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Here’s how to fix MLB’s problem with video cheating

It’s a simple fix, really.

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Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Baseball has been rocked over the last few days with the report from the Commissioner’s office on the Astros cheating during 2017.

The scandal stems from the Astros using a video feed from a center-field camera, fed through the video room that was set up to help determine whether replay review challenges should be made, or not.

This was, I suppose, an inevitable result of the challenge system. Molly Knight at The Athletic says as much in this article:

The reason we are mired in this fiasco is that MLB introduced expanded instant replay to video rooms in 2014, apparently without any inkling that teams would figure out ways to exploit this new technology to their advantage.

The only thing worse than finding out teams may have cheated their way to World Series titles is realizing that, not unlike the rise of steroid use, MLB was either asleep at the wheel on this, or knew about it and lacked either the will or the knowhow to stop it.

This is all true. But Knight’s solution is pretty draconic:

You want to cut even more time from the average game length, and eliminate the need to station mostly useless hall monitors in video rooms during thousands of baseball games a year? Get rid of instant replay altogether.

Do we really need a system that stops the game to figure out whether a player accidentally took his hand off the bag for a fraction of a second after stealing a base by a mile in a meaningless game between two bottom-feeder teams in August?

Knight suggests leaving the challenge system for the postseason, and eliminate it from regular-season games.

I’m against that. And Josh laid out the perfect solution in today’s MLB Bullets:

We don’t actually have to rid of replay review. We just have to stop the stupid NFL-style “challenge system” that we have now and just have all reviews come from the fifth umpire.

He’s absolutely right. The challenge system did introduce an element of strategy into review — should a manager use a review early in a game, or save it? — but it negated the whole point of doing review in the first place, which is to get the calls right.

A fifth umpire, stationed in the press box, would be a perfect solution. This umpire could review calls, and there could be a system of lights on the press box — red for “overturned,” yellow for “call stands,” green for “call confirmed.” Or they could announce the result on the stadium PA system, which is how reviews are explained in the NFL. (MLB should have been doing this anyway.) All live video would be taken away from team control. Teams could still use video for analyzing pitchers, hitters, signs, etc. — they just wouldn’t be able to do it until after games end.

Umpires would likely be in favor of this because it would mean more umpiring jobs, and with a fifth umpire on each crew, umpires would get a “break” from on-the-field calls every fifth game.

This way, teams wouldn’t be limited to one challenge a game, or two if the first one is correct. All questionable calls could be sent to the booth umpire. In this scenario, a manager could still call for a review, but he’d have to do it in 30 seconds — no longer. Past the 30 seconds, play would continue.

Further, I would limit all replays to two minutes. If the booth umpire can’t definitively figure it out in two minutes, it becomes “call stands.” Perhaps the booth umpire could be assisted by someone in the current media center in New York to help speed things along.

Here are some replay numbers from the 2019 season that will show that reviews really don’t slow games down as much as you think they do. All these are from this Retrosheet page which lists every review from last year (and there are links to previous years as well).

There were 1,378 reviews in 2019, including the postseason. There were 2,466 games played in 2019, including the postseason. That’s an average of a little more than one review for every two games, which doesn’t seem like a lot. Many games have none. Here’s the breakdown of how long reviews took in 2019:

Under one minute: 556 (40.3 percent)
1:00 to 1:59: 673 (48.8 percent)
2:00 to 2:59: 135 (9.8 percent)
3:00 or longer: 14 (1.0 percent)

Thus, 89.2 percent of all reviews in 2019 were completed in two minutes or less. Asking for the other 10.8 percent to be ruled “call stands” if they can’t be figured out in that much time doesn’t seem to be asking too much.

The numbers are pretty similar for 2018, where there were 1,441 reviews. 84.8 percent were completed in under two minutes:

Under one minute: 440 (30.5 percent)
1:00 to 1:59: 783 (54.3 percent)
2:00 to 2:59: 188 (13.0 percent)
3:00 or longer: 30 (2.1 percent)

(Note, all percentages noted above don’t add to 100 due to rounding.)

Now, there might be more reviews if the challenge system is eliminated for a “booth review” system, since managers would no longer be limited. But I think requiring them to all be completed in two minutes or fewer would help keep games moving, even if there were a few more reviews.

But the most important thing is taking the video review out of team control. Managers would have to use the eye test to ask for reviews. For those of you who like the “human element” of baseball, here’s a place where it would return. I think a system like this would not only please everyone, but it would go a long way to avoid future cheating scandals like the ones we’ve seen detailed this week.


Regarding replay review...

This poll is closed

  • 76%
    The idea proposed in this article is a good one, get it done!
    (237 votes)
  • 9%
    The system currently in place is fine, don’t change it
    (28 votes)
  • 9%
    I don’t like replay review, get rid of it
    (29 votes)
  • 4%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (14 votes)
308 votes total Vote Now