MLB’s new video replay system confuses, doesn’t distract

April 11, 2014 

It’s too early to draw many conclusions about Major League Baseball’s new replay review system, so I’ll draw only two of them.

 • Expanded replay is not as effective at curtailing controversy as proponents hoped.

 • Expanded replay is not the time-consuming nuisance detractors feared.

Personally? When MLB announced plans to allow managers the chance to challenge various rulings on the field in 2014, I wasn’t sure what I thought. All I knew is that I was confused.

Now that we’re almost two weeks into the season, I’m still not sure what I think. All I know is that I’m confused.

Take the call Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon successfully appealed the other night. During the fifth inning of Tuesday’s home opener against the Los Angeles Angels, with one out and Justin Smoak on second, Corey Hart hit a routine fly to left fielder Josh Hamilton, who caught the ball before dropping it on the transfer from his glove to his throwing hand.

Since the beginning of time, umpires have determined that play to be an out because the drop was unrelated to the catch. They ruled Hart out, too, but McClendon had a challenge to use — before the seventh inning, managers are given one challenge that, if upheld, enables them a second challenge — and McClendon used it.

Upon consulting with a replay review umpire monitoring the game in New York, the call was changed from out to safe. When action resumed, Smoak, who had correctly positioned himself midway between the bases and had advanced once he saw the ball was dropped, figured to be on third.

But Smoak, for reasons that remain unclear — did I mention how confusing some of this is? — was sent back to second.

Simply put, the review presented two possible outcomes: Either it was an out, requiring Smoak to stay in place, or it was an error that gave Smoak the freedom to hustle to third.

The umpires arrived at another outcome: No catch, but no advancement by Smoak from second base. McClendon disputed the decision for a moment, but his heart wasn’t in it. He had won the challenge, and besides, it’s tough to argue rules nobody understands.

I promised I’d draw only two premature conclusions about a replay review system MLB admits to be a work in progress, but when it comes to premature conclusions, I’m greedy.

Here are two more:

 • The definition of a catch has changed — and changed permanently, it appears — from securing the ball to securing the ball long enough for it to be seen in a bare hand after the transfer. An obvious exception to the modified definition of a catch is if it’s the third out and the transfer is moot.

In other words, because of replay, fielders will need to concentrate on first things first: Hold on to the ball. Get a grip.

It’s a subtle rules tweak that will give a team the occasional extra at-bat, and it’s necessary: Bullpens are loaded with guys who stand 6-feet-5 and typically register 95 mph on speed guns. The delicate, age-old balance between hitters with quick reflexes and pitchers with power arms has tilted in favor of pitchers, who are racking up strikeouts at an unprecedented rate.

 • Replay review has created a quandary regarding base runners. Specifically: Where to put, say, Justin Smoak after an umpire’s call in Seattle is overturned by an umpire in New York?

Otherwise, even the most stubborn of baseball purists must admit that the dalliance with technology isn’t the disaster they envisioned. McClendon’s challenge didn’t quell the opening-night buzz at Safeco Field. It took a minute or three to sort things out, but fans were engaged in the situation.

A replay review? Cool!

The novelty will wear off, but the system was installed with safeguards to prevent abuse. A manager can’t request a second opinion of every close call, and no manager wants to make a mockery of his access to a lifeline. (McClendon’s challenge record after eight games: one submitted, one upheld.)

Major league umpires, generally speaking, are as talented as the athletes. Their ability to render an spontaneous verdict on a bang-bang play — and to make the judgment hold up after four different camera views of the play are broken down in slow motion and freeze frames — is uncanny.

But they can only aspire to consistency, as perfection is out of the question. Through Wednesday, 16 of 47 challenged calls had been overturned after review. That’s one in three. That’s a lot.

Which brings me to still another premature conclusion about replay reviews: Love them or loathe them, they’re here to stay.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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