SARASOTA, Fla. -- So here we go. Spring training games begin any minute now. And you know what that means: The Replay Age is upon us.
Well, actually, not upon us. Upon 30 managers who are about to hold the power of replay challenges in their hands. Lucky them.
Just what every manager needs, right? One more decision they can get second-guessed about.
But we've noticed something this week, in our spring travels: These managers aren't sweating this. Not yet anyway. Not after being briefed by baseball officials in recent days about how the new replay system is going to change their worlds.
“Let me tell you,” said the Orioles’ ever-meticulous Buck Showalter. “Everybody’s talking about how we’re going to get second-guessed. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”
And the reason, he said, is simple.
“If you know you’re right before you go out there,” Showalter said, “where’s the strategy?”
Hmmm. If you know you’re right? Is that what he said? So how, you wonder, can he – or any manager – possibly know he’s right before he starts challenging away?
Easy. Because all these teams are in the process of making one of the most important hiring decisions in recent baseball history -- The Video Guy.
The Video Guy will be the trusted team employee with a big flat screen in front of him and a hotline to the dugout. It will be The Video Guy’s responsibility to alert the manager about which calls to challenge and which calls to leave alone.
Some teams are hiring Video Guys who are ex-players. Some are hiring ex-umpires. Some are hiring people with experience working in baseball video departments.
But whoever they are and wherever they come from, let’s just say The Video Guy had better be right. Or he’s going to find himself in a headline, or 12.
For instance, we asked Tigers manager Brad Ausmus the other day if he was worried about the vast new opportunities for the know-it-alls to second-guess him over his challenges (or lack thereof). Turned out he had this all figured out.
“Yeah, I guess if you use your challenge in the second inning and get it wrong, and then there’s a big play in the sixth, you could get second-guessed,” Ausmus said. “But I’ll just blame my video guy.”
Cue the rim shot.
But this is no jokefest for these managers. You’d think, with the first experimental use of baseball’s extensive new replay system only a few days away (with the first spring tests scheduled for next week, in both Arizona and Florida), that they’d be nervous about having another critical responsibility added to their job descriptions. But we’re not sensing that.
After being briefed in the last week by Joe Torre and Tony La Russa about what to expect, they’re showing very little fear -- even of having just one challenge to play with per game if they get it wrong, or two at the most, even if they hit on the first one.
“I just think, if you get the information right [from The Video Guy], where’s the strategy?” Showalter asked.
Even, we wondered, if it was the early innings and you were risking losing your challenge in case another big moment came along later?
“But if you know you’re right, why are you worried?” he replied. “If you’ve got the right guy feeding it to you, [you say to the umpires], `You missed it. Go get it.’”
So there is so much confidence among managers that they’re not going to get burned that we've discovered something fascinating -- something we didn't expect, to be honest:
If you thought these guys were going to overlook that botched call in the first inning just because they want to hoard challenges for later it appears you’re dead wrong.
“For me,” said the Phillies’ Ryne Sandberg, “my idea is being aggressive with my challenges early in the game.”
Sandberg said he can easily envision challenging “that call in the first inning, where a run comes in or two runs come in or that [missed] third out with men on base early on in the first three or four innings.”
The reason, he said, is that he expects far fewer missed calls than most of us might expect. And if that’s true, what is he saving those challenges for -- a moment that’s likely never to come?
What baseball officials told managers and general managers in their replay briefings this spring was startling. According to MLB's research, only one reviewable play comes along every 6.5 games where there’s enough definitive video evidence to overturn a call.
Yep, you read that right. Once every 6.5 games.
“So really,” Sandberg said, “we're only talking about once a week.”
And if that’s the case, he said, not only does he not plan to save his challenges. He’s strongly considering rolling those dice occasionally even when his Video Guy isn't sure whether a call was missed or not.
“That would be one,” he said, “where you’d say, 'Well, wait. This was a ball down the line. It’s inconclusive, but three runs came in, or two runs came in.’ Inconclusive? I still might have to give that a shot.”
And Showalter is right there with him.
“I’m going to tell you what. If there’s a chance to overturn something in the first inning, I’m going,” he said. “You don’t know, in the second inning, what that brings. And then in the third inning, if I got the first one right, if it happens two outs later, I’m going again, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re telling us there’s only one missed call every so many games. So why wouldn't I go in the first inning?
“You’re telling me that outs are more important in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings than in the first or second?” Showalter wondered. “Why?”
Excellent question. But the seventh, eighth and ninth innings must be different, because the whole replay system changes when the seventh, eighth and ninth roll around.
It will be at that point -- but not before -- that umpires magically acquire the authority to initiate challenges on their own. But just to clear up never-ending confusion on this, they can only do that if the manager is out of challenges.
So if there’s any portion of this system that creates the potential for trouble, it’s those late innings. Here’s exactly where that trouble could arise:
Let’s say it’s the top of the eighth. The manager is out of challenges. A close play at the plate doesn’t go his way. He trots onto the field and tells the umpire: “I’m out of challenges, but are you sure you got that right? Why don’t you guys confer?” And the crew chief tells him: “We’re sure. Sorry. Now get the heck off the field.”
Meanwhile, fans across America have just watched 87 replays and know the umpires got this wrong. You know exactly what they’ll be asking:
“What’s the point of having replay if you’re not fixing a play like that?”
That’s precisely what they should ask, too, of course. And it’s precisely what baseball should be fearing most about these new rules. But again, the managers themselves don’t seem to share those fears.
“I have confidence that the umpires want to get the play right,” said Sandberg, “because if they choose not to review that, and then everybody at home and in the ballpark sees that they were incorrect in doing that, then the heat’s on them a little bit. So I would say the umpires want the right call. The technology’s there. Everybody wants to get the play right. And I have confidence in the umpires being on that same page.
“Otherwise,” Sandberg laughed, “They'll be doing the press conference after the game and not me.”