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April 7, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Thoughts on expanded instant replay review

I’ve been a strong proponent of instant replay review, so I’m surprised to find that after our first week of expanded review, I’m starting to have second thoughts.

During spring training (I have to admit that I only watched of spring training games) I heard reports that the reviews went pretty quickly, so I was surprised at how irritating the one-or-two minute delays are turning out to be. While I’d love to ensure that the umpire’s decisions are more accurate, I’m also a proponent of faster games. It seems to be hard to advocate for one without the other.

The rules seem smart—there’s a limit of one review per team, unless the team wins a challenge, in which case they get another one. That helps limit the number of challenges, but also gives an incentive to use the challenge in cases where the team thinks it’s going to win. As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post observes, managers also have an incentive to hold their challenges for high leverage plays—plays where the score is close and there are runners on base with the potential to score. I’m actually fine with that—if we’re going to only be reviewing a few plays, I’d rather that they be the ones that really make a difference.

The challenge in the season opener, however, illustrates a scenario when the incentives work the other direction. In the top of the tenth inning, the Nats had just taken a 9 to 5 lead on Anthony Rendon‘s home run. Danny Espinosa came to bat with two outs and the bases empty (a very low leverage situation) and grounded to third. The throw pulled Duda off the bag, but he swiped Espinosa as he ran past. Matt Williams challenged the play, despite the fact that the play was very unlikely to affect the outcome of the game, because if he didn’t use his challenge then, he would lose it.

The game had already lasted nearly 3-1/2 hours, so I was pretty irritated by the additional delay. Is there a way to change the rules to discourage managers from using challenges in low leverage situations? One way might be to give managers not only a limit of one per game, but also a limitation on the number used in the season. If Williams had been limited to maybe 60 challenges per season, I think he would have held off on that challenge to try to use it in a more meaningful situation in another game. (Please note that I am not proposing that managers who save challenges be allowed to use more than one per game. Both the one-per-game and 60-per-season restrictions would apply.) Alternatively, an even simpler rule would be to simply say that a team can’t use a challenge if they have a lead of 4 or more runs.

Ok, so I’m looking to tweak some rules to cut back on certain uses of challenges. Are there any cases where I can see additional expansion of replay challenges? Actually, yes there are.

I’ve always been concerned that umpires do a pretty poor job with check swing calls, despite the fact that they’re calling on another umpire for assistance. I’d guess that their error rates are at least twice as high for check swing calls as for other calls of balls and strikes. Check swings, however, seem like something that could be automated. If cameras were set up in fixed locations and computers were programmed to instantly replay and analyze the check swing, I’d bet that the compute could give quick, accurate, and reliable calls. The home plate umpire is already asking for help on these calls; it really doesn’t seem a stretch for them to get the help from a camera/computer combination. If an automated program could be written that could analyze and report a decision within 10 seconds (which I think might be feasible), I’d support turning check swing calls over to machines (obviously with a quick visual check to make sure the machine is doing what we think it should be doing.)

It will take us a while to get used to expanded instant replay review, but in the long run it will just be one of the many minor changes that have slipped into the game over time. I’m glad that MLB has been trying to refine it.


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