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Expanded instant replay approved, to start in Australia

Big news out of the owners' meetings in Paradise Valley yesterday, as they announced all parties have signed off on the introduction of the expanded instant replay scheme for 2014. The Diamondbacks' series against the Dodgers in Australia will be its first real test of the system.

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Jamie Sabau

Here are the main points of interest in the new scheme

  • A manager will get one challenge at the start of the game. If he uses this, and that challenge is upheld, he'll be able to make a second challenge. However, even if that leads to a reversed call, they won't get any more.
  • From the start of the seventh inning, the umpire crew chief can also request a replay of any call on the list above.
  • Things that can be reviewed: home runs, ground rule double, fan interference, stadium boundary calls such as a fielder or ball going into the stands, force outs (but not the fielder's touching of second on a double play), tags, fair/foul and trap plays in the outfield, hit batters, timing plays (whether a run scores before a third out), runners touching bases, runners passing and record keeping, such as the ball-strike count.
  • A hard-wired headset near home-plate will be used to communicate with the replay center in MLB Advanced Media's New York headquarters. They will access to footage from all cameras at the park; the on-site umpires will not be able to see the replay directly. Camera angles will apparently be standardized, though I'm not certain how that'll work, given the variety of ballpark architecture.
  • There will be no video equipment allowed in the dugout for managers to check and decide whether to request a review. However, each team can have a member of personnel in the clubhouse, with access to the same angles as the replay center, who can communicate to the dugout whether a challenge is worthwhile.
  • Teams can now show all replays on the stadium scoreboard, regardless of whether or not the play was reviewed or reversed. So, no more waiting for the fans at the concession stands to start booing a bad call, before you can join in!
  • The replay center official's decision is final, and managers can not argue further.

I'm keen to see how this works out. I've always been alongside Bob Brenly, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of more instant replay. Hard to argue with him when he says, "You get into extra innings, you get into the late innings of a close ballgame, you don't want the umpire to determine who wins a ballgame... I just think in any sport, especially this sport, any time you can eliminate mistakes, whether it's with technology or different positioning or whatever you can do, I think we owe it to the game to do it." Indeed, Brenly seems to favor going even further still, if I recall some energetic discussions between him and Steve Berthiaume over the "robot umps" issue. Maybe down the road...

The scheme has been revised somewhat since the original proposal, not least in a reduction of the number of challenges allowed. However, it is clearly a work in progress, and everyone involved seems happy to make whatever adjustments are necessary. Committee member Joe Torre said, "We're going to start this way and if something has to be adjusted, we'll certainly be aware of that. Like anything else, if we think something can make it better we're certainly going to go in that direction." Colleague and Braves president John Schuerholz agreed: "We'll check on how well we did after Year 1, again after Year 2 and after Year 3 we expect to be as near to perfection as we humans can get."

One potential loophole I see, is a pitcher pretending to tie his shoelace on the mound after a runner is called safe at home, so the video guy in the clubhouse can review the evidence and figure out whether to recommend a challenge to the dugout. The official release just says the manager kicks things off by "verbally indicating his intention to challenge, in a timely manner," which seems open to wide variation and abuse - especially in Red Sox-Yankees games, which proceed near the speed of continental drift at the best of times. Throw in a need now to give your member of staff time to review close plays and... Well, bring a book. I hear Wae & Peace has its moments.

Conversely, you could delay the game in the late inning with a spurious challenge, the same way gridiron teams call time outs as crucial field goals are being kicked. Though the effect of this on kickers is apparently open to doubt, making an opposing closer stand around for a bit while an obviously correct call is reviewed, could be a tactic used by less scrupulous managers.

It's also a little weird that the plays which can't be reviewed includes the notorious "neighborhood play" at second-base, when the pivot man on a double-play ball might not actually touch the bag. I think permitting this was kept as an unwritten rule, mostly in the interests of player safety, since they already have enough to do. Though I'd say if safety were really the goal, then - oh, I dunno - giving the pivot man the same protection as catchers are going to get, would seem like a more effective solution.

Still, overall, even if there will certainly be tweaks needed, it's an improvement over the existing system, which was basically next to no system at all, and a step in the right direction. In an ideal universe, games would be decided purely by the skill of the participants, not an umpire blinking at the wrong moment. While we may not be there yet, it's closer in 2014 than it was in 2013, and I can only support that.