How to fix instant replay in Major League Baseball

We are now in the third season of expanded instant replay throughout Major League Baseball, and the system is still far from efficient. The ability to review contentious umpire decisions on the field is a progressive tool, and baseball benefits from such modernisation, but there must be a way to improve its impact on the game. 

Even as a diehard fan with an unconditional love for baseball, I have been left frustrated in recent seasons by the clumsy implementation of replay. I will always watch games, but the casual fan simply does not have time to sit around for three or four minutes awaiting the outcome of a fairly nondescript challenge at first base before the action can recommence.

The world moves too fast these days. We have dozens of apps and gadgets and activities competing for our time. Baseball, a naturally slow game, needs to be crisper, and the current guise of instant replay is not an ally in that fight. 

So, after bottling up my nagging worries on this subject for too long, it is time to highlight the real problems and offer some solutions to baseball’s instant replay project.

Eliminate the video room guy

Right now, a massive grey area engulfs how a manager actually challenges a specific play. According to the rules, a team has until the next pitch to lodge a review of the previous play. In this context, delaying the game is permissible, which counteracts the hard work being done by Commissioner Rob Manfred to improve pace of play.

The sight of a manager strolling slowly out of the dugout has thankfully been eliminated, but we are still waiting far too long as a team checks first with its assistant bunkered down in the video room before issuing a challenge.

The manager simply will not challenge until he gets the green light, which comes after multiple reviews in the clubhouse. I believe removing that guy altogether, and having managers rely solely on instinct, would be the single biggest improvement to instant replay.

Remove the dugout phones and give the manager a 15-second clock after the end of each play in which to challenge. No lengthy conversations with the video assistant. No stalling and manipulation. Just rely on your gut. If a manager thinks the call was obviously wrong, he can challenge. Otherwise, let’s keep the game rolling.

As we have seen, this system only overturns decisions that are overwhelmingly incorrect, so the manager should not challenge every single close play, as is increasingly becoming the norm. By removing that opportunity to review the play internally, games would speed up, the amount of incongruous challenges would be reduced, and a layer of strategic intrigue would even be added. The league could even give a challenge flag to managers, who would have an added responsibility rather than delegating it to the video room attendant.

No more headphones!

I cringe whenever the umpires gather around that ubiquitous bundle of electronics equipment then proceed to attach bulky headphones in order to communicate with the central review office in New York. I mean seriously, is this the 1990s?

We live in a world of incredible technology, with phones that double as personal computers and cars powered by electricity. We have put men on the moon, but the best communication equipment we can provide for major league umpires is a bag of wires wheeled out by an intern? We must do better.

I understand that the league wants to emphasise the image of an umpire communicating with New York. In a verbose manner, it shows that there is no corruption in the replay process. But please, give these guys a wireless headset or a small handheld gadget through which to learn the outcome of reviews. Better still, why not just remove them from the process entirely?

Flash the result of all challenges on the video board, like in rugby and tennis, so there is a distinct centre of attention for fans, who currently have to look out at a field full of players milling about aimlessly. While somewhat egregious, teams could even use the video board to make this into a fun addition for fans, especially the younger generation.

In the twenty-first century, I just feel like there has to be a sharper, more codified way of relaying information from the central video room to the ballpark. Admittedly, instant replay is never going to be a riveting spectacle, but two umpires unwinding headphones then signalling with their hands is perhaps the most unimaginative way of doing this. Let’s at least try to make an inherently boring act more palatable.

Make it faster

In late April, a study by Jayson Stark of ESPN showed that replay reviews have increased by 35% so far this season. According to MLB, a review took 1 minute and 54 seconds on average in the same timespan, which is roughly the same as the previous two seasons.

I still believe we can do this faster. There is refreshing momentum towards shortening games, with timers on commercial breaks and mound visits, but instant replay is still a cumbersome process.

Again, we have tremendous technology at our disposal, but perhaps the central review office is using too much of it. Whether it means using less camera angles, or eliminating the super slow-motion replays, Rob Manfred should certainly consider a study into speeding up the actual process of analysing plays.

According to research by Stark, 57% of all reviews are on tag plays and force outs, which for me has become the most noticeable frustration. Right now, it feels like every single stolen base is contested by the opposing team.

We are subjected to dozens of replays from a myriad of angles, often analysing whether a player stayed on the base as a tag was applied. I’m really not sure that was the intended utility of instant replay. The intention to get calls right is noble and welcome but delving so deep damages the spirit and flow of competition.

In general terms, we have a pretty good instinct as to whether a guy stole a base. Scrutinising every minutiae of such plays seems like a misapplication of replay that is difficult to watch.

Here, it is also important to clarify the overall purpose of instant replay. Is it to get every single play correct in every single game? Or is it just to eliminate the explicitly awful blown calls that dramatically alter the outcome of games? I feel like the original implementation was aimed more towards the latter, with the former becoming prevalent due to the system lacking structure.

Final thoughts on instant replay in MLB

On the whole, instant replay has been a positive addition to Major League Baseball. The ability to overturn bad calls is a necessity in this modern age. However, even three seasons into the project, some glaring issues are yet to be resolved.

We should always be motivated to make instant replay faster, more polished and less granular. With just a few tweaks, as outlined above, those objectives are certainly attainable. So far, progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. Hopefully we get there one day.

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