Point/Counterpoint: Baseball’s Use of Instant Replay

Welcome to our second installment of Point/Counterpoint. In this edition, our co-founders each argue their positions regarding MLB’s expanded use of instant replay. Neither had the opportunity to review the other’s work before writing his own.  

As you surely know by now, MLB announced its intention to use an expanded instant replay system starting in 2014 in an attempt to reduce the number of incorrect calls made in games. Here are the details of the proposal, which still must be approved by the players and umpires before going into effect:

  • Managers will be allowed one challenge over the first six innings, and two more from the seventh until the end of the game.
  • If the on-field ruling is overturned, the manager will receive another challenge. If it’s upheld, the challenge is gone.
  • The reviews will be conducted by a crew at MLB’s central office in New York.
  • Managers may not challenge balls and strikes, or whether a batter was hit by a pitch. Reviews on home run balls will be automatic and not require a challenge.

This is the actual exchange that The Read Zone co-founders had on gchat yesterday afternoon when the news came out:

Brian Mangan:  Deadspin (link to article)
Brian Mangan: um wtf if this !
Michael Abitabilo: yeah i like it!
Brian Mangan: my nightmare

 And thus, today’s Point-Counterpoint was born.

POINT: MLB’s Instant Replay Is NOT The End of the World

By: Michael Abitabilo

As you surely know by now, MLB announced that starting in 2014, it will use an expanded instant replay system in an attempt to reduce the number of incorrect calls made in games. The reaction of fans and media pundits has been a mixed bag, but anecdotally, I seem to be hearing more people come out against the new system than in favor of it. To those people, I say: be quiet.

Granted: the system isn’t perfect. Are plays in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings so much more important than plays in innings one through so as to justify managers getting two challenges in the latter portion of the game to only one challenge in the early portion? I am pretty sure the 27 outs each team gets are evenly spread among all nine innings, but I could be wrong. I suspect there will be some tweaks to the replay rules over the next few years. Ultimately, though, instant replay will ultimately improve the game. No longer will games, seasons and even careers be adversely affected by bad calls.  Think I’m overstating that? Had this system been in place in 2010, for example, Armando Galarraga would have thrown one of only 24 perfect games in the history of baseball.

In sports, we want the better team to win. We want umpires, referees, and officials to make the calls they are supposed to make to ensure that happens. No one can deny this will further that goal. Nonetheless, here are the primary arguments I am hearing from dissenters:

1.  “But human error is just part of the game derrrrrrrrr”: I’ve tackled the “part of the game” argument before, and I’ll do it again. First of all, this isn’t the first time MLB has implemented a significant rule change. Here is a brief list of some of the more notable rule changes in baseball history, courtesy of Baseball Almanac:

      • 1889: Four balls became a base on balls.
      • 1891: Large padded mitts were allowed for catchers.
      • 1893: The rule allowing a flat side to a bat was rescinded and the requirement that the bat be round and wholly of hard wood was substituted. (Man, do I wish twitter existed for this one!)
      • 1925: The minimum home-run distance was set at 250 feet.
      • 1969: The pitcher’s mound was dropped five inches.
      • 1969: The strike zone was shrunken to the area from the armpits to the top of the batter’s knees.
      • 1973: The American League began using designated hitter for pitchers on an experimental basis.
      • 1994: Baseball totally allowed/encouraged rampant steroid use by almost all of its players.

Ok, so maybe the last one didn’t actually happen (or probably it did). But speaking of the DH, these “Part of the Gamers” are many of the same folks who are in favor of pitchers hitting in baseball. The primary argument for that absurd and outdated practice (aside from “but it’s part of the game derrrrrrr”) is that it adds an important strategic component to baseball. Well if that’s your argument, you should be all for instant replay! Just like NFL coaches, MLB managers will have to decide when to challenge a play with only a limited number of challenges available. Unlike NFL coaches, MLB managers won’t have 20 people in the booth watching on HDTVs telling them when to challenge a play through their headsets. You can’t be for strategy when it comes to the DH rule, but against it when it comes to replay.

2. “This is gonna cause a ridiculous amount of delays in a game that is already too long!” Yes, baseball games are long. But, I’m sorry, is watching baseball a form of torture?! Is anyone forcing you to watch games from start to finish? Maybe, just maybe, if you consistently get annoyed over the length of baseball games, you just don’t like baseball that much!

More importantly, this argument doesn’t actually hold water.  Decisions on replay calls will be made out of a central MLB office in New York, which will probably look a lot like the NHL’s “War Room” in Toronto, only it’ll be full of cups from Dunkin’ Donuts instead of Tim Hortons. These officials will be watching plays as they develop, which means that by the time the manager indicates his desire to challenge a play and the umpire gets on the phone, the officials will most likely already have a decision for them. MLB expects the average replay to take about 1 minute, 15 seconds – just enough time for the Anti-Replay Army to go make a Hot Pocket. (Quick tangent here: the easiest way to shorten games would be to limit the amount of time pitchers can take in between pitches. If you don’t think there will be a shot-clock-type rule implemented within the next 10 years, you’re nuts.)

3. “Managers will use this to their advantage by challenging plays to allow bullpen pitchers to warm up.”  This is a clever spin-off of the previous argument that, to be honest, I thought of as soon as word of the new system broke. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized what a negligible impact this would have on a game. As described above, chances are the replay process will not take very long – maybe just enough time to call the bullpen, wake up reliever X from his nap, and have him throw a 5-10 warm-up pitches.  This might be a problem if teams weren’t allowed two mound visits by coaches (per pitcher) and an unlimited number of mound visits by catchers, not to mention an unlimited amount of time between pitches, throws to first base, and stepping off the rubber. Why would a manager waste a precious challenge to allow a pitcher to warm up when he could just send out his pitching coach to chat about the weather? Until mound visits and other stall tactics are limited, this argument is of little concern.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that as a life-long baseball fan, MLB’s announcement regarding its use of instant replay didn’t feel right to me. In the end, though, this is the best thing for the game. In the absence of any legitimate reason not to take advantage of modern technology, MLB got this one right.

