David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The overriding principle behind Major League Baseball’s new expanded replay system is a simple one: Above all else, to get the calls right.
Hard to argue with that.
But are they getting too many correct?
Before we spin off into baseball’s version of a Kubrick film or Vonnegut novel, stay with us for a minute. Through the first 138 games — not including the two in Sydney without replay — 21 calls had been overturned, according to MLB.
In other words, 21 situations in which the umpires ruled one way and the video conclusively showed it to be the opposite. And that’s great, because the objective here is to get it right, not have a blown call dissected long after a controversial play is over.
But at this pace, with a total of 2,430 games on the MLB schedule, that comes out to 370 overturned calls by the end of the regular season. And that doesn’t include the playoffs, when expanded replay could have a critical role.
Again, there’s a couple of ways to look at it. No offense to the umpires — who have a difficult job — but that seems like a heck of a lot of human error. For more than a century, it’s been understood that missed calls were just part of baseball. Everyone on the losing end — managers, players, fans — consoled themselves by saying those bad breaks ultimately would balance out over time.
Now, in this HD video age, with frame-by-frame super-slow mo, there are even more of those missteps than we previously thought. And that has necessitated some 21st-century scrubbing to clean up.
MLB, to its credit, realized that in making the technological upgrade for 2014.
“Overall, we are very pleased with the new system so far,’’ said MLB spokesman Mike Teevan, who handles replay issues. “There have been some bumps in the road, but given the substantial nature of the change, we did not expect perfection. We are particularly glad that the system allows us to address impactful, game-changing plays, which is our primary objective.’’
In total, through Thursday, replay had been used 67 times — that averages to about once every two games — with 25 of those calls “confirmed’’ and 20 characterized as “stands,’’ meaning there was insufficient video evidence to change the call. Along with the 21 overturned, that adds up to only 66, but as Teevan explained, one was a record-keeping issue for a balls-and-strikes count.
The system itself, which involves a central replay command center in Manhattan, appears to be operating according to plan, aside from maybe the occasional technical glitch. But the one part of the process that could use some streamlining is the protocol for challenging a call, which does not have the efficiency of the NFL’s red-flag toss.
What we have witnessed so far is managers using stall tactics — such as a slow stroll from the dugout to meet with an umpire — in order for his video crew to scrutinize a play from as many angles as possible. Only then, with the manager waiting for a thumbs up or thumbs down from the bench, does he formally make a challenge.
The unexpected side effect has been to virtually eliminate any arguments between managers and umpires.
“There’s a little bit of an awkwardness to it right now,’’ Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “You’re having a conversation where the umpire is asking you, ‘Are you waiting for the go-ahead call?’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, I am.’ So it takes the attention away from the play to how effective and efficient is your internal mechanism to come up with a challenge or not.
“That’s what gets stressed in all this — the person in the video room, the man behind the curtain. Is he saying go for it or no? Just talking to the umpires, they’re still growing through this, as we are, so there’s an awkwardness.’’
And all the while, the clock is ticking. Before implementing this next stage of replay, MLB officials were extremely worried about how it would affect the pace of games, something that is always a huge concern for the sport.
Heading into the 2014 season, the hope was to keep the time of a challenge below two minutes, and closer to 90 seconds.
Through Thursday, the average length from a challenge to the final ruling was 2:03, and according to Teevan, it has been trending downward.
MLB’s records show that the longest was 5:12, on a disputed eighth-inning foul ball during an April 2 game between the Cubs and Pirates (the call stood). The shortest took only 33 seconds to resolve an umpire review of a ninth-inning home run in Wednesday’s Pirates-Nationals game (confirmed).
MLB does not officially start the clock on a challenge until the umpire begins walking toward the headset, so the manager’s leisurely stroll from the dugout is not included in that estimate. As for the idea of throwing a flag trimming those extra minutes, MLB sees that as a potential problem.
If that were the case, a manager could have a discussion or argument with the umpire first, then return to the dugout to throw a flag, adding another step to the process. That might necessitate banning conversations between managers and umpires — or at least limiting them — and MLB believes that would be too drastic a measure.
“Baseball historically has encouraged personal interaction between players, managers and umpires,’’ Teevan said. “We were trying to preserve that element of the game.’’
As we’ve seen, that’s not easy, and we haven’t even touched on the troublesome collision rule, which is tangentially linked to expanded replay. What constitutes blocking the plate already has caused some confusion, and even replay — with its HD cameras and 12 different angles — can’t clear up the rule’s unspecific language.
But the best tool MLB has going for it is transparency, which is the most effective way to fix problems and correct mistakes. Not only is every replay shown on the stadium scoreboard during a challenge, but the process has its own Twitter feed, @MLBReplays, where fans can check on each video themselves.
Even with all that, we’re constantly reminded that only one thing is certain: Nobody’s perfect. Might as well adjust to it.