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MLB is not entitled to instantaneous benefit of the doubt on the replay challenge system

Aug 16, 2013, 10:01 AM EST

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Getty Images

My ire at the challenge system announced yesterday is not based on the presumption that it will be an utter failure. I must, and hereby do, acknowledge that, yes, some calls that were bad will be fixed as a result of a challenge system. And I will grant that that’s better than nothing.

Nor do I think that my preferred system would be perfect. No system will be. So let us dispose with the notion that I’m yelling about the perfect being the enemy of the good here. I’m not doing that at all. My issue, as I explained yesterday, is partially philosophical and partially practical.

The philosophical: making a challenge system is an abdication of baseball’s responsibility to get calls right by putting the onus on a manager to challenge or not. Taking what should be a given in baseball — the right calls being made at maximal levels — and turning it into a choice. Adding a strategic element to it. Saying — as some definitely will when it inevitably happens — that it was the manager’s fault a bad call wasn’t overturned rather than the ump’s. Once you make that choice you’ve changed the conversation about bad calls, and I find that troubling.

Practically I have problems in that, while MLB and its surrogates have argued that other systems weren’t practical and that a challenge system is the best, they’ve not explained why the challenge system isn’t subject to the same problems as others or why it’s better in any actual way.

Jeff Passan’s column today is in that vein. It basically says “a challenge system isn’t perfect, but it’s good and good is better than nothing and don’t think that the people who came up with it haven’t thought of everything first.”

To sit there and blame those at MLB for this is wrong-headed. The game itself is to blame. It is not altogether receptive to replay … Of course Tony La Russa, John Schuerholz and Joe Torre, the influential members of the league’s Executive Council who helped shape the final plan, would like broader replay in a vacuum. Even Bud Selig, a longtime replay opponent, wants more than this. Anybody who thinks a group of smart men is sitting in a room and conspiring to come up with ways not to get calls right should check out the window, because those black helicopters are mighty close.

Well, of course they thought of things. They are smart people. But if they have reasoned this out so well, why did the announcement yesterday not explain these pros and cons? Instead of explaining why a fifth umpire scenario is unworkable, why were we condescended to with “it’ll be unique and charming” and “this will empower managers” when (a) it won’t be unique and charming; and (b) managers hate it. Why was there no explanation as to how a challenge system will present shorter delays and stoppages in play than an alternative? As it is now, the one thing that stops a game dead cold in its tracks is a manager walking on to the field, for any reason. This system demands that that happen, as often as eight more times a game if managers use all of their challenges.

Which isn’t to say the assumption is wrong. It’s to say that the men who brought us “this time it counts” to the All-Star Game should not, as a matter of course, get the benefit of the doubt when changes are brought to the game. They should not be allowed to simply pat us on the head and say our concerns aren’t warranted because smart men like Tony La Russa — who came up with over-specialized bullpens and loudly promoted the “unwritten rules” —  thought everything through.

La Russa is a genius and a Hall of Fame manager. Bud Selig has a track record of bringing in change that many opposed but which ended up working just fine.  But neither of them are infallible.  They should be required to explain to us why alternatives — including some which are used in other sports leagues — aren’t ideal. Explain to us why this system — which is more radical in nature than those alternatives in terms of whose responsibility it now is to get calls right — is the best.

Until it can do that and can do it satisfactorily, I don’t think accusing those of us unhappy with the system as proposed as conspiracy theorists and hysterics is all that reasonable.

  1. skids003 - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:13 AM

    Do it like college football. That seems to be the best reply system out there right now. No arguing by the managers, they do it fairly quickly, and get the game moving again. We sure don’t need longer games.

    • mjbabiak - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:18 AM

      Couldn’t agree more. However, I think the challenge system would be fun and would bring a new element to the game!

      • buddaley - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:29 AM

        I don’t think it will be fun at all. The challenge system has nothing to do with baseball or baseball strategy. It is adding an element of gamesmanship irrelevant to making the game itself more interesting or fair.

        Indeed, it has the potential to make the game less fair. It opens the possibility that a manager who thinks a first inning play was called incorrectly may have to decide whether to challenge or hoard his available challenge for an opportunity that may never arise. Thus, should a manager use that challenge, an egregious, game changing bad call in the 5th inning leaves him helpless. It is utterly stupid.

        If we want replay, then implement it to maximize the opportunity to get calls right. There is no point to adding a choice to the manager’s job that has nothing to do with his baseball decisions.

      • pourman - Aug 16, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        Are there any photos of Bud Selig that don’t look like he is about to vomit?

    • jcmeyer10 - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:44 AM

      I was listening to Tony Masseroti on 98.5 on my way home from work yesterday, and he or a caller made a half decent point.

      Managers go out and argue calls that they would most likely challenge, thus making the time a wash for the most part.

      But I think the NHL/NCAAF has it right as well.

