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Using and abusing MLB's new challenge system

Are the new rules creating more problems than they are solving?

Scott Halleran

Let's talk for a minute about the new transfer rule.

Last night, Kyle Seager applied a tag to Marlins' pinch-hitter Reed Johnson as he dove for third base on a bunt single by left fielder Christian Yelich. At first glance, the flip from Yoervis Medina to Seager looked clean, as did the tag. Seager snared the ball deep in his glove and held it up for the third base ump, who immediately called Johnson out. Slow-motion replay revealed a smidgen of uncertainty on Seager's part. He planted his feet and began the relay to first base, only to be caught off-guard by Johnson sliding into his cleats. As he went to throw the ball, it slipped from his glove and he caught it against his chest.

This was enough for Miami manager Mike Redmond, who had received a memo about this particular slip-up earlier in the day. With a tie game and no outs in the bottom of the 9th, he invoked his challenge and convinced the umpiring crew to overturn their call and award third base to Johnson, claiming that Seager had lost possession of the ball on a relay he didn't get a chance to attempt, much less complete.

On one hand, there was little chance of that play giving the Mariners a significant advantage, unless Seager managed to turn a clean double play with Johnson out at third and Yelich out at first. If the initial call were upheld, Yelich would still be on first base and Giancarlo Stanton still would've received an at-bat during the inning. A three-run walk-off home run achieves the same result as a grand slam walk-off home run.

On the other hand, had Lloyd McClendon been in Redmond's position, I probably would've backed his decision to challenge the call. Anything to give your team an advantage with the game on the line, right?

Even if that were the case, however, it still seems like a manipulation of the rules to call Johnson safe on the slightest of technicalities. Had Seager mishandled the ball and consequently attempted a throw to first base, it might've made more sense to charge him with lack of possession. Because he caught it snugly in his glove when Johnson touched third base and never got the chance to make the throw to first, claiming a lack of possession seems... petty, for lack of a better word.

These are the official guidelines for determining a legal catch, according to Close Call Sports and, by extension, the Harry Wedelstedt Umpire School (emphasis mine):

"In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. [...] the umpires will determine whether the fielder obtained possession but dropped the ball while in the act of making a throw during the momentum of the catch. [...] it shall not be adjudged to be a catch if, while in the act of making a throw during the momentum, the fielder loses possession of the ball in the transfer (e.g., flip from the glove) before he secures the ball with his throwing hand."

Close Call Sports explains the rule further, stating, "Without allowing the momentum of the catch to complete--securing firm possession of the ball in the glove--a fielder who loses possession of the ball prior to securing it in his throwing hand will be adjudged to have dropped the throw, resulting in a no catch safe call."

There are two points of contention I have with the guidelines stated above and the ruling meted out by the crew last night. First, the issue of dropping the ball versus bobbling it. It's undeniable that Seager momentarily lost control of the ball while considering a throw to first base, but it was not flipped in the air nor dropped on the ground. Second, he had not begun throwing to first base when he bobbled the ball. Although it looked like that was his intention, he had not begun the motion of throwing the ball and the bobble came after he cleanly fielded the throw from Medina and applied the tag to Johnson.

Even if the umpires made the correct call (and I'm fully willing to admit that I may be wrong here), there remains the issue of the intended effect that instant replay and team challenges should have on any given game. Finding loopholes and harping on technicalities hardly seems like a good use of the time and resources allotted to major league managers. Instant replay and the managers' ability to enforce its use is put in place to not only hold umpires accountable for inevitable mistakes, but to allow them a second pair of eyes so that no major mistakes take place during a game. Would upholding Seager's catch have been a major error on the part of Lance Barrett? I doubt it, though Mike Redmond would almost certainly disagree.

Before we leave this subject, here are a few interesting tidbits from Close Call Sports regarding instant replay reviews in 2014:

  • Third base umpire Lance Barrett has judged two of three instant replay challenges correctly.
  • Seager's bobble inspired Mike Redmond's sixth challenge of the season, though this was the first involving a dropped transfer. He carries a success rate of 33.3%.
  • By comparison, Lloyd McClendon has seen exactly 50% (2 of 4) instant replay challenges overturned in the Mariners' favor. He has won two challenges based on the new catch/transfer rule, once in spring training and once during the regular season.
  • Overall, major league umpires have made 68 of 110 instant replay reviews correctly this year.

What do you think: Is the instant replay and challenge system working in teams' favor or creating more headaches for players than is necessary? What changes would you implement in the system to make it more helpful for players and managers?