Well thanks for hanging in so long. I have a solution or 2 to fix this. But first, let's take a minute and a half to laugh thanks to Improv Everywhere.

Sorry, I just love that one. What guy doesn't want to yell "I Am Spartacus!" just once in his life?

Back to baseball. I know I have been picking apart flaws in this system. I'm just as baffled as you are that the trap play will only be for the outfield. I also don't get why the fair/foul decision is limited to the outfield as well. There are some hard hit balls down a line fielded around the bag. It seems to be an altogether confusing system. The point of replay is to get the call right on every play.

I give MLB credit for one thing. Eight new umpires will have full time jobs starting this season. That's because there will be 8 umpires rotated through the command center at any time watching games. The final decision on replays will come from the umpire at the command center. That's a good start. It puts finality on the ruling as a player or manager cannot argue after the final call is made.

The command center is where I want to start with my own solutions. Like I said they got it right on this. The umpire in the command center should absolutely have final say. In the system that is now in place, the umpire in the command center can only overturn a call if asked. I can't imagine it's going to sit well with umpires to see a bad call not get overturned. Remember, an umpire just wants the call to be right. That's his job. So I just can't see some of these guys being comfortable seeing a play stand just because some manager did not challenge the call. That should always be the main focus of any replay system, to get the call correct.

For a league that is trying to clean up it's image with PED's by showing it's fair and balanced, MLB needs to be even more transparent. Why not try to put the product (players) in the best position to succeed? I propose that not only does the command center umpire have final say, he should also have a say in when his input is given. Instead of having managers challenge, or an umpire call in for help, there should be a system in place for the replay umpire to contact the umpires at the park. Maybe have the dedicated phone line go to a representative at the park. At that time the representative can get the attention of the crew chief to signal that a review is under way. I'm not sure how, but I am leaning towards some sort of sound or noise that comes over the public address system.

All of the same plays will be reviewed. The bang-bang play at first, tag plays, and home run calls. As it is now, I agree in not reviewing strikes and balls or checked swings. Those are just too hard to break down. I'm also on board with adding something like the line technology that is used in professional tennis. It tracks whether or not a ball touched a boundary line. Can't this be used for fair/foul calls?

For some reason though we are left with what we have. Major League Baseball has managed to come out of the Stone Age by accepting replay, but at the same time made it a complicated and convoluted mess. Why it's so hard for the league, and umpires, to just have a checks and balances in place is beyond my understanding. That's why I think it just needs to be simplified and streamlined. Take all replay decisions out of the hands of anyone at the ballpark. Give the command center umpire total autonomy to decide when something needs a further look, or if the play was called correctly in the first place.

As fans, all we have ever wanted is for the game to be fair. That's part of why baseball has such an appeal. Things get settled in the open. If you want to put all players and managers in a position to succeed, take any control of the replay process out of their hands. I'm really hoping that the umpires that sit in the command center get uncomfortable at seeing mistakes passed by because a manager didn't want to waste a challenge.

The time has finally come. Major League Baseball will now use instant replay to determine calls on the field. I wish I was more excited about it, but I'm really just hoping it doesn't turn in to a disaster.

Eric Nathanson
Follow me on Twitter: @2outhits

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