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Early Reviews on MLB Instant Replay

Doug Pessinger/Getty

Major League Baseball instituted a new instant replay rule for the 2014 season. Only 19 games in, the new rules and technology have stirred controversy both old and new. The replay rules provide managers with 3 challenges – one in the first six innings of the game and two beyond that. Under the new system 89 percent of plays are deemed reviewable. Should a manager exhaust his three challenges, the umpiring crew can still convene to conduct their own review of a questionable homerun. According to MLB, entering Sunday, replay had been used 115 times in 262 regular season games. Managers had challenged a total of 113 calls and, of those, 46 were overturned. Baseball has acknowledged that the system will be imperfect and that there would be kinks to work out.

Amongst the issues created by the new replay system is the time it takes to review calls. Managers now, rather than storming onto the field to argue a call in a fit of hurried rage, stroll leisurely to the umpire in an effort to stall while team officials watch replays of the call in question in order to buy time and decide whether to challenge the call or not. One statistic has indicated that the replay rule has extended the game time an average of 7 minutes per game from 2 hours and 58 minutes to 3 hours and 5 minutes.

There’s also the case where replay fails to get the call correct. When a team’s manager challenges a play, the umpires communicate with the new Replay Command Center in New York City to have the calls reviewed. The replay center provides the game umpire with one of 3 possible outcomes – the play stands as called, the play is overturned or the evidence is inconclusive, meaning the play on the field stands. Red Sox manager John Farrell expressed some frustration after a game in which a crucial call review was ruled inconclusive, stating, “It’s hard to have any faith in the new system.”

Perhaps the most controversy with instant replay in baseball has been the interpretation of the so called “transfer rule”. During Sunday night’s Orioles vs. Red Sox game, Orioles 2B Ryan Flaherty took a throw at second base, touched the bag and, when reaching into his glove for the ball in order to make a throw to first base, dropped the ball. The runner was called safe at second base, the Orioles failed to get out of the inning, gave up 2 more runs and went on to unravel and lose the game.

Similar plays have been subject to review by outfielders catching the ball and then dropping it when transferring it to their throwing hand. According to MLB a “catch” is defined as “the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it”. The rule goes on the say, “If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be judged to have been caught. 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.” The introduction of super slow motion instant replay has changed the judgment of umpires regarding this rule. What used to be a catch is no longer a catch.

Baseball knew the transition to the instant replay system wouldn’t be seamless. And it hasn’t been. But the system has helped umpires get more calls right. Baseball will have to make some tweaks to the system, and is already planning to do so regarding the “transfer rule”, but when those changes will be implemented are the source of more debate. Do they just fix it mid-season in order to correct the problems that have arisen? Surely teams that have had outcomes changed already this season will balk. Do they change the rules prior to the post-season, introducing more uncertainty when the stakes are higher? Or wait for the off-season to implement fixes while playing out almost an entire year with a broken system? Despite the time it takes, the few inaccuracies thus far and the naysayers complaining, getting as many calls right as possible should be the ultimate goal.

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