      • dan1111 - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:00 AM

        I don’t think it will be a wash. Right now arguing is meaningless, so managers only do it when they get mad or want to fire up the team. With a challenge system, it actually matters, so a manager will have to use it as much as possible to maximize his team’s chances of winning.

        You see this all the time in football: challenges often happen on plays that are relatively uncontroversial.

      • mjbabiak - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:20 AM

        NHL only replays goals. Should they only replay scoring plays in the MLB too?

    • dnc6 - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:49 AM

      Anecdotally, I’d say that college football has the most/longest delays from replay, so that right there make its system a non-starter. The model to follow is the NHL. It’s quick, efficient, and only stops the action when a stop needs to be made.

      • mjbabiak - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:24 AM

        NHL only replays goals. And NHL is also looking into implementing a challenge system as well. I guess these people are all retards?

      • dnc6 - Aug 16, 2013 at 12:01 PM

        Well mjbabiak, you sure know how to read between the lines.

      • mjbabiak - Aug 16, 2013 at 2:34 PM

        No but in all seriousness, what are you proposing the MLB do to ensure it “only stops the action when a stop needs to be made” ?

        Replays on every close play?

        or Replay only the scoring plays (like the NHL)?

        The former would cause far too many delays & the latter would not solve anything as baseball is a completely different sport than hockey in the sense that many plays leading up to a run are far more crucial than in hockey. (i.e a bad call on a stolen base puts a runner in scoring position)

  2. Francisco (FC) - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    Remember Craig, they assigned their top men to study the matter.

    Top. Men.

    • jcmeyer10 - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:39 AM

      He expects a report to be on his desk in ten years.

    • jcmeyer10 - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:42 AM

      Side note, your blog is hilarious.

      • Francisco (FC) - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:27 AM

        Thanks, it’s been hard to write consistently though.

  3. danaking - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    Managers make decisions whether to “challenge” calls all the time, when they run out to argue. If a call isn’t worth arguing about, why review it?

    The real question is, what will be reviewed? A close play at a base is easy, but what about these scenarios:
    Runner on second, humpbacked liner to shallow right center. Runner thinks it will drop and takes off, the umpire rules no catch, a run scores. Reply shows the catch was made; what do you do with the runner? Do you assume he would have been doubled off, or return him to second?

    Line drive over third, umpire calls it foul, ball hits a side wall and bounces into the field of play in shallow left, but the left fielder does not pursue and the batter does not run. Reply shows the ball was fair; where to put the runner?

    These are far more important questions than whether managers should have challenges or not.

    • dan1111 - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:37 AM

      I agree that there are some serious issues here with what you do when a call is reversed.

      However, I don’t think that makes the question of whether or not there are challenges irrelevant.
      Managers challenging calls now is a boring waste of time; why make it an official part of the game?

      Beyond the actual act of challenging, there is the strategy issue of deciding when to challenge.
      Many of the most important, game-ending plays will be unchallengeable because the challenges have been used up.

    • cohnjusack - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:46 AM

      You know, neither scenario you presented really seems that big of a deal. I assume in scenario 1 that if the runner takes off before the ball is caughtand the outfielder catches the ball, said outfielder would then throw to the base before waiting to hear what the umpire calls. In which case…out, right? In scenario two, just award him 1st base.

      Maybe this isn’t the exact solution, but the point is an arbitrary decision will get made. Kind of like with the ground rule double. You get second and any runner on base is awarded 2 bases.

      • dan1111 - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:12 AM

        The problem with your logic is that normally the runner sees the ball is caught and has a chance to try to get back to the base.

        Also, the outfielder may have to decide between throwing to the base and throwing home.

        All of the decisions made on the field are based on the umpire’s ruling that the ball was caught (or not). It can’t really be undone.

    • herkulease - Aug 16, 2013 at 3:07 PM

      I see it has no different than the times where refs in the NFL inadvertently blows the whistle when a turnover occurs. They reward the turnover but not the yardage/TD. There is no “well this is what would’ve happened” stuff.

      Scenario 1: Play is scored as out but runner is allowed to return to 2nd base. Fair to both teams. Defense gets the out they deserve and offense isn’t screwed had it been correctly called an out. Maybe he would’ve tagged up and made it to third(or get doubled off) or just not advance. Can’t tell so no one gets any bonus.

      Scenario 2: everyone is allowed to advance by 1 base. Offense still gets their hit and 1 advance(man on third). Defense doesn’t get penalize by allowing the runner to score. its possible they could’ve held him at 3rd or got him at the plate.

  4. thisismetoo - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:27 AM

    Craig, my question is this:

    Will the challenge system quickly be used by managers to stall for time in the bullpen? If a guy is suddenly in trouble and no one in the bullpen is warm, does the manager simply challenge a “questionable” call to buy a few minutes for his reliever to throw some pitches? Can a manager use his “challenge flag” or whatever in an inappropriate situation without penalty?

    Maybe I don’t completely understand the rule, but I foresee slower games, and I’m sure we can all agree that would not be in the best interest of baseball.

