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MLB instant replay: progress, but in the wrong direction

Major League Baseball takes a step towards getting calls right, but botches the execution. Here's why MLB's proposed instant replay policy misses the mark.

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Major League Baseball has taken a page out of the NFL's book with their new instant replay proposal, set to debut at some point next season. If you missed yesterday's news, here's the general rundown. Managers will get a set of challenges. One before the sixth inning, and two in the seventh inning and beyond. If they win a challenge before inning seven, they don't lose it. Challenges don't carry over, and calls will be reviewed by a crew in New York. 89% of all calls will be reviewable, and umpires can still review home run calls after all challenges are exhausted. It won't involve balls/strikes.

It took me a while to gather my thoughts on this proposal. The system didn't seem optimal, but I couldn't shake myself to anything more than indifference. But the more I thought about the logistics, the more confused I became. MLB is well-intentioned in adding instant replay. The goal should be to get the calls right every single time, and while this is a backwards way of doing so, at least more calls will be accurate. Unfortunately, the implementation of this system is a total mess.

It's ridiculous to think that the most important calls happen later in the game. Baseball is linear. You add up all runs scored, and the team with the most wins. MLB is working under some sort of assumption that later innings have more weight, and the extra challenges after the 7th inning are when the game is on the line. If a manager burns a challenge on a second inning play he can't really see from the dugout that the fans boo, he can't challenge a bases clearing double down the line that landed three inches foul in the 5th? It doesn't make any sense.

The challenge system itself is absurd as well. Are managers going to throw out little rosin bag challenge flags from the dugout? It seems to me that managers will be more encouraged to engage in arguments or explanations from umps, now that it's in their right to do so upwards of three times a game. Baseball's a slow game, and it's always been understood that adding instant replay would slow things up a little bit more. But this system isn't really instant replay, is it? Imagine this. A manager saunters out to chat with an umpire, while the bat boy scrambles into the clubhouse to watch the replay on TV, then he sprints back to the dugout to signal to the first base coach that the manager shouldn't throw the flag. The first base coach then catches the manager's eye, gives a slight shake of the head, and the conversation abruptly ends. It's the first inning. This happens again in the third, and so on.

The truly mystifying aspect of this system is placing a burden on the managers, who in reality, don't have a great view of the game. If they're sitting down, they can't see much at all. In the visitor's dugout, their view of bang bang plays at first base is worse than several thousand fans. The expectation that they're able to tell from the dugout one way or another is silly, and asking them to throw challenge flags based on a sub-par view doesn't seem remotely accurate. Are players going to shout at their managers to throw the flag, like in the NFL?

It seems to me that this proposal is more about adding drama to the game than it is getting the calls accurate. This isn't the NFL, where you can watch the nose of a football graze the ground on an interception and argue for ten minutes over whether it's the right call or not, all while you can barely see underneath a tangled mess of cleats, arms, and helmets. Close calls in baseball are going to be fairly evident right away, and fans are going to be left sitting around for a decision on something they know is right or wrong almost instantly.

If Major League Baseball wants to make the game better and get the calls right, the solution is simple. Place another umpire upstairs, monitoring the game on video. If there's a questionable or close call, the umpire upstairs notifies the crew chief in some way that the play is under review, he holds his arms up, and the correct call should be made within 30 seconds. Done. The correct call is made, and there's no unrest, no waiting, no blatantly manufactured drama.

Despite all of the criticism, this is still a step towards getting the right calls made. The worst case scenarios I laid out aren't going to happen very often, but they shouldn't happen at all. If this is what baseball has to go through to get to a more efficient way of clearing things up, then I'll sit through it with teeth clenched, waiting for them to wake up. Hopefully MLB officials read how fans and analysts are reacting, take the criticism, and get it right the first time. There's really no reason not to.

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