Ready or not, MLB is set to expand the use of instant replay starting with the 2014 season. After years of considering options, studying different implementations and a few false starts of expanded replay, Bud Selig and his VP Joe Torre have gotten approval from the league's executive committee on their grand scheme for giving the league a modern instant replay system:
Major League Baseball decided Thursday to implement instant replay on virtually every play but the strikezone – including three manager's challenges per game – that will begin in 2014, Commissioner Bud Selig announced.
What the what?! For the last few years all we've heard about is that MLB was only seriously considering incremental changes with fair-foul and trap play calls being added to the incredibly short list of reviewable plays. Instead, Selig has seen the light and is opening up the floodgates to make everything under the sun eligible for review. It is a pretty shocking leap forward for a commissioner that had relatively recently stated his personal distaste for replay of any kind.
No doubt the increased scrutiny that MLB umpires have come under the last few years thanks to the increased exposure of blown calls in social media, more people able to watch every game via MLB Extra Innings and recent high profile incidents from the likes of Angel Hernandez convinced Selig and his cronies that enough was enough. Welcome to the 21st century, Major League Baseball.
As encouraging as this development is, the finer details of the plan leave a lot to be desired for the crowd who just wants to make sure that all the calls are made correctly. For now, we will have to settle for six calls being made correctly because the new system will function based on three challenges per manager:
The replay will include up to three challenges that mangers will be provided during a game, one in the first six innings, and two beginning in the seventh inning through the game's duration. If a manager is successful with his replay challenge, he will not be charged with a review.
If a manager exhausts his three challenges, and umpire crew can make a review of its own only to determine home-run calls, a rule that will be grandfathered in with the new regulations.
Two steps forward, one step back, I suppose. While there is an obvious need to curb the number of replay reviews in order to not lengthen the already bloated duration of today's games, this challenge system is already fraught with problems. The arbitrary distinction between challenges in the first six innings and challenges in the seventh inning and beyond is utterly moronic. The most obvious issue is that a controversial call in the fourth inning can have a dramatic impact on the rest of the game. If a manager has already burnt his challenge the inning before… oh well! At that point, those two replay challenges later in the game would become virtually useless. In fact, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if those two final challenges are seldom ever used in part because most games will be far enough out of hand at the point that managers won't bother and in part because, and perhaps I'm giving today's umpires too much credit, umpires hopefully won't blow enough calls over the final nine outs to necessitate four challenges to be utilized. It would seem far more logical that managers would just get three challenges to use whenever they see fit or that there would be some sort of ability for the umpiring crew to issue challenges of their own on plays they just aren't certain about (assuming any crew is actually humble enough to do that).
No doubt managers will also try and game the review system to their advantage. Those two late inning challenges are perfectly poised to be usurped by the Joe Maddon types to garner time for a reliever to warm up in a hurry while the replay officials review a call that doesn't need to be reviewed. That is but a minor concern though, at least until some endeavoring manager finds a more nefarious way to bend the system to their will.
As problematic as the challenge element of the plan might seem, MLB did seem to get it right when it comes to how replays will actually be reviewed and enforced:
Baseball, using its central MLBAM offices in New York, will be provided with replay cameras that will be monitored by men with umpiring experience. They will make the final call on disputed plays, not the crew chief.
That last part is the most important. Having the call come from someone not in the ballpark and with no sense of self-preservation ensures that there will be no more incidents like the one Angel Hernandez had this year in which he essentially ignored video evidence because, well, he felt like it. Perhaps more important than that, it should also minimize any ensuing argument from the manager since the field crew would be powerless to change the decision.
Whether you love, like or hate this new model there is one thing to keep in mind, it is basically a first draft. As we've seen in other leagues, the system is tweaked over time. Now that MLB has finally fully committed to the system, the amount of consideration they put into it leading up to now suggests that they won't be hesitant to make whatever changes are necessary once they see how it all works in a real world setting. Who knows, we might even get those actual robot umpires we've been demanding.