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Why MLB's Replay System Proposal Won't Work

Baseball tried to do the right thing by announcing a replay review system Thursday. Unfortunately, they just might have made things worse.

Justin Edmonds

As most of you know, I've been ranting off and on about the need for replay review in baseball since before the home-run review system was instituted in August 2008. I'm not going to rehash all the missed plays since then; you've seen them, I've seen them. It took Bud Selig and a committee almost five years to devise a proposal for a review system of other plays, and they announced it to great fanfare Thursday, via David Lennon of Newsday:

Under this framework, a manager is allowed three challenges: one through the first six innings, and two more that can be used from the seventh inning until the end of the game. If the challenge is upheld, the manager keeps it, similar to the NFL. If the play is not overturned, the manager loses one of his challenges.

Unlike the NFL, the MLB system will not have a flag to throw. The manager must give the closest umpire a verbal notification. Once that is done, the home plate umpire or crew chief will use a nearby communications center - somewhere near the backstop or camera bays - for a direct, secure line to the MLB Advanced Media offices, which are located in lower Manhattan.

At the central office, a crew of umpires and technicians will monitor each game — similar to what the NHL uses in Toronto — to provide an instant review and ruling on the play. The ultimate decision will be made by the umpire watching the replay in that Manhattan office, not anyone on the field.

The central location for monitoring is a good idea; this reduces the cost of such a system (although the best way to do it would be the more-expensive idea of having a fifth umpire on each crew, on-site in each ballpark).

Challenges? Uhhhh... well, at one time I thought a challenge system would work. But I think you can see how this sort of system is unworkable. What the system described above would accomplish is this: Say there's a close call at second base on an attempted steal in the second inning. The manager whose runner gets called out challenges the play, only to be told the review confirms the runner was out; the play was close enough that it could have gone either way.

Based on what I quoted above, that manager is done with challenges until the seventh inning. What if a similar play happens in the sixth? No challenge, apparently. Or what if there's a fair/foul call on which pretty much everyone in the ballpark and TV audience can see the ball is fair, only it was called foul, in the fifth inning? Nope, that manager's done, because he was wrong three innings before. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports says that even this is somewhat of a muddle:

Still unclear: Whether umpires would initiate certain reviews — for instance, on disputed home runs — and whether an incorrect challenge would prevent a manager from making additional challenges later in the game.

But here's the biggest problem with the system as announced today, from Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz:

“We believe there’s a happy balance between getting more calls right for the first time and still maintaining and protecting those elements of our game,” Schuerholz said. “The uniqueness of baseball, how it flows, and the charm of it. We want to protect that.”

No, no, NO!

Just by saying that, Schuerholz has told each and every one of us that they're doing this for the wrong reason. There is one reason and one reason only to have a replay review system -- to get the calls right. All of the calls, not those that are "charming", not those that fall into an arbitrary inning cut-off. The system as announced reflects NFL thinking; in a football game, the last two minutes (when reviews are mandatory) are somewhat different, in most games, than the time before.

But a play in the fourth or fifth inning of a baseball game could change the whole tone of the game, and now we're told that a manager who messed up on one challenge two innings before would lose the right to challenge that play, because "charm" and "uniqueness"? Ugh.

This is even sillier:

Schuerholz said MLB’s data showed one missed call per every five games, which is why his committee believed three challenges would be sufficient to cover any situations that arise. However, managers are not allowed to argue or ask for help on reviewable plays at the risk of “stalling” the game. They can discuss non-reviewable plays, and that leaves the door open for ejections as well.

If that's all the plays that are being missed -- and they could be right, since I haven't seen all the data they have -- then why not review all the close ones? That wouldn't "stall" games. It would also eliminate the possibility of ejections, because if you're reviewing all the possible missed calls, managers would know that they wouldn't have to resort to the kind of arguments that get them tossed.

Baseball is trying to do the right thing by considering a review system, but they took a giant step in the wrong direction with the challenge system. All they have to do is remember the reason for review in the first place: get the calls right. If they stop and think about that, they'll modify this system before it even goes into effect.