Commentary

The future of replay

Expanded system won't happen in 2013, but MLB is making progress

Updated: January 17, 2013, 1:43 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It was just 95 days ago that Joe Girardi decided he'd had enough, seen enough, been wronged enough.

"Let's have instant replay," the Yankees manager said pointedly, after a blatantly wrong call at second base, in the eighth inning of a one-run postseason baseball game. "And not just home run, fair, foul. Let's have instant replay. … In this day and age, when we have instant replay available to us, it's got to change."

Well, here we are, three months later. And, by all accounts, more baseball people than ever feel the way Joe Girardi feels. But you know what's changed?

Nothing. Not for 2013, anyway.

The next baseball season is now only about 10 weeks away. But there's a better chance that Willie Bloomquist will lead the league in homers than there is that any call other than a disputed long ball will get spun through the replay machines this season.

"

Showalter I'm for going as far as they want to go to get it right. I think most people are. And most umpires are, I think. It just lends them more credibility when they get these calls right.

" -- Orioles manager Buck Showalter

"I don't see it happening at all in 2013," said one baseball official this week. "There is very little likelihood, or, to be honest, no likelihood, that we'll see expanded replay in 2013."

That's the bad news. But now the good news:

At some point over the horizon, baseball is inching toward a system of vastly expanded replay -- just the kind of system, in fact, that Girardi was dreaming of three months ago.

It's a system that could lead to the review of all sorts of calls: on plays at the plate. Plays at first base. Plays at every base. Not 50 of them a game. But enough, theoretically, to satisfy the people who have been griping for years that baseball was stuck in a technological time warp on this front.

It's apparent now that that's coming. Just not yet. Sorry.

The NFL started reviewing calls on its favorite handy-dandy replay machines 27 years ago. It's been using its current system, with tweaks here and there, for 14 seasons. But baseball still isn't ready to move beyond home run replays for at least another year, despite never-ending discussions about this topic that date back to 2008. …

When Bryce Harper was 15 years old. …

Hey, we know what you're thinking: Even Rod Barajas moves faster than that. But what makes this slow-mo pace so frustrating to replay fans within the sport is this:

• Just three months ago, the commissioner of baseball himself, Bud Selig, told the Los Angeles Times we'd see expanded replay by this season "for sure."

• Only 16 months ago, baseball announced its newest labor deal. As part of that deal, you might recall, owners and players specifically negotiated an expansion of replay to look at fair/foul and trap/catch calls -- ideally in time for last season. But the umpires' union had to sign off on that, too. And that hasn't happened -- mostly, from all indications, because baseball still hasn't settled on exactly what it wants to negotiate with the umpires.

• Just two months ago, at the annual general managers' meetings, GMs expressed loud and clear their interest in seeing as many plays as possible be subject to review. And they were told by Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations (and grand pooh-bah of replay affairs), that it was conceivable they could see those changes in place by 2013.

But now we know: That ain't happening.

So what's the hold-up? And where is this all leading? We've pieced together the details from a variety of people around the sport. Now here's how we see it:

Why not 2013?

The labor deal has already laid the groundwork. The commish has said publicly at least a half-dozen times we'd have fair/foul and trap/catch reviews by 2013. But we still haven't gotten there. So what the heck happened?

Let's put it this way: Common sense happened.

When baseball officials began seriously studying the best way to address fair/foul and trap/catch calls, they discovered something that shifted this entire discussion in a whole different direction:

There are so few of those calls worth reviewing, what's the point?

"If we're just going to look at fair/foul and trap calls," said an executive of one club, "that's such a small percentage of plays, I think it's obvious that's not necessarily the way to go."

The way to go, when you think this through logically, is to look at the calls people really grumble about: plays on the bases. Plays that literally decide games every night.

That's the way to go. Now it isn't exactly a news flash that some people always thought that was the way to go. Unfortunately, the commissioner wasn't one of them. And many of the members of his on-field advisory committee weren't on board.

But there are rumblings that they're coming around -- many of them, if not all of them. And they've gotten Bug Selig's attention along the way. Because of that shift, the replay conversation has taken a dramatic turn in that direction.

