Expanded replay getting a thumbs up
It's a new world for baseball, and so far reaction has been overwhelmingly positive
While Derek Jeter navigates America this summer collecting rocking chairs and oil paintings, his former manager will be touring ballparks in search of feedback and opinions.
As Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations, Joe Torre is the point man for expanded instant replay, which ranks right up there with stadium lights, the radar gun and the hot dog steamer as a technical innovation that will stand the test of time. But there are quirks to be ironed out and questions to be answered, so he'll spend a lot of time soliciting input from managers, umpires, players and others in the game.
The information-gathering process can typically make a big league executive feel like a human piñata, but not in this case. Baseball put a lot of time and effort into marrying the human element with new-fangled technology, and the initial reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I think it's doing what we hoped it would do, and that's to reduce the number of missed calls in the game,'' said Atlanta general manager Frank Wren. "That's the bottom line. We've got a new tool, and everyone loves the fact that we have the new tool. Before we render judgment on the good and bad parts, let's see how it plays out for a while."
As Torre and MLB officials listen, learn and collect data on the impact of replay, the first 10 days of the season help provide a snapshot into the ramifications that will be driving the discourse this season and beyond. It's a whole new world out there on the diamond.
Upon adoption of replay, MLB officials released a passel of numbers to show that umpires are, indeed, proficient at their jobs. Baseball studied every game from the 2013 season -- 2,431 games in all -- and found a total of 377 blown calls. That averages out to one every 6.4 games. There were two missed calls in a game once every 90 games, and three missed calls once every 810 games.
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Through Tuesday, replay was used a total of 51 times. Of that total, 17 calls were confirmed, 18 were overturned, 15 were left standing because of the lack of "clear and convincing" evidence to make a change, and one was used to clarify a record-keeping snafu (umpires lost track of the count while Yankees third baseman Yangervis Solarte was at the plate).
If you divide the number of games through Tuesday (115) by the number of overturned calls (18), it tallies out to one blown call every 6.4 games. So it's right in line with previous figures.
Pace of play
Marathon running times are bound to be a concern when the average game runs as long as "The Wolf of Wall Street," but replay doesn't appear to be having a major impact. MLB's 51 replay reviews averaged 2 minutes, 17 seconds from the moment of the challenge to the dispensation of the final call, but that number skews high because of a handful of laborious decisions.
A disputed catch-drop by Adam Eaton of the White Sox took 4 minutes, 40 seconds to be resolved when the umpires needed extra time to determine precisely where the baserunners should be placed. When umpire Bob Davidson ruled that Pittsburgh outfielder Starling Marte had fouled off a pitch and was not actually struck by the ball, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle challenged, and it took 5 minutes, 12 seconds before the call was allowed to stand.
The occasional technical glitch has popped up in the early going. Torre received a call from one manager who told him that a phone used by a team during the review process was ringing, but not ringing loudly enough. So MLB had to get a phone technician on the case to remedy the problem. "It's more inquiries and curiosities than complaints," Torre said.
Even if review adds a minute here and there, it will probably be quicker than the manager-umpire spat that it replaced. And the never-ending procession of glove-fiddlers in the batters' box and slow-working pitchers will always be a bigger factor in lengthy running times.
Baseball has gone to great lengths to be open about replay and the technology involved. In the weeks leading up to the season opener, broadcast partners and media members visited the MLB Advanced Media headquarters in Manhattan for tours of baseball's Replay Operations Center. Call commissioner Bud Selig old-fashioned, but he adheres to the proposition that an educated media contingent helps make for an educated fan base.
MLB also has a Twitter account that chronicles each call that's been reviewed. It has almost 32,000 followers, or slightly more than St. Louis right fielder Allen Craig's pet tortoise, but that's sure to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming weeks.
Most telling, ticket-holders at games are privy to the same replays that fans are watching from their couch. At the risk of getting crowds riled up, baseball is allowing clips of plays under review to be shown on stadium scoreboards.
"I give the umpires a lot of credit, because we wouldn't have been able to go forward without their OK," Torre said. "From the owners' side, they don't want people at home seeing stuff they can't see at the ballpark when they're paying their money to sit in their seats. We're in the process of trying to make it a satisfactory outcome for everybody."
Nevertheless, there are limits to what teams can show on a JumboTron. In a 700-word directive to clubs, MLB outlined the dos and don'ts of replay scoreboard etiquette. For example, teams are not allowed to show replays during umpire consultations or arguments on the field. Any review of ball-strike calls is also strictly forbidden.
"Clubs should use good judgment and exercise care to utilize scoreboard replays in a manner that is not likely to incite fans, distract players or intentionally 'show up' the umpires," reads the MLB directive.
The skippers' role
Leave it to manager Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays to come up with a military-sounding buzzword for the replay review process. After Peyton Manning's penchant for shouting "Omaha!" at the line of scrimmage became a national obsession, the Rays half-jokingly labeled their replay challenge response "Operation Wichita."
Like his managerial colleagues, Maddon has a support system at the ready that allows him to spring into action. The Rays have the same high-tech replay panel in their clubhouse that's used at MLB headquarters and in every other home and road clubhouse throughout the majors. Tampa Bay's video people quickly assess replays before passing along word to bench coach Dave Martinez, who then gives a signal to Maddon from the dugout about whether to challenge or take a pass.
So far, not bad. Maddon was successful on his first two challenges at home before losing his first one on the road in Kansas City. The Rays considered three other challenges, but passed on account of uncertainty.
"We're working in black and white," Maddon said. "We're trying to stay away from gray. There will be that moment where we're gonna go with a little bit of gray. It depends upon the game situation."
We have yet to encounter a situation in which a manager fakes tripping over the dugout steps on his way out to the diamond to save precious seconds, but baseball skippers are quickly embracing the rhythms of replay. They need to be deliberate enough to get the requisite information from the dugout without acting so slowly that they let the moment pass or test an umpire's patience.
"The key from a manager's perspective is to walk out slowly and jog back," Maddon said. "I think that's the right way to do it."
Just try not to ambulate too slowly. Baseball requires that a manager submit his challenge before the pitcher takes the rubber and the batter steps in the box -- a cooperative endeavor that involves both teams. When San Diego manager Bud Black didn't come out in a timely enough fashion to contest a safe-out call on Yasiel Puig at first base, the umpiring crew told him his window of opportunity had come and gone.
Replay might not cure all of baseball's ills, but it's likely to give managers a less stressful, more spittle-free existence. Consider: More than 100 regular-season games were in the books and not a single manager, player or coach had been ejected until Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria was tossed Tuesday for arguing a Jose Veras pitch that was called a ball.
Have we seen the last of the dirt-kicking, cap-flipping, expletive-exchanging rhubarbs that everybody knows and loves from the days of Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver and Lou Piniella? Sort of. Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, who could build up a pretty good head of steam back in the day, expects tiffs of that magnitude to be severely curtailed under the new system.
"There aren't going to be any arguments," Bowa said. "You might get somebody kicked out on balls and strikes, and I can see it happening on one of those plays at home plate. But for the most part, I don't see anybody getting kicked out unless you're bench jockeying or something like that.
"I'm not saying people came to the park for the arguments, but they like that energy. I still think managers are going to fight for their players, but it's so cut-and-dried now. How much arguing can you do when they say, 'We just looked at it from five angles, and you're wrong'?"
The "strategy" element
Managers are allowed one challenge per game, and they get a second if the first one is successful. Once the seventh inning arrives, umpires are free to review any and all calls, so conventional wisdom suggests managers will contest a lot of calls in the fifth and sixth inning. Appropriately enough, when Renteria christened the new system with the first challenge, it came on a borderline out call on Chicago pitcher Jeff Samardzija in the fifth inning of the season opener against Pittsburgh.
How certain does a manager need to be to issue a challenge? Giants manager Bruce Bochy contested and lost a challenge of a pickoff in the fourth inning of a game with Arizona. A.J. Pollock, who was ruled safe on the pickoff, came around to score on a close play moments later, and Bochy was helpless to respond.
"That was just the luck of the draw," Torre said. "It was the perfect storm in the wrong direction. There's not much to say about it other than we don't expect that to be the case most of the time."
Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke decided not to challenge an "out" call on an attempted stolen base by shortstop Jean Segura in the sixth inning Tuesday against Philadelphia. Roenicke was not confident from the information available that his challenge would be successful, and he wanted to save it for the late innings when he might need it. Even though umpires have the latitude to review a play in the seventh or beyond, they also have the latitude to say no.
The exceptions to the rule
MLB's research last year showed that 86 percent of missed calls involved either tag or force plays. The new system allows managers to also contest fair-foul calls and trapped balls in the outfield, hit batters, ground-rule doubles and balls off catwalks (yes, that means you, Tropicana Field). But check swings, foul tips, balks, obstruction calls and fair-foul calls on balls over the first- or third-base bags are among numerous other calls immune from review.
I think it's doing what we hoped it would do, and that's to reduce the number of missed calls in the game. That's the bottom line. We've got a new tool, and everyone loves the fact that we have the new tool. Before we render judgment on the good and bad parts, let's see how it plays out for a while.” -- Braves general manager Frank Wren
Although the new catcher collision rules aren't subject to review, safe-out calls obviously are, so umpires have an awful lot on their plate in that area. The "neighborhood" play at second base is still allowed in the name of middle infielder safety. But if an infielder's feed is slightly off the mark and a double play turns into a force, it's fair game. That became an issue last week when an apparent double play involving Pittsburgh's Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer was overturned.
And as Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton discovered during Tuesday night's game against Seattle, the act of making a catch and securing it well enough to survive a replay challenge are two different things.
During a Braves-Nationals game, a line drive by Washington's Ian Desmond rattled around in the corner before coming to rest beneath the padding in left field. While Braves outfielder Justin Upton threw up his arms in surrender, umpire Marvin Hudson allowed the play to continue, and Desmond circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez challenged the call, and the umpires subsequently changed it to a ground-rule double.
"I was watching the game on TV, and there was never a question in my mind that it would be overturned," Wren said. The Nationals, judging from their postgame comments, weren't quite so sure.
"I just think this whole replay thing is going to open up so many cans of worms that they didn't even think about," Washington broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said from upstairs in the booth. "It's gonna be interesting."
Said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin: "There are roughly 131,220 outs in a baseball season. You figure 30 teams times 27 outs multiplied by 162 games. That's a lot of outs. The calls that are missed are a small amount. But you still want to get the calls right."
Regardless of strategy or time lag or technical wizardry, that remains the ultimate focus for baseball. As Torre and the other people in MLB's hierarchy look for feedback and improvements on the game's new tool, this is the answer they're likely to get: Expanded replay isn't perfect. But it's helping them get it right, one call at a time.
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