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In 2008, Major League Baseball began to review difficult home run plays, allowing umpires to come together and discuss the potential need to check a video replay to get a correct call. While that same rule still applies today, the 2014 season will likely welcome new uses of instant replay for base running, plays at home plate, fan interference all over the ballpark, and whether or not a batter may have been hit by a pitch.
The expansion of replay has been seen as increasingly necessary, given the use of replay in the other three major North American sports and the exceptional high definition quality of televisions for fans at home. So while MLB certainly wants to get every call correct, the question is where to draw the line on replay, and how to maximize on correct calls while still minimizing game lengths, which have consistently increased over the last few decades.
The use of replay strictly on home run calls seems silly, since obviously home runs aren’t everything in baseball that can be controversial or worth challenging over the course of a game. We’ll delve into the different areas that are and are not worth a second glance.
The calling of balls and strikes should be unchallengeable. We’ve all seen brutal calls, but for the most part the strike zone is all about the judgment of the home plate umpire. Some have larger strike zones than others, but as long as there is consistency within each game, both teams have time to adjust accordingly. This is certainly an area that can be improved upon, but video replay isn’t necessary. On the other hand, hit-by-pitch plays are much easier to take a quick look at.
Adding replay to the base paths is an excellent addition to the game. Determining whether or not a fielder has possession of the ball while on a base and whether or not a runner has reached the base in time would be another quick fix, especially on plays at first base. I would expect lots of these replays given the number of missed calls we see in these situations, and perhaps it would improve close calls on stolen base attempts. Bath path reviews would also do a number on critical plays at the plate.
Currently, umpires gather together to determine whether or not a trip to the replay console near the umpires’ clubhouse is warranted after a manager argues a call. They then go to the console, which relays a video from an MLB.com office in New York. The very first replay usage took two minutes and 15 seconds in 2008, when umpires in Tampa Bay confirmed a home run by Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez. The process generally takes five minutes at the very most, which is worthwhile for the correct call in certain situations.
However, the usage of replay still needs to be limited within a game. Umpires can’t be asked to replay every single close call for validation, meaning baseball should add a limit to the number of replays a team can use within a game or series. I think a fair number of replays would be two per team per game.
Even if each team uses each of their replay opportunities, instant replay could actually help baseball reduce their game lengths. After a possible blown call, managers and players will simply request the umpires take the second look, similarly to the way NFL coaches throw a challenge flag. This demand will also eliminate the time an umpiring crew would spend gathering together questioning whether or not to look into the call.
Game lengths can also be significantly shortened by cutting down on trips to the mound during innings. Pitching coaches and managers make far too many visits, most of which are used to allow the bullpen more time to get loose. I would completely throw out visits to the mound by any coaches during an inning, unless the manager is removing the starting pitcher from the game, or the team is checking on a possible injury. Catchers should be allowed to visit each pitcher once per inning.
The only way we’re really going to get a feel for replay is to try it out, so hopefully that develops into a positive storyline in the 2014 season. I believe that the opportunity for umpires to get calls right will be a huge win for the sport as a whole, as there should be significantly less attention played to bad calls and more time devoted to the game.