MLB managers should be challenging a lot more in 2023

Now on the clock with their decisions, managers are challenging at the same rate this season but doing so less successfully

NEW YORK — There have been other expensive teams in baseball history. There are even other expensive teams this year. But two teams in particular have come to represent a philosophical no-holds-barred approach to baseball. The way that Steve Cohen spends on the New York Mets and Peter Seidler spends on the San Diego Padres seems to indicate that the two billionaires abide by the financial approach of “you can’t take it with you” with respect to their fortunes.

That’s in part because Seidler literally told The San Diego Union-Tribune: “I kind of like spending money … You can’t take it with you.”

The implications are perhaps not as profound, but the same could be said about manager replay challenges. There’s no downside to “spending” the one allotted to each team per game — especially since you get to keep it if you’re correct and the call is overturned — and there’s certainly no value in leaving them unused.

The benefit of challenges, of course, is strictly situational. But along with brains, brawn and dollar bills, they are one small bullet that every baseball team has at its disposal. So why are these two teams — who are ostensibly throwing everything they have at winning — so often leaving that bullet in the chamber?

In fact, why are managers across the board using their challenges so sparingly?

As a spring training dominated by adapting to new rules wound down in March, Jayson Stark wrote about something that had gone unnoticed: As part of Major League Baseball’s assault on dead time during games, managers would now be on a — strictly enforced — clock when it came to requesting replay reviews. There have been loosely adhered to time limits in the past, but this required an adjustment to the process that had developed, whereby managers would stall for a bit as the team’s replay specialist reviewed multiple angles, looking for something the umpire might’ve missed with the naked eye.

The Mets, specifically, had developed a charming reputation for approaching that part of the game as an opportunity to gain an edge. Showalter regularly credited Harrison Friedland, the team’s replay strategist, by name in 2022, and Friedland's re-signing was reported among the team's other offseason moves. Together, Friedland and Showalter logged a historic 78.8% success rate on challenges during the Mets’ 101-win campaign.

But the new time constraint? “It’s made it tougher on the manager. That’s for sure,” Showalter told Stark.

The Mets manager cautioned at the time that this rule change could end up actually slowing down the game, as managers held up their hands to signal they might challenge more often in order to buy their replay experts at least a few seconds. There’s no record of such near-challenges, but if Showalter thought a more hurried process would result in more actual challenges, he was wrong with respect to himself.

And that’s to his team’s detriment.

In 2022, Showalter challenged 33 times and got 26 overturned calls (tied for the most in MLB). That’s 0.20 challenges per game and 0.16 calls per game overturned in the Mets’ favor. Through 55 games in 2023, he has challenged 11 times — also 0.20 challenges per game.

Far more meaningful, however, is that those 11 challenges have resulted in just two calls overturned — 0.04 per game, or one-fourth last year’s rate — tied with Padres manager Bob Melvin, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli and Angels manager Phil Nevin for the fewest successful challenges this year. After finishing last season with the highest success rate, Showalter has the second-lowest success rate this season, and only Melvin has challenged effectively less often.

The point is not to pick on Showalter and the Mets; rather, the disparity between last season and this — and the stakes of every favorable call for a team with high expectations enduring a slow start — help to illustrate that the league at large doesn’t seem to have adapted. In 2022, MLB managers as a whole issued 0.22 challenges per game at a 49.0% success rate, which means that 0.11 calls per game were overturned based on manager challenges.

Remarkably, through a third of the 2023 season, managers are challenging calls at exactly the same pace, 0.22 per game. But with the time to internally review a play slashed, they’re less successful, getting just 45.8% of calls overturned.

Let’s go back to the extreme example of the Mets. The strategy last season was clear: precision. They challenged an average number of times and ended up with the most overturned calls. This year, so far at least, the strategy of challenging only when they’re confident about getting it right clearly isn’t working. In this new replay environment, the same approach has them last in advantageous overturns. In that case, instead of being precise, it might behoove a manager in 2023 to be liberal with their use of challenges, to err on the side of calling for a review if the play is close rather than waiting for something more clear-cut.

Showalter told Yahoo Sports this week that the Mets haven’t missed any opportunities. He was confident they were challenging everything worth challenging. That’s difficult to prove or disprove. Close calls aren’t a tracked stat, and there’s no particular reason to assume they happen at a consistent rate. But, I don’t know, does it feel airtight? With one challenge at their disposal every game, have the Mets really been on the wrong end of a missed call only twice this season?

As for casting a wider net with his challenges, Showalter’s concern is reasonable — what if you lose your challenge because you're wrong the first time, only to need it later in the game, at a higher-leverage moment, when the umpire’s error is more obvious? That would be bad! But over the past two seasons, teams are challenging only once every four games. So chances are, if you see an opportunity to potentially swing things back in your team’s favor, you can take it without worrying too much that a better one is just a few innings away.

That’s especially true because, for all that I’ve bothered to write about success rate, the only metric that really matters is the number of calls overturned. Each one turns win probability lost into win probability added, pushing a pivotal moment (because even the lowest-leverage situations have the potential to be pivotal) and possibly the momentum of the game back toward your team. Whereas each unsuccessful challenge costs only the chance to challenge again that night — plus maybe a little bit of pride.

I have to think the league would not appreciate a “Challenge Everything” approach. But, as the very existence of replay review presupposes, humans are not perfect. Surely at least some blown calls are going unchallenged, and there’s just no reason for that.

After all, you can’t take them with you.

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