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Reviewing the MLB Replay Review process

by Matt Smith

The use of video replay reviews has been in the news again this week.

First there was controversy in the India-Australia cricket test match in Bangalore when Australia’s captain, Steve Smith, looked up at his team’s balcony when considering whether to call for a review after being given out LBW.

In cricket, you cannot seek any outside assistance when it comes to deciding whether to challenge an umpire’s decision. A batsman can only confer with his batting partner and Smith’s self-confessed “brain-fade” resulted in him being called out, amid “cheating” accusations from India’s camp that this was not the first time Australia had tried the trick.

Then we had Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger claiming that he believed UEFA could face legal action in future if replay isn’t brought into football soon, with a video assistant referee system likely to be introduced in the FA Cup next season.

These examples are a reminder that MLB’s use of replay review will undergo some subtle changes for the 2017 season.

The three changes made to the replay review process for the 2017 season are:

  • A 30-second limit for a manager to decide whether to challenge a play and invoke replay review.
  • When a manager has exhausted his challenges for the game, Crew Chiefs may now invoke replay review for non-home run calls beginning in the eighth inning instead of the seventh inning.
  • A conditional two-minute guideline for Replay Officials to render a decision on a replay review, allowing various exceptions.

As with many changes taking place in MLB recently, these are designed with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s ‘pace of play’ mantra in mind. They should go some way to reducing the boring delays we sometimes get with replay situations, yet they could – and I would argue should – go even further.

The intent of introducing wider replay (rather than just for home run calls) was to correct the obvious mistakes, not to double-check marginal decisions.

It was therefore surprising that when this was introduced, teams were given permission to consult video replays before making a decision on whether to challenge an umpire’s call. This seemed more about avoiding the difficulty of policing the use of video (as clearly teams would try to do so) than including an element that was consistent with the rest of the process.

If the umpire’s decision doesn’t immediately make the player(s) involved, manager, bench coach and others on the team question it, then it was close enough that the call could have gone either way and we should just get on with the game.

Allowing teams to consult video is the central reason why the current system causes frustration with a proportion of replays taking a long time as that’s primarily why challenges on marginal calls are made.

The most common example is where a player slides into second base and the fielder keeps the glove (with ball inside) in contact with the base-runner. A team’s video guy can quickly consult footage to see if there is any possibility that the base-runner may have come off the base for a split-second and advise the manger to challenge if so.

If the call goes your team’s way then I guess you don’t mind, but for the vast majority the general consensus I’ve seen is that fans and players don’t like that play being challenged (but accept it is under the current process). It goes counter to the spirit of what replay review is there for and it’s a real turn-off for the TV viewer as it leads to long reviews.

It is tedious in the extreme to waste time watching the crew in New York going over and over different replays, not least because the replays often leave those watching them divided anyway. It’s a complete fallacy that replay reviews always make it clear what the correct decision should be.

Again, the intent of the replay review is to ensure that clear errors by umpires can be corrected, not to review marginal decisions as, if we did that, we could check the video 25 times per game ‘just to be sure’.

With that being the case, I would propose that a manager should have only 10 seconds to challenge a decision (maybe 15, depending on when the countdown begins).

Greatly shortening the timeframe to submit the challenge would significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the video consultation aspect as it would be difficult to review and replay the message to the bench within 10 seconds.

And it would bring the review process back to what it’s there for: getting the clear mistakes corrected.  It’s up to the team concerned to be watching the action and to make a good, quick call on what to challenge or not.

No doubt managers wouldn’t like yet another chance for them to be second-guessed (i.e. not challenging a call that they probably should have), but that’s what they’re paid for.

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