After Further Review: Making the Right Call on Replay

As baseball struggles to grasp video replay, here's our suggestion on how to expand upon it and make it efficient—if not flawless.

By Eric Gouldsberry, This Great Game
Posted May 5, 2010

This Great Game Opinion.

Over a hundred years after the birth of its “modern age,” baseball joined more progressive times when, in late 2008, it instituted the first form of video replay to review close calls.

To many, the move to replay was long overdue; pro football had long since kicked it in (though the NFL has still far from perfected it) while hockey and basketball later followed suit. To others, bringing video review to the National Pastime was a disgrace, an affront to purists who embraced the human element and disdained the notion of time wasted as umpires huddled in front of a monitor.

In what was perhaps a way to appease the doubters—to say nothing of umpires who, deep down, abhor the idea of an official Big Brother breathing down their necks—Major League Baseball has, so far, taken the slow road in regards to replay, with limited rules of engagement. Only calls involving home runs are eligible for review. It’s as if MLB is dipping its toes in the water to make sure it’s comfortable with it.

If baseball is to ultimately take the big plunge, here’s how it can make replay work.

Let’s start by eliminating one thought right off the bat: Don’t let the managers call for the review. The idea of the skipper tossing a red flag out of the dugout a la the NFL seems so removed from the principles of the game, but it’s even more than that; empowering the manager to challenge a close call also means that he must be restricted to how many times he can throw the flag, for fear of abuse of the system. This leads to a quota system that, in my opinion, has plagued the NFL—and it would plague baseball, too.

So who’s empowered to make the challenge? Not the umpires. Pride runs high in their ranks, and although they’re policing themselves well on the current system that involves home run calls, that’s because it’s not beneath them to question an initial call made from 250 feet away. They’re going to be far more sensitive to having to rethink a close call made at close range, like first base.

That leaves us with the folks in the video replay booth upstairs. They don’t exist right now; the umpires currently connect directly with a war room of sorts in New York that helps feed them with video to review. But in order for replay to work correctly, efficiently and without controversy, you need people at the game, secluded from the press, brass and play-by-play crews so they can focus on the action, spot a replay worthy of review, and make a decision that may or may not differ with the umpire’s initial ruling.

Here’s how the process works: The folks in the booth watch the game with the help of a monitor showing the regular broadcast feed. They see a close play at first base. At that point, they kick into action, immediately notifying the head umpire (wearing a headset) to stop the game while they review the play from as many angles as are available. To avoid lengthy delays, the reviewers have one minute to determine if the call is right. If it takes more than a minute, then the play is likely too close to call; the benefit of a doubt goes to the umpire and the original call stands. Either way, the umpire gets the word via the headset and must abide with the booth’s decision.

To avoid lengthy delays, the reviewers have one minute to determine if the call is right. If it takes more than a minute, then the play is likely too close to call; the benefit of a doubt goes to the umpire and the original call stands.What calls are eligible to be reviewed? Most everything, from whether a runner is safe or out at first, to whether a ball down the line hits fair or foul, to whether an outfielder made a diving catch or trapped the ball. There’s one area that absolutely, categorically cannot be eligible: Balls and strikes. Throwing that into the mix is bound to increase the average game length to four hours and practically rid the home plate umpire of his job; you might as well let the K-Zone or Fox Trax do the work at that point.

And who exactly are the people in the booth? Three people, made up of two MLB employees and one from the umpires’ corner—just to make sure that the umpires on the field are understanding that one of their own is upstairs rethinking their calls. Here’s how the three work things out: When a call is reviewed, one of the two MLB reviewers and the umpire’s rep actively look at the replay together and attempt to make a determination. Meanwhile, the second MLB rep quietly makes up his own mind without comment. If the first two reviewers are deadlocked, the third obligates himself to be the tiebreaker and makes the final call.

Like the umpires, the MLB reviewers must rotate from city to city throughout the season to reduce the possibility of hometown bias. Yes, this means up to 30 additional people on the commissioner’s payroll to fly, lodge and feed for six months, but let’s face it, MLB has the money; Bud Selig doesn’t earn $17 million out of an empty bank account. As for the umpire rep, he would be represented on the same pay scale as the arbiters on the field and be a member of the umpire’s union. If anything will ever buy the umpires over to allow this kind of expanded replay, 15 extra jobs to those who otherwise would be busing around Fresno, Des Moines and other Triple-A watering holes sounds awfully sweet.

Here’s one more wonderful aspect of video replay for umpires: It’s going to cut down on those nose-to-nose arguments initiated by managers enraged over a bad call. That’s because with replay, the final call is out of the umpires’ hands—and if the manager doesn’t agree with the booth’s decision, what’s he going to do, run up to the club level, burst down the door and start spouting at the reviewers? (And here’s where replay can actually speed up the game, because you would cut down on existing on-field bitchfits that often last far longer than a minute.)

In a sense, the whole process above is close to that used by college football—easily, the best form or review used in sports today. No red flags, no quotas, no on-field judges spending time under a black curtain as if they were developing film—and no major amounts of time wasted.

MLB will certainly tread very lightly in any attempt to expand video review, mainly out of concern of slowing the game up; with many games already averaging over three hours in length, that’s understandable. That’s also a problem that could be remedied if baseball would, once and for all, get serious and start forcing pitchers to stop lollygagging on the mound, while stopping hitters from stepping out of the batter’s box after every damn pitch to engage in ten seconds’ worth of addictively quirky adjustments. That’s another story, but MLB can kill so many birds with one stone here.

After an epidemic of bad calls created controversy during the 2009 postseason, the pressure grew greater upon MLB to do something about it. And my advice, if heeded, would take care of the problem overnight.

Hopefully, there’s no need for further review on that wisdom.


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