Oh, happy day! Bud Selig has seen the light and "evolved" his opinion on instant replay thanks in no small part to recent rash of inconceivably stupid blown calls that the likes of Angel Hernandez and Fieldin Culbreth have subjected us to in recent weeks. The end result is that the ol' used car salesman is might be ready to relent and allow the expanded use of instant replay in time for the 2014 season. Of course, in Bud's infinite wisdom, he hasn't yet figured out exactly how that replay will work. This despite the fact that MLB has supposedly been "studying" the use of expanded replay for most of this century.
Since Selig and his appointed acolyte Joe Torre are stuck hemming and hawing over just how to implement this new system, we've taken it upon ourselves to lay out a plan that should be palatable to coaches, players and fans alike.
What should be reviewed?
First things first, MLB needs to determine which kind of plays are even eligible for review. Baseball is such a crazy game of inches that one could easily micromanage the bahjeezus out of instant replay to the point that there are a dozen replay situations per game. There is also the so called "human element" that the league seems to be quite intent on protecting out of some bizarre sense of nostalgia. As such, anything that is even remotely a judgment call should be considered off limits lest we want instant replay to rankle the traditionalists more than it already does.
That's a good thing because it really narrows down the potential replay opportunities. Home run boundary calls are already replay eligible, so it seems like a logical next step to include fair-foul boundary calls. Those kind of calls get blown with some regularity but mostly because umpires just can't be in a good position to make a proper call. This shouldn't upset anyone.
Similarly, the catch/trap call seems like it falls into the same bucket of umpires getting the call wrong because of their lack of vantage point. Cleaning those up should be easy and also shouldn't be too offensive to the "human element."
Where things get tricky is considering safe/out calls at bases. Somehow these have been designated as judgment calls even though there really isn't much ambiguity when you have the benefit of a high definition, slow-mo video replay at your disposal. But umpires get these calls wrong all the time, so they have declared them to be judgment calls if only to get people off their backs. Alas, there can be several close plays at a base every single game which creates a real threat of replay slowing games down. An effective compromise then would be to limit replay to plays at home since there is a much more at stake for such a call than on a bang-bang play at first base in the top of the ninth with the road team trailing by seven runs. This would be very similar to the NFL system where they place increased replay scrutiny on plays in the end zone.
That should be all there is. Boundary calls, trap calls and plays at the plate. None of this BS that the NFL has where nobody really knows if a certain kind of play in a certain part of the field is reviewable or not that results in a lot of coaches screaming at befuddled referees. And there definitely won't be any special rules based on the inning of the game. The last thing MLB wants to do is replicate the NBA model where every third play inside the final two minutes of the game results in a stoppage for video review.
Who should call for a review?
This is where the Pandora's box really opens up. If you let the managers control replay challenges, they will surely abuse the privilege if they think they can get an advantage out of it. Just imagine someone like Tony LaRussa "challenging" an obvious foul ball call so that he can allow extra time for a reliever to warm up in lieu of his fifth pitching change of the game .
If you let the umpires control it, they will probably be stingy with replay since they would be tacitly admitting that they might have blown a call and nobody ever wants to admit to making a mistake at their job. Seriously, if you think that the Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West types are going to be willing and ready to admit that they need video to get the call they just made right, then you have another thing coming.
Besides, if you give the umpires the power, all it will do is give managers cause to grind the game to a halt by heading out onto the field to argue with the umpire that he should review a call which will only cause the opposing manager to come out and argue that the call shouldn't be reviewed. When you talk about replay killing the pace of the game, it is the on-field arguments that you should really worry about.
Let's nip all of that right in the bud and give the power to the eye in the sky. One thing that NFL replay got right is letting only a video umpire initiate a replay call in the final two minutes of a half so that valuable time is not wasted with challenge flags and pointless bickering. MLB should take that idea and run with it. Keep anyone and everyone on the field out of the replay decision. The video umpire and only the video umpire makes the call and signals that a replay is required with a radio or pager device worn by the crew chief.
The one problem here is that it gives the video umpire precious little time to decide if a replay is needed. Of course, that isn't really a problem if you don't want the game to be slowed by replay calls. The video umpire will have until the next pitch is thrown to make a decision so he will have to be quick lest the pitcher try and quick pitch before the video umpire can buzz in. Granted, it takes two to tango, so the opposing batter can just as easily drag things out by taking his time stepping into the box. That little battle of wills should be good enough to give the umpire time to decide, but it will be on the field crew to keep players on task when it comes to delaying the next pitch in hopes of a replay challenge coming down from on high.
To really make sure that the video ump is quick with his decisions, it is imperative that the video umpire be on site and actively paying attention to the game. There is some thought that MLB could handle all of this from a central video review office in New York like the NFL does. That seems fraught with peril. If they try and let a handful of video officials be responsible for the calls of several games going on at once, they are bound to miss something because their attention is divided. With a video umpire live at the stadium, he'll have nothing else to pay attention to and can be quick with his replay initiations.
Who should actually decide the fate of a play?
Angel Hernandez made this decision easy. The field crew just can't be trusted due to their potential bias of wanting to confirm their own call so that they don't look bad. An independent video umpire with no ties to a specific umpiring crew can safely make the call from the video room where he won't be swayed by angry fans, screaming managers or grandstanding umpires.
Besides, nothing is worse than watching the umpires make the long, slow march to the recesses of the stadium so that they can huddle around a tiny TV to make the call and then march back out. Just install a phone somewhere convenient and have the crew chief call up to the booth after the replay pager goes off. With any luck, the replay umpire will have already made the decision by the time the crew chief is able to job over to the phone. No muss, no fuss.
How should they handle the aftermath of a replay decision?
This is the part that too often gets glossed over. What happens when a liner laced down the right field line is incorrectly called foul and then overturned via replay? Someone has to figure out where to place the runners on a ball that could've been a single, double or triple based on how the right fielder played the ball and how fast the runners are. So as not to neuter the field umpires completely, we can let the crew chief work the consequences out over the phone with the video umpire. After all, the video umpire still has the best view of where each runner was during the play and can make a more informed decision on who may or may not have advanced to what base. The crew chief would be involved more as a check system ensuring that the video umpire didn't make any egregious judgments on the runners or foul up a basic rule.
This is still messy territory though as it now ventures from black and white judgments to gray area decisions. That is unavoidable, but it can be mitigated by instructing the field umpires to err on the side of letting play continue when they have a questionable fair/foul or safe/out call in front of them. It is a lot easier to reverse the call and send runners back to a base than it is to hypothesize about what might have happened had they let play continue. It won't be perfect since many of the calls the umpires are making are reflexive, but it couldn't hurt.
What else can the league do to streamline the process?
One thing MLB would be wise to do is make it clear to managers that arguing a replay decision will not be tolerated. Much in the same way that arguing balls and strikes is not permitted, umpires should be given carte blanche to eject a coach or player that gets mouthy about the outcome of a replay call. Again, pointless arguments are what will really cause instant replay to slow the game down, so by making it clear that such arguments will not be tolerated should keep the game moving.