MLB Instant Replay May Need a Second Look


Many have been openly critical about instant replay in baseball, worrying about how it might change the game. Right now, Ron Washington is probably one of the bigger critics of the Major League Baseball (MLB) replay system. On April 14, with his Texas Rangers already down 5-0, Washington saw an out at home overturned because catcher J.P. Arencibia bobbled the transfer of the baseball from his glove to his throwing hand. As part of a new rule for 2014, MLB now mandates the ball be transferred from glove to throwing hand cleanly. When the call was challenged by Seattle and overturned, Washington immediately came out to give the umpires a big piece of his mind.

MLB instant replay actually has a history dating back a few years earlier than most might imagine. During the 1999 system, well before the league had instituted any kind of an official replay system, umpire Frank Pulli consulted a television camera to see whether or not a ball hit by the Marlins’ Cliff Floyd was a home run or double. At the time, there was nothing in the rule book stating that instant replay could not be used. In cases like that, umpires have the discretion to decide what to do. Pulli went over to a television monitor, watched the play again, and ruled it a double.

Instant replay would not return to MLB until almost ten years later, this time as somewhat of a panic move in response to a series of bad calls over the course of the summer of 2008. For a few years replay was limited to a decision by the umpires, who would leave the field and watch the replay on a screen near the dugout. For this season, replay has been expanded and its effects have been felt around the league. Aside from shifting some of the burden towards the manager to challenge a bad call, replay can now be used to decide almost anything besides balls and strikes. Umpires can initiate a replay on any home run, or on any call during the seventh inning or later. Managers may challenge one  call in the first six innings, but gain a second challenge if they won the first.

Out or safe calls, catches, and even the new rule about catchers blocking the plate have all been reviewed so far this season. As of April 15, there have been 89 reviews. Of those 89 only 33 have been overturned, or 37 percent. The most common play overturned has been out or safe on the bases. There have been 265 completed games through the same date, which gives an average of 0.34 replays per game and only 0.13 overturned calls per game. Essentially, replay has been relatively non-intrusive but has helped get a few more calls correct.

In spite of those numbers, there have been many within MLB who have openly criticized the system. MLB has been vigilant in their support of replay, to the point that Red Sox manager John Farrell was fined for some fairly innocuous comments. Farrell said he did not have faith in the replay system after challenging a call against the Yankees and losing. Replays showed that Farrell was correct and that the call should have been overturned.

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton was also unhappy with an overturned call that cost his team an out. Hamilton appeared to catch a fly ball, but dropped it on the transfer, and after the game called the decision “terrible.” He may also have been a bit frustrated by the nearly three minutes it took to review the play. Based on the new rule, the call was actually correct, but that does not necessarily mean that the guys on the field are going to go down without a fight.

Another issue that has come up is what happens when a play needs reviewed but a manager is out of challenges. In a game early in the season between the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks, Bruce Bochy used a challenge on a play that was certainly worth reviewing, but he lost. Later, a call he likely would have won was missed because he could not challenge, and the Giants eventually lost by just one run.

This game highlighted some of the prevailing issues with replay, which seem to be more with the rules than with the logistics of the system. MLB has rightfully borrowed heavily from the successful replay architecture used by the NFL and especially the NHL, but tweaks need to be made to better individualize the system to baseball. Replay is in place to help get the calls right, and Bochy should never have been cornered into that situation. MLB has to strike a balance between keeping baseball’s integrity in place while also modernizing.

When Washington came out to voice his displeasure with the umpiring crew after the overturned call against Seattle, he was run out of the game. Instant replay does little to quell the frustration managers can experience at a call they think is bad, even if it may be correct by the book. There are still going to be confrontations with umpires, and there will still be venting to the media. Perhaps replay has not changed things as much as everyone thinks.

Commentary by Brian Moore

Sports Illustrated

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