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Instant replay in major league baseball: Will it work or cause new problems?

Updated on August 17, 2012

Major League baseball is still considering expanding its use of instant replay for the 2013 season. Currently it uses replay only for home run calls.

If it does expand replay, according to the labor deal negotiated with the players, it would be used on fair and foul calls and trapped balls in the outfield. The issue is still open for discussion with the umpires’ union but at this point, it does not appear that close plays at the bases will be subject to review, and certainly not balls and strikes calls.

It isn’t clear at this point if replay would involve every close call in those situations or only when a manager challenges it. It also didn’t say how close the calls had to be in order to constitute a replay.

I recently had a lengthy discussion with a friend about this subject. He believes that replay should be available for everything, including balls and strikes, but should be governed by the two-challenge rule that NFL coaches have. I am much more hesitant about it, not so much because I’m a traditionalist but because I think it will be hard to implement without causing some major snags in the game.

Baseball umps face different challenges than football refs

One of the biggest hurdles is that baseball umpires, unlike referees in other sports, must make an instant and decisive call on every pitch and every play. In football, for instance, if a ref isn’t sure if a player stepped out of bounds or not, he can let the play continue and, if challenged, a replay can always correct the mistake and place the ball at the right spot. In baseball, the umpire must immediately declare a ball fair or foul because the continuation of the play hinges on it.

Unlike football, the offense in baseball depends on what the defense does with the ball when it’s put in play. In football, if a referee declares the ball wasn’t caught, play stops. In baseball, if the ump rules the player didn’t make a catch, play starts. If a football referee gets it wrong, it’s fairly easy to say OK, the offense gets the ball at this spot with little consequence. Most of those questionable catches come on dives or plays on the sideline where the receiver would have gained little additional yardage anyway.

* Voice your opinion in the poll at the end of this column *

The same isn’t true in baseball. If the ump rules a catch but the replay shows it wasn’t, you can’t just say, OK, now play will continue. You’d have to determine where to place the runners, and that could become quite subjective. Would a fast runner have scored from second had the ump correctly ruled a trap? Or would he have been held at third?

Foul/fair calls could go the same way, of course. As soon as an ump rules a foul ball, runners stop running and fielders quit chasing the ball. If replay shows that the ump blew the call and it was fair, you can’t just resume the play. You have to place everyone somewhere, maybe like on a ground rule double. But again, you don’t know how the play might have gone. Many balls hit down the line take funny caroms that allow a speedy runner to reach third, or they bounce right to a fielder with a strong arm and the runner is held at first.

How close is close enough for a replay?

One thing that would need to be determined is how close does the call have to be to warrant a replay? Managers in the dugout have an awful view of the lines. I’ve seen managers pop out of the dugout to argue a foul call where the ball clearly landed a foot foul.

Even if MLB rules that it’s only on balls within a few inches of the line, that could stretch things out significantly. I’ve seen players have more than one close call in a single plate appearance. Some games have three or four close calls. Considering it might take three minutes per call, you could easily add 10 or 15 minutes to a game.

How will delays and costs affect the game?

While football has frequent delays built into it – TV timeouts, injuries, 45 seconds between plays – baseball is a more continuous game. If no one is on base, a pitcher has 12 seconds to throw the next pitch, starting when he receives the ball from the catcher. Umpires allow a little longer when the pitcher is in the stretch. Anyone who has flipped back and forth between baseball and football games in the fall knows that you can see two or three pitches between each play in football.

Unlike in football, where a quarterback might go five minutes without throwing a pass, baseball pitchers naturally develop a rhythm. Delaying a game for instant replay, especially if it happens several times in an inning, could affect the pitcher’s ability to continue throwing well. The outcome of the game could be affected in a way completely different than it would have been from a wrong call.

Another consideration in the instant replay debate is the cost. Every one of the 30 stadiums will need to set up new cameras to ensure fairness in the calls. This would be a significant cash outlay for MLB. While it’s nice to think that the owners and players will magnanimously foot the bill for this, the reality is that the fans will ultimately pay for it through increased prices for tickets and merchandise.

Will instant replay solve any controversies?

Once it’s in place, I’m not convinced it will end any controversies. The majority of controversy surrounding umpire calls is with balls and strikes. Arguing those has always been taboo and those will probably never be challenged. The next biggest source of controversy lies in out/safe calls at the bases, but according to what I’ve read, the labor agreement doesn’t cover replay on those calls. Fair/foul calls and trapped balls in the outfield are a relatively minor source of contention.

While the replay rule as suggested may have ended Johan Santana’s no hitter this season (the Cardinals contend a ball ruled foul actually hit the chalk), it would not have changed perhaps the most controversial of all plays, the blown call by Jim Joyce at first base that ruined Armando Galarraga’s perfect game in 2010.

Umpires certainly aren’t perfect when it comes to making calls, but I don’t think instant replay will be perfect, either. It’s a matter of deciding which imperfection we want to live with.

What do you think?

Should Major League baseball expand instant replay for fair/foul calls and trapped catches?

See results

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    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      If a play is reviewed and it is seen to be factual by an ump, then so be it. If it is seen by two or more umps and a decision is made, it should stand and without replays. Take away the human element and you lose another part of the game we all love. There has been enough meddling in the past and should suit most, as it is. A good hub and one of needed discussion.

    • adjkp25 profile image

      David 5 years ago from Northern California

      I have no problem with them taking a minute to get a call right. I do acknowledge that the game will always have a human touch to it but if we can get something right why not?

      I don't think it will be anything like the reviews in the NFL where they frequently take more than a minute. It seems like MLB does get it looked at quicker than that.