Since expanded instant replay was introduced in baseball in 2014, we’ve all grown very familiar with the procedure. A play happens, a manager challenges it (or an umpire decides it should be reviewed), and two umpires walk to foul territory and put on giant headsets with microphones.
Then they stand there for what seems like an eternity while we all watch them intently, waiting to for the moment when they look like they’re listening to someone talk, or when their hands fly up to their ears to remove those huge, silly looking headsets. (Seriously, those headsets look like they were transported directly from 1985.)
And then the umpires make their ruling, the crowd cheers or boos, and the game moves on. The only information we’re given is whether the call was overturned, confirmed, or if it stands. The TV and radio announcers are left to figure out why it happened, just as the viewers are. But according to Ben Walker of the Associated Press, we may soon get to hear more about replay rulings, and directly from the umpires themselves.
While nothing is set, Major League Baseball and umps are expected to discuss a plan — most prominently used in the NFL — for crew chiefs to wear a microphone and explain replay rulings.
Everything is in the early stages at this point, but this could be unveiled as early as the All-Star Game in Miami on June 11. However, there’s still a fair bit of negotiation to be done, especially since the umpires are in the middle of their current labor deal with MLB.
Most fans usually recoil in horror whenever someone talks about making Major League Baseball more like the NFL, but this is an idea that could really work. One of the major flaws in the replay review process (beyond the time it takes, which is something that will never really be fixed) is the lack of information. The play is reviewed by an umpire back at MLB HQ, and the ruling is handed down, but no one definitively knows why. Saying that a play was overturned, confirmed, or stands is not enough, especially since replay review is such a public process. Everyone is watching the umpires while they wait for the ruling, and it makes no sense for the reasoning to be shrouded in mystery.
Of course, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. Adding this component to the replay reviews will make them take longer, which literally no one wants. And this new procedure will only be useful if enough details are included in the explanation. According to Baseball Savant, in 2016 about 70% of all replay reviews were for plays at first or tag plays. Saying “safe” or “out” typically covers what you need to know with those plays, so to make the time and effort for this new procedure worth it, the umpire will have to go into specific detail. Like when the runner’s hand came off the bag, or where the tag was placed on the body, or any of an infinite number of contextual details that would make this procedure worth our time.
It’s a little surprising that MLB is actually attempting to respond to a legitimate criticism and trying to make it better. Or maybe it’s surprising that their solution is so concrete and would actually fix the problem. Rob Manfred has been talking about baseball’s pace-of-action problem for years now, but the implemented fixes have barely made a dent. We almost expect MLB to try several indirect solutions first. But in this case, they saw a problem and found a solution that would actually fix it. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
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