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MLB Replay Sounded Great in Theory, So Naturally Now That It’s Approved I Have My Doubts

(Image: Reuters)

In August, when plans to expand replay in MLB were first announced, it felt like our long national nightmare was over.  More than the other major sports, it feels like baseball has the most to gain from replay.  Football and basketball have too many subjective penalty calls that can’t even be challenged, whereas everything that happens in baseball is based on some kind of objective standard – either the ball hit the line or it didn’t, the pitch was in the strike zone or it wasn’t, the runner beat the throw or he didn’t.  If employed correctly, replay in baseball could mitigate the effect of blown calls better than it could in other sports, and provide a strong assurance of fair outcomes.

The prospect of expanding replay beyond the paltry scope of homerun calls was so exhilarating, my first reaction was unqualified joy.  But 2013 was a long time ago, and I’ve had a lot of time to mature since then.  Earlier today, it was announced that all relevant parties had given their stamp of approval and expanded replay is happening for real in 2014.  Now that the die is cast, I find myself having second thoughts.  As much as I hate to think I’m your typical insufferable sports fan who won’t be satisfied…gosh, some of the shortcomings are pretty glaring, no?

At first blush, the idea of managers having challenges didn’t seem so bad.  A few months later, in the cold light of day, I can’t shake the feeling there should have been another way.

Beginning this season, each manager will start a game with one challenge. If it is upheld, he retains his challenge but can never have more than two in a game. If the manager exhausts his challenges before the start of the seventh inning, he is out of luck, adding a new element of strategy to the game. Beginning in the top of the seventh, the crew chief is empowered to institute a review.

Football’s challenge system has been around long enough, most sports fans have come to accept it as a useful template (I certainly did when MLB first proposed expanded replay).  Even though it doesn’t really make sense that only the officials can initiate challenges after the two-minute warning, there’s a certain logic to it – since time is running out in the half, that part of the game is more important, and self-interested coaches shouldn’t be able to interfere.

But that logic doesn’t apply to baseball, because there’s no clock running.  A game can be lost in the first inning as much as it can be lost in the ninth.  There isn’t anything special about the seventh inning.  You still have to make your pitches.  In addition, because blown calls can happen at any time, why should manager challenges be limited?  Even with baseball’s long history, I would guess there have been a relatively low percentage of games with three or more blown calls through the first six innings.  Still, limiting manager challenges is plainly arbitrary.

Deadspin’s Drew Magary recently shared his views on many flaws with the NFL’s challenge system.  By mimicking that system, MLB is repeating the NFL’s errors.  In particular, “It takes the onus of consulting replay out of the hands of officials—whose only job is to enforce the rules of the game—and puts in the hands of a head coach.”  I tend to agree ensuring officials make the right call shouldn’t be an element of strategy.

Magary recommended a centralized replay system for the NFL similar to what the NHL apparently does.  Centralized replay makes perfect sense for baseball, since the game already has plenty of built-in delays.

During the 2014 MLB season, “All replays will be reviewed by umpires at MLB Advanced Media's state-of-the-art facilities in New York, with technicians available to provide the necessary video.”  With a centralized replay system, those hot shots at MLB Advanced Media could tell an umpire in his ear piece (I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that ear pieces and wireless communication systems are easy to acquire and set up) that he blew a call before the next hitter adjusts his batting gloves.  The more you think about it, manager-initiated replays in baseball are just crazy talk.

The biggest benefit of MLB’s replay rules is that teams will be able to show video of disputed calls in the stadium.  Crowds will now be able to react with vociferous disdain when umpires blow calls, which should be especially fun once the manager has used up his challenges.  But give me a few months, I’ll probably have my doubts about that rule too.  There’s no pleasing some people.