    • Bryz - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:34 AM

      I doubt that a questionable call occurring the same time a manager is warming up a pitcher in a rush will happen as often as you worry. Managers already stall by walking out to the mound or having the catcher walk out to the mound anyway, and that doesn’t waste a challenge.

      • thisismetoo - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:38 AM

        Right, but who decides if the call is “questionable”? You can’t have the umpires do it; that’s why there is a replay.

      • dan1111 - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:45 AM

        I could see it happening.

        Yes, managers stall sometimes now. But if a reliever hasn’t even started throwing, they generally can’t stall long enough for the reliever to get completely warmed up before the next batter. This would give them additional time.

        Furthermore, managers often warm up relievers just in case they are needed, without putting them into the game. This adds to their workload significantly–warming up a couple of times is similar to actually pitching an inning in the game. A manager whose relievers have pitched a lot of innings might save them by not warming them up until he is sure he wants to bring someone in, then using a challenge to give them time.

    • mjbabiak - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:36 AM

      If it’s a clear out, then you should not be allowed to challenge IMO. If it’s close or questionable, you have every right to challenge it.. even if it is just to warm up a pitcher. It could come back to bite you in the ass so I am sure managers won’t be too quick to pull out the red flag.

  5. imnotyourbuddyguy - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    Craig writes all this stuff as if MLB actually gives a damn.

    They don’t

    • cohnjusack - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:40 AM

      You write this stuff as though anyone else actually give a damn.

      They don’t.

      (yes, you could then reply and say the same thing about my post and it would be 100% correct. So it goes…)

    • mjbabiak - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:39 AM

      Haha it’s true though

  6. cohnjusack - Aug 16, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    LaRussa on MLB network this morning, LaRussa said he “didn’t like the challenge system at first” but that the job now was to get everyone on board. So, I don’t think Tony is too big on it either.

  7. dparker713 - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    Craig, I thought the benefit was blatantly obvious. It’s cheaper. No need to install good video equipment in each stadium. No need to hire 15+ new umps. In fact. no need hire any union members as the replay guys are going to be ex umps, i.e. ex union members.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Aug 16, 2013 at 12:22 PM

      Then why not say that? Why not say “we like other systems better, but this one is cheaper?”

      • dparker713 - Aug 16, 2013 at 12:45 PM

        “We’re making money hand over fist. Billions in brand new TV deals. Plus, we figured out a way to save a few million dollars at the expense of the fans, the players, the umps and the results of the games.”

        Bud ain’t that dumb.

  8. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:49 AM

    Can’t they at least combine the challenge system with an NHL style eye in the sky? I think the challenge thing is kinda lame, and probably will lead to obnoxious gamesmanship from the likes of Maddon or Showalter (bottom of the ninth, let’s use our challenges no matter how certain the call was to try to throw off the other team’s closer), but the worst part of the MLB review process is having to watch the umpires scurry through some hole in the ground to do the reviewing, and waiting for them to reemerge like groundhogs predicting 6 more weeks of baseball. Can’t the crew chief just have an earpiece or a cell phone and get a call from MLB if there is a challenge? It would certainly help the continuity.

  9. RickyB - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    LaRussa never was big on explaining himself. He was always the smartest guy in the room (in his mind), and if you didn’t get it, tough.

  10. ramrene - Aug 16, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    >Do it like college football.

    When a batter hits a ball millimeters on or off the foul line what are you supposed to do? If the umpire calls it foul and replay shows it caught the line where do you put the batter?… how do they do that in college football

    When a guy steals a base and the umpire calls him safe because by his positioning/angle he was unable to see a tag but from another angle it would have shown the glove brushed shirt. Baseball games aren’t shot with as many cameras as a football game so some calls are going to be missed.

    • mjbabiak - Aug 16, 2013 at 2:41 PM

      Not true,

      The new 4K Camera technology that was introduced this year will probably be installed in every park. I would hope.

      But i agree, college football method is not the way to go

  11. jm91rs - Aug 16, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    Every where I’m hearing people complain. It’s unbelievable how the same people making fun of baseball for ignoring technology and preaching “the human element” can complain so much when MLB tries to get it right.

    It’s going to take tweaking over a few years, but eventually replay in baseball will work just fine.
    Yes the games are long enough, but are you gonna be really happy that you didn’t have to sit through 4 more minutes of baseball when your team loses a deciding game on a blown call? Get it right, that’s all that should matter. If the length of the game is the problem let’s cut pitchers down to 4 warm up pitches between innings instead of 8, let’s have the relief pitchers fully warmed up when they enter the game and only give them one or two tosses off the mound. Let’s enforce the rules in place requiring pitchers to throw by a certain time, let’s limit the number of times a pitcher can throw over to 1st. There are so many ways to speed up the game by eliminating things people don’t even notice anyway, and all of them make more sense than not instituting a system that utilizes technology to get the calls right.

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