So why not for 2013? Because if baseball is going to review all sorts of calls, not just fair/foul and trap/catch, it needs to settle on an all-encompassing system that works for everyone -- and gives umpires the best chance to get those calls right.

But at this point, there isn't enough time to do that before Opening Day. And everyone seems reluctant to implement a change that dramatic in midseason. So that means one more year of hearing second-guessers everywhere spouting that time-honored phrase: "If we only had replay …"

How would the replay system work?

Great question. If baseball had only found the answer yet, we wouldn't be in this holding pattern. But here are the most feasible options:

• "Traditional" replay: MLB tested a couple of alternate technologies last season -- the "Hawk-Eye" system employed in tennis and a radar-based system similar to the technology used to track shots on golf tournaments on TV. But neither, it appears, turned out to be a good fit for baseball. So the focus is back on ways to apply the same "traditional" replay technology used in football and other sports.

[+] EnlargeScoreboard
Mark Cunningham/MLB/Getty ImagesExpanded replay probably won't happen at a ballpark near you until 2014 at the earliest.

• Replay umps: The end is near for the current system, in which umpires trot off the field to check out home run replays in some secret bunker. It's a great opportunity for hundreds of spectators to run to the hot dog stand. It's not a great way to review calls. So MLB is gravitating toward one of two options: (A) adding a fifth umpire to every crew and having the extra umpire review calls in each ballpark, or (B) assigning an extra umpiring "crew" to monitor calls from a central location (most likely from the MLB Advanced Media headquarters in New York). Either way, these would be major league umpires and members of the umpires' union, who would have the authority to uphold or overturn calls by signaling the umpires on the field.

• Manager challenges: The most pivotal question of all, naturally, is how to decide which calls to review. In a perfect world, the replay ump would see a call that needed to be overturned, fix it instantly and move everybody on to the next pitch in, what, 30 seconds? But not everyone is sure it would really be that simple. And some folks have nightmares that the system could lead to an unlimited number of reviews every night -- not to mention the first seven-hour nine-inning game in history. So baseball is still kicking around the idea of an NFL-like system in which managers could challenge one or two calls on the bases per game. But beyond that, there is also the possibility that MLB would follow the NFL model on another front -- by empowering the replay ump to review calls late in the game, or certain scoring plays, or all of the above.

So which of those options is most likely to fly? Uh, stay tuned. At the GM meetings in November, Torre didn't sound like a fan of managerial challenges, saying: "I'm not sure I want to put another lump of coal in the manager's stocking." And managers we've spoken with seem to agree.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia told us last month he was skeptical of any system that would tempt a team to put "an eye in the sky" who would sit in a booth and signal managers whether to challenge a call, the way NFL assistants do.

And Orioles manager Buck Showalter said this week he prefers adding an umpire to every crew and helping umpires get as many calls right as possible.

"I'm for going as far as they want to go to get it right," Showalter said. "I think most people are. And most umpires are, I think. It just lends them more credibility when they get these calls right. & I think, when we start [using replay], it will only magnify how good these guys really are, with the things they do and the calls they make. Right now, they're right 99 percent of the time. But they should be able to get to 100 percent [by using replay]."

Well, maybe some day. But our guess is that the commissioner is still terrified by the thought that even one game could be held up for 45 minutes because umpires went to the replay machines 16 times. So it's hard to believe that in the end, there won't be some sort of limit on the number of calls that can be reviewed.

The technological challenges

If you've ever spent a night flipping through games on the MLB Extra Innings package, you've probably noticed something:

Not all telecasts are created equal.

"When I was in Oakland," said Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler, "we'd play some weekday afternoon games that were not on TV locally. So all they'd have on the monitors was the in-stadium feed. It looked like a spring training game. If that game came under the replay system, that would be a real problem, because you wouldn't have anywhere near the same number of cameras as you'd have for 'ESPN Sunday Night Baseball.'

