All systems go with expanded replay review
Reaction from testing done across Spring Training has been mostly positive
When he coached for the Phillies, the late John Vukovich devised a method for deciding whether he thought the umpire had gotten a play right at first or third base. After a moment of arguing, he'd take a surreptitious glance at the booth where broadcaster Chris Wheeler would give him a thumbs up or down. Of course, even if he was right, there was nothing he could do about it.
That's all about to change now that Major League Baseball has embraced expanded instant-replay review for the upcoming season and empowered managers with the right to challenge calls they disagree with. All systems are go after a spring during which each team had several test games to acquaint themselves with the process.
The biggest changes are that about 90 percent of all plays will be subject to review. Previously that had been limited to boundary calls involving home runs. Each manager will start the game with one challenge. If the challenge is successful, he'll get one more. After the sixth inning, the umpires have the option to initiate a replay on their own.
All plays will be reviewed by umpires rotating through MLB.com headquarters in New York. The replay official will have access to the best technology available, including high definition, slow motion, zoom and multiple angles. His decision is final.
Reaction from across the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues to the impending launch was positive. Not that anybody is expecting perfection beginning on Opening Day. All involved have been clear that this is seen as a three-year rollout during which imperfections are to be anticipated. At the end of that time, though, the hope is that it will be as foolproof as possible.
"I like it. I think there are going to be some periods of time when you get some dead air, but that's the price for trying to get things right," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. "I was really encouraged to hear how it was explained by the league. When [Joe] Torre and [Peter] Woodfork and [Tony] La Russa and [Steve] Palermo brought us all together, the message I heard was, 'We want to get the most impactful calls right. We don't want to disrupt the flow of the game. And we know we don't have the perfect system. So let's all keep level heads and work together. We're trying to make the game better.'
"Now, people are going to have some questions. There's going to be some confusion at times. But I think that's to be expected for Year 1 of a pretty significant change in the game."
Torre and La Russa are former big league managers who, along with Braves president John Schuerholz, formed the committee that devised the new replay rules. Woodfork is MLB's senior vice president, baseball operations. Palermo is an MLB umpire supervisor.
"From listening to [them] talk, I know their goal is to do away with plays that change the outcome of a game. And we all applaud them for that," said Indians manager Terry Francona. "We also know that getting there is not the easiest thing. They were really open and honest about that. So I think we all hope it works the way it was intended."
There are two lines of communication that are central to the system. The first is the direct link from New York to a headset behind the plate at each ballpark that connects the replay official to the crew chief.
The other is a relay at the park, which teams hope will work with Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance efficiency. Each team must have equal access to video. A designated employee will watch close plays on a monitor. When there's a close call, he'll get replays within 10 seconds and then have to make a quick decision on whether it's worth risking a challenge.
He'll then call the dugout and inform the bench coach what he's seen. The coach will then signal the manager whether or not to appeal.
Rangers manager Ron Washington added another wrinkle: "I have to make a decision. I know what I saw. But sometimes what you see is not reality. So I have to make sure when I go out there that I put myself in a position where I can see my [coach]. That's another thing you have to think about when you're running out there. Or walking out there. Or strolling out there."
Most teams are using a current employee to decipher the video; the Indians went out and hired Gregg Langbehn as their Major League replay coordinator, an indication of how vital they view the position. He's been a Minor League pitcher, coach, manager and field coordinator and also managed five seasons in the independent Frontier League.
"If you were going to draw it up -- decision making, knowing the game -- he really fit," Francona said.
Francona has another reason to be interested in the position -- his son, Nick, will handle those duties for the Angels.
The