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Replay reviews are going to have to be done faster this year

And, some further thoughts about the new MLB pitch timer.

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Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

As you all know, I am a big fan of MLB’s pitch timer (and yes, I am going to try to call it by that name, MLB’s official name for it, instead of “clock”).

It’s already sped up games during Spring Training by an average of about 25 minutes, and if that holds during the regular season, we will be treated to the shortest average time of game in more than 40 years — since 1982!

For those of you too young to remember when baseball was paced that way, it really is awesome. You’ll learn to like it.

One thing that’s done in regular-season games that isn’t during Spring Training is replay review. So you might think that could slow games down, a bit, and it might.

But per Jayson Stark in The Athletic, there might wind up being fewer reviews this year — because managers are going to have to decide on a review call much more quickly than in previous years:

• Managers now need to hold up their hands immediately after a play to signal to the umpires that they’re thinking about challenging. The previous rule gave them 10 seconds before they even had to decide whether to give the signal, but it was rarely enforced.

• Once their hand goes up this year, the umpire starts a 15-second replay clock. But if the manager wants to challenge, he has to decide before the clock hits zero. MLB told all 30 managers, in a video conference meeting Friday, that the allotted time will be strictly enforced. Once the timer reaches zero, all challenge requests will be denied. What could go wrong there?

• The previous rule gave managers 20 seconds to decide whether to challenge. But again, that was almost never enforced, because on many occasions, after the 20 seconds, the umpire would approach the dugout and literally ask the manager, “Do you want to review this or not?” Now the umpires will remain on the field. So there will be no more conversations and no more wiggle room.

In effect, you might wind up seeing managers hold up their hands on almost every close play, because they’re going to have to decide very quickly. There won’t be time for guys in the video room to look at multiple angles and tell the manager or bench coach — it’s going to have to be a quick challenge, or play on. In practice, what this might lead to is fewer challenges in the early innings, with managers saving the one challenge they get (and retain if they’re right) for critical situations later in games.

The fact is, even though at times you think reviews are taking forever, on average, they’re not:

Replay reviews per game averaged out to only about one every other game in 2022, believe it or not. There were 2,430 games played last season — and just 1,434 reviews. That computes to only 0.59 per game — or, basically, just one per team every four games. Nearly 60 percent of all games had zero reviews. Only 12 percent had more than one review.

It’s just that one that takes four minutes that makes you think they all drag on forever.

There are, in my view, two things they could do to help that along:

  • Limit the length of a review to the length of an inning break (2:15). If the review crew can’t figure it out by then, it’s “call stands.”
  • Or, what they should have done in the first place — add a fifth umpire to every crew, stationed in the press box, who could unilaterally review all close calls and eliminate the challenge system entirely.

They probably won’t do either of those things. But I’m here with lots of suggestions!

One thing about another new rule that hasn’t been mentioned much: The bigger bases mean that first base is about three inches closer to the plate. How many times have you seen a “bang-bang” play at first base where the batter-runner is out? The new bases might lead to more infield hits — or possibly, more reviews as those plays get three inches closer.

Turning back to pace of play again, the quickie games we’ve seen for much of Spring Training might go a bit longer starting tomorrow, because, as Stark points out in a second article on the new rules today:

Once these games count, mound visits are going to mushroom, because they are a way to stop the clock. Teams will gear up more seriously to slow down the running game, which means more pickoff throws and disengagements. There will be more mid-inning pitching changes because, well, this is 2023. There will be more national TV games with longer commercial breaks. There will be weather delays.

Which, yeah, I get this, although I went to quite a number of games where there were mid-inning pitching changes this spring just because a pitcher had reached a pre-determined pitch count. In some games there were as many as four of those, and most regular-season games don’t have more than that. There will be more “disengagements” — but those are still limited, as are mound visits.

The average length of a nine-inning game last year was 3:03. The Cubs played 73 nine-inning games last year of 3:03 or longer. I’m going to predict right now that number is going to drop to 20 or fewer. Here’s a baseball executive quoted by Stark:

“Think about it,” he said. “If your average game time is 2:40, that means that half your games are going to be shorter than 2:40. So you’re going to have games, probably ranging from two hours to 2:40 on the short end, and your higher-scoring games are going to be 2:40 to 3:05 or 3:10. So there are still going to be a lot of nights where you’re out of there at 9 (p.m.) or 9:15 (p.m.). And that’s a full hour earlier than before.”

One more prediction: We are going to see at least one Cubs game this year that is completed in less than two hours. (It happened in the minor leagues when they adopted the timer.) The last regular-season Cubs game that went 1:59 or less was September 25, 2009 against the Giants in San Francisco, a two-hit shutout by Carlos Zambrano that went 1:56. There hasn’t been one at Wrigley Field in more than two decades, since June 21, 2002, a three-hit complete game by Jon Lieber against the Cardinals. The Cubs won 2-1, all three runs scoring on solo homers.

It’s gonna happen. And I couldn’t be happier. Stark sums up the season about to begin this way, and I agree, because of all the rule changes:

Has it hit you that this isn’t just another baseball season barreling at us, mere hours away?

No, no, no. Get ready for one of the most pivotal, unforgettable, transformative seasons in the history of this sport. You may think I’m kidding. You may think I’m exaggerating. Nope. Just think about it.

Pitch clocks ticking. … Shift bans opening holes we haven’t seen in a decade. … Pickoff limits igniting long-lost running games. … Even the bases aren’t as far away from each other as they used to be.

So in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, I think it’s clear what people will think when they look back on baseball in 2023. Won’t this go down as the year that changed everything?

It just might. And it all starts tomorrow. Play ball!