All You Need To Know About The New MLB Replay System

“My Take on MLB Replay”  is written by Mike Port. He has been and may be a GM again and ran the Umpiring operation for MLB for several years . In this article that appeared in Referee Magazine, he offers his insight into the new MLB replay system that will be in place in 2014/

In August 2013, MLB announced plans to implement “Expanded Instant Replay” for the 2014 season.  As a former general manager and overseer of MLB’s umpires, I ask myself with frequency: “Do I favor more replay in MLB or oppose such a concept?” I am back and forth. However, as I worked my way through the matter,.let’s explore some of the aspects and questions attendant to MLB’s plans. 

First, the traditionalist’s point of view. Some years ago, Gene Mauch, manager of the California Angels, told me “There is no rule against scoring 15 runs.” His point was that baseball is a game of mistakes and the team that is able to minimize and
overcome them by scoring the most runs winds up as the winner. 

Shortstop misses a ground ball allowing two runs to score? Umpire makes an incorrect call? Best hitter strikes out with the bases loaded? Score enough runs and none of that matters. Moreover, Mauch believed that if a team was performing properly, an incorrect call would rarely cost a team a game. Incorrect call in the second inning? You’ve got seven more innings to score enough runs to overcome. Incorrect call on the last play of the game during which the winning run scores? Shame on you for not having scored enough runs so that call did not matter. Winning includes striving to overcome any and all adversities. There are certainly those who feel that is the basic nature of the game.

Granted, MLB has ventured into the arena of replay with its implementation of replay for “boundary calls” – questionable home runs, fan interference, etc. However, to be clear: Boundary replay was not instituted because of umpire inadequacy, but rather because of the MLB stadiums. Gone are the days when it was easy to rule on a home run. Today’s umpires must deal with fan proximity to walls and fences, increasing the chances for interference. In some places, there are lines on walls. A ball hitting above the line is a home run, but below the line, the ball is in play. Confusing, indeed. 

Should that be the extent of MLB’s foray in replay? To preserve the tradition and sanctity of the game,  there are certainly those who believe so. I am “occasionally” among them. 

But more to the matter at hand – expanded replay.

MLB’s replay announcement introduced a challenge system by managers in which “not all plays are reviewable” and that “all replays will be viewed by umpires (emphasis added) at MLB’s Advanced Media state-of-the-art facilities in New York,
with technicians available to provide the necessary video.” 

Let’s break it down and try to fathom some attendant questions: 

1, A “challenge system,” With due respect, that is not my favorite concept. If the aspiration of replay is to get calls correct, wouldn’t it be prudent to have a system to get
as many calls correct as is possible? Especially when, as noted by Atlanta Braves President ]ohn Schuerholz, there is (on average) only one incorrect call every five games?
Why should the system be to add another “guessing element” to the game for managers? Moreover, will clubs find ways to delay while they get a read from those viewing in the tunnel whether to challenge the call? In my opinion, bet on it. Managers are already formulating plans for communications with their video rooms (if not clubhouse) and tactics to delay the game until they can get a read on whether or not to challenge a call. Will MLB institute time limits to prevent delays, thus complicating an already (potentially) complicated situation?

Baseball has a tough enough time now with Pace- and time-of-game issues. Also, reasonable people can disagree. A manager who believes he has a “slam dunk” on a call in the second inning might find out that a reviewer several thousand miles away sees the play differently. Thus, per the plan MLB owners have approved, that manager has lost one of his two challenges for the remainder of the game.

2, Not all plays are reviewable.
That is most understandable to those who have officiated or studied the art. According to the release, the list of reviewable plays “hasn’t been finalized pending further talks with the unions.” Even once a list is established, should we expect substantial confusion/disagreement on some plays even between umpires and the MLB person reviewing the play (given that the MLB Rule Book and Umpire Manual can rival the U.S. Tax Code in complexity)?

The mention of the unions presents another interesting dynamic’ While MLB stated the umpires are on board with the proposal, the release said the system still needs to be negotiated with both the players and umpires unions. While MLB ownership has unanimously approved the concept and funding, the rules won’t be final until early 2014. Will it all come together in time for Opening Day? We’ll see.

3. All replays will be reviewed by umpires at MLB’s Advanced Media State-of -the-art facilities” 
In actuality, the “replay center” at Advanced Media in New York is already in existence. It is utilized for purposes of boundary replay. However, in the past, no one in New York (such as an umpire supervisor) could assist on-field umpires. Will that change regarding boundary replay as well? As of this writing, MLB’s release says, “Boundary calls on home runs have been grandfathered. The on-site umpires will retail the right to submit the plays for relief or not.” A reasonable question becomes “Why not make boundary replay calls subject to challenge (given the proposed MLB system) as well? In practice, a manager “challenging” a boundary call has (more often than not) been the motivating factor for umpires to review such calls. Why have “unlimited challenges” on boundary calls and limited challenges other otherwise?

That must be straightened out. Also, boundary-replay review monitors are located off the field (even in the umpires’ dressing room in some parks) where umpires have direct communications with the Advanced Media center. The announced concept indicates that in the event of a challenge, the plate umpire or crew chief will go somewhere on the field and pick up a phone. Does that mean different replay systems for different types of plays? 

4. Will it be active umpires who man the replay assignments?

If so, will there be a need for an additional MLB umpiring crew (so that one crew will rotate through New York and take a turn at replay duty)? Is it a concern that there will be occasions where a replay challenge decision might be made by a AAA umpire (who might be on a regular crew by virtue of umpire vacation, injury or illness)? Does MLB have any concerns about staff dynamics (whereby a replay decision, made by a more junior member of the staff over rules a call by a more senior member)? That might not be a concern in other sports, but let’s just say umpires have a history of being a little more strong minded in certain circumstances than some of their officiating brethren.

No doubt MLB is wrestling with all of the above as this is being read and hopefully are reaching conclusions that will result in a smooth and efficient replay system. Although hoping for the best, I remain skeptical about the successful pplication of expanded replay as I am mindful that “men create their own demons.”

Will problems and questions occasioned by the system outweigh the benefits? Only time will tell. Certainly a fair question is: How critical is the need for more replay when, by MLB’s own admission, its umpires average accuracy of more than 95 percent when calling balls and strikes and but one incorrect call every five games (and not all of those impact the game).”

MLB will be wise to heed Schuerholz’s words at the time of the announcement: “This is a Phasing plan. At the end of ’14 we’ll go back ind look at what we’ve done well -what’s worked, what hasn’t worked -and make adjustments, and then we’ll
improve it in the next Phase …”

Words well spoken. MLB’s only salvation with this project will be to have the flexibility to act and react in line with Schuerholz’s words. Expanded replay in MLB should certainly be helpful in correcting calls that are obviously incorrect. However, such expanded replay will not be a cure to the extent that some might expect. All would be well-served to remember that the word “inconclusive” remains in the dictionary and that MLB’s accomplished umpires get far more close calls correct than incorrect.

_______________________________________________________

 This article appeared in REFEREE for January 2014 and was authored by Mike Port.

Hometown: Gilbert, Arizona.
Vice President; Umplring for MLB from 2005-11, General Manager:- California Angels, 1984-1991 : General manager:Boston Red Sox. 2002.
REFEREE January 2014  

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