COUNTERPOINT: Baseball Missed the Mark on Instant Replay

By: Brian Mangan

I am a fan of expanded replay in baseball, but MLB’s current plan is a day late and a dollar short.

Although it is high time that MLB finally embrace the fact that it is 2013 and that the technology exists to implement replay, doing so through manager’s challenges is slow, complicated, sloppy, and detracts from the essence of the game of baseball.  Although some feel that this is a step in the right direction, I would rather that baseball stand pat rather than introduce a system with this many problems.

There is no question in my mind that expanded replay, in general, is a good idea.  Despite being somewhat of a traditionalist (I’m against the DH, for instance), I believe that if there were a way to get the important calls right without detracting from the game, I would be strongly in favor.  Home runs, bang-bang plays at bases, diving catches in the outfield – these are all things which can and should be reviewed.

However manager’s challenges are an inarticulate way of doing this.

1. As an initial matter, manager’s challenges present incredible logistical problems.  Can a manager use an extra challenge simply to delay a game to let a reliever warm up?  At what point would a manager need to challenge the play?  Is it simply before the next play takes place, or within some proscribed amount of time after the play in question?  What if the challenge is something that needs to take place in the middle of a play, like for instance, a tag play at a base when the play continues?

2. The current MLB proposal is nonsensical because it allows for only one challenge in the first six innings, and then two more in the final seven innings.  Why this bizarre limitation?  Games often turn altogether on plays that take place in the first six innings, yet a manager would have only one challenge.  Then two more challenges are added in the last three innings, which would likely add to delay, stress, and confusion for managers already overwhelmed by managing their bullpens and matchups.

3. Finally, manager’s challenges add an element of strategy to the game that has never existed before and that adds nothing to the game.  Even the NFL, the forerunner of the challenge-style replay system, has moved away from challenges.

The NFL is a drastically different sport than the MLB.  The NFL is a newer sport, one which is constantly changing, and is more spectacle than sport.  The NFL has more latitude to tweak and change the rules to try and develop a more entertaining product.  That said, the challenge has been an interesting addition to the NFL product.  However even in that sport, the challenge is going to the wayside in favor of automatic review of scoring plays and turnovers.

In MLB there is simply no reason to put the reviews in the hands of the on-field managers when the technology exists to have close plays reviewed automatically.

If you are not convinced yet, think about the way that the strategy of the manager’s challenge changes the game of baseball for the worse.

It’s Game 4 of the NLDS, and the Dodgers are taking on the Cardinals.  The Cardinals are down in the series 2-1, on the verge of elimination.  In the third inning, with one out, and the score tied at zero, the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig steals second base and, on an incredibly close play, is incorrectly called safe.

Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny is going to have to make a choice at this point: it’s only the third inning, and the call is close and uncertain, but is it worth challenging?  If he’s wrong, he’s out of challenges until the seventh inning. If he’s right, Puig is out, but the inning continues. 

Scenario 1:  Matheny decides not to challenge.  Puig comes around to score against Adam Wainwright on a two out single, and the Dodgers win 1-0, eliminating the Cardinals.

Scenario 2:  Matheny decides not to challenge.  Puig is stranded by Wainwright, but not until after Wainwright throws 32 pitches in the inning, and has to come out of the game after five innings.  The Dodgers get to the Cardinal bullpen, eliminating the Cardinals.

Scenario 3: Matheny decides to challenge.  The play is too close to call under the current evidentiary standard, and Matheny loses his challenge.  Puig does not score.  The next inning, Hanley Ramirez hits a ball off the top of the wall which is incorrectly ruled a home run, but Matheny cannot challenge the play.  The Dodgers win 1-0, eliminating the Cardinals. [note: the umpires can still review home runs, but Matheny would be powerless to initiate it]

Scenario 4:  Matheny decides to challenge.  Puig is correctly called out at second base.  Part of the narrative of the game becomes about Matheny’s great challenge.

This is just one simple, very common scenario.  Yet in each of those scenarios, the narrative of the game becomes about the decision to challenge, not the play on the field.  That’s not baseball.  Or at least, it’s not what I want baseball to become.

If we’re going to have replay, we need to implement it in the smartest, fastest, simplest way: a replay official in the booth.  Every fan can see when a call is close or wrong, thanks to slow motion and HD.  A replay official would be able to address those problems without taking away anything from the flow of the game or injecting an unnecessary element of artificial strategy.


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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of The Read Zone, and is glad all of his decisions aren’t scrutinized via slow motion replay.

Brian Mangan is the other guy, and is secretly scrutinizing Mike Abitabilo via slow motion replay (shh)

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Editors’ Note: an earlier draft of this article said that teams are allowed an unlimited number of mound visits by pitching coaches. While there is no limit to the number of total visits in an inning, Rule 8.06 of MLB’s Official Rules states that a second mound visit by a manager or coach in one inning to the same pitcher requires that pitcher to be removed. The rule does not address catchers’ visits or any of the other dilatory tactics described above. Interestingly, Rule 8.06 also contains a note regarding attempts at circumventing the mound visit rule. Should managers begin to use challenges for this purpose, MLB could certainly revise the rule to address this situation.