"So if we're going to ramp it up and have more replay," he went on, "we have to find a way to at least have a certain number of cameras in every stadium, with certain angles covered. It would really be unfortunate if a team lost a game on a botched call because there weren't enough cameras in the stadium."

Exactly. And that's an issue umpires almost certainly would want addressed before they signed up for any sort of replay system -- but not the only issue. Another concern we've heard umpires have raised is that even now, when they're looking at home run replays, they're seeing different feeds than your average fan is getting when he's home watching the same game on TV. That, too, has to change.

To fix those dreaded technological inequities, we're talking money. A lot of money. More money than even a seat in one of those Legends Suites in Yankee Stadium would cost. But the vibe we're getting is that MLB understands that's the price tag for doing what it needs to do, whenever it comes time to do it. So these are issues that don't seem likely to stand in the way when replay's time arrives. Finally.

So now what?

One more thing we should pass along: Nothing aggravates people in the replay loop more than the suggestion that "nothing is happening" out there on the replay frontier.

Maybe none of what's happening will fix a bungled call at the plate between now and Memorial Day. But MLB is pushing ahead on this & slowly & cautiously & carefully & and, uh, have we mentioned slowly?

The goal, Torre said last month at the winter meetings, is to "do it right, not do it fast." So here's what has to happen if baseball is going to get a replay system up and running by 2014:

First, the folks in charge need to pick a system, then spend this summer doing extensive testing in an attempt to iron out every possible glitch before it gets rolled out for real.

[+] EnlargeOmar Infante
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsSafe? Replays showed that Detroit's Omar Infante was out on this play in the eighth inning of ALCS Game 2 on Oct. 14.

None of those experiments would be used to change actual calls. And it's unclear how they would simulate managerial challenges, if that's the plan they settle on. But when it's time to roll out the new replay era for real, it needs to work. Period.

But there's another half of this equation. Whatever plan they come up with has to be negotiated with two unions -- the players' union and the umpires' union. Since the current Basic Agreement only permits the use of replay on fair/foul and trap/catch calls, anything beyond that means a trip to the bargaining table. Two trips, to be exact.

Every indication is that players would be unlikely to stand in the way of nearly any change, other than something that would take effect in the middle of a season. Players we've surveyed clearly prefer putting reviews in the hands of an extra umpire to a manager-challenge system. But there is no doubt that players in general are now overwhelmingly for more replay, not less. And they believe umpires want it, too.

"When an NFL official messes up a call and they correct it with replay, they don't hear their name all night on 'SportsCenter,'" said Ziegler, an active participant in the 2011 labor negotiations. "In football, people just accept what the replay says and move on. But in baseball, because we don't have that, umpires get hammered when they miss a call, and they have no way to correct it. If we had replay and they could fix those calls, nobody ever mentions their names. And that's what everybody wants."

We're always amazed by the popular wisdom that umpires are opposed to replay. Total myth. Umpires we've asked about it are almost universally pro-replay these days, especially if it adds jobs and their technological concerns can be addressed.

With any route baseball takes, it will mean hiring more umpires. It could be 17 extra umpires if a fifth umpire is added to each of the 17 current crews and members of that crew take turns in the replay booth. Or it could be only four or five extra umpires if baseball opts to add just one crew and each crew is assigned to spend a few series a year serving as replay umps in New York.

But as long as the people "fixing" or reversing their calls are members of their fraternity -- "real" umpires just like them -- it would eliminate potential friction between umps on the field and umps in the replay booth. And eventually, umpires almost certainly will go along.

"There's not an umpire out there," one umpire told us last summer, "who has found himself in a situation with a clear missed call, who wouldn't like to be in position to correct that call with technology and be out of that situation."

So let's get this straight: The umpires want more replay. The players want more replay. The managers want more replay. The GMs want more replay. The fans want more replay. And where has that gotten us?

To yet one more season with no expanded replay, naturally. "Typical baseball," grumbled one frustrated front-office man this week.

But the end of this who-needs-technology nightmare is in sight. Finally. So this is one time we can find ourselves saying "Wait till next year" and actually not be talking about the Cubs.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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