When Major League Baseball’s replay review system shows its faults, it is common to hear complaints that suggest scrapping the entire thing.
“It makes me not even want it anymore, honestly,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said after his team lost a game last Sunday because Alec Bohm of the Phillies was called safe on a slide at home despite never touching the plate.
“It just slows the game down,” d’Arnaud fumed to reporters after the Braves lost their replay challenge in the ninth inning of what became a 7-6 Phillies win. “It took five minutes for them to decide that, and to me, they got it wrong. I’d rather just not have it and get the game going.”
Between Bohm’s mythical touch of home; Mets outfielder Michael Conforto’s walk-off “hit by pitch” that came on a strike he stuck his heavily padded elbow out to meet; a 15-minute double-review in a game between the Angels and Blue Jays that seemed to derail Angels starter Jose Quintana due to the lengthy pause; and, to a smaller degree, the debate about whether Cardinals outfielder Justin Williams was in fair or foul territory when Tommy Edman’s down-the-line liner struck him, replay-review angst was all the rage through the first 200 or so games of the season.
But improving the process, not eliminating it altogether, should be the rallying cry.
It’s important to remember a few things.
Most — not all — umpires are very good at their very hard jobs. Most replay reviews work. Most of them occur within the two-minute window the league suggests for a timeline. And most don’t incite anger or confusion.
Sports Illustrated reported there were 526 reviews during last season’s 898 regular-season games. The overwhelming majority were executed without drama. Still, there is room for improvement. Clearly.
Three simple, common-sense changes could produce a better process and product for umpires, players, managers and fans.
Independence: When a play heads to MLB league headquarters in New York to be reviewed, the original call that was made on the field matters. A lot more than it should, it often seems. Instead of being asked to make the right call, the umpires in New York are asked to determine if the call on the field was right. It’s right here in the rules: “Replay officials review all calls subject to replay review and decide whether to change the call on the field, confirm the call on the field or let stand the call on the field due to the lack of clear and convincing evidence.” This setup creates a system that cannot truly be independent, not when the replay officials in New York are major league umpires who are splitting shifts between the replay command and on-field action. See the potential rub? Overturning a peer’s call comes with a negative connotation. A fellow umpire got something wrong. Removing the initial call from the equation, and asking only that the review determines which call should be made — not if the call made was correct — would help decrease the risk of intentional or unintentional bias.
Expansion: How Bohm’s slide was not overturned boggles the mind, but the missed call that was even worse was Conforto’s fraudulent HBP.
“The guy was hit by the pitch in the strike zone,” umpire Ron Kulpa admirably told a pool reporter after he reviewed the mistake that led to a 3-2 Mets win. “I should have called him out.”
But where was the replay review to have Kulpa’s back before a play that should have been ruled a dead-ball strike turned into a walk-off winner for the Mets? It wasn’t there to save him, thanks to convoluted rules.
The only part of that play that was reviewable was if the ball hit Conforto. If the pitch was in the strike zone was not reviewable. Neither was determining if Conforto leaned into the pitch, which he did, clearly. Whether or not a player intentionally slides into a player to break up a double play is reviewable, but a batter’s intent on leaning into a pitch is not. Does that make sense? It shouldn’t.
The list of what is reviewable needs to be expanded, by a lot. Wanting to keep balls and strikes off that list is understandable, but if an event like a hit-by-pitch brings it into the realm of discussion, determining if that pitch was a ball or strike should be fair game. The Williams play was another that was not reviewable, because the current rules allow only balls that first land at or beyond the set positions of the first or third-base umpire to be examined. Yet another self-imposed limitation. Protecting umpires should not be the goal. Getting calls right should be the goal.
Explanation: This last tweak would require no significant rule change. Just a microphone. The crew chief should explain the final result to fans in the stands. This was supposed to start last season. Still waiting.
The replay system is not broken. It can and should be improved. The sooner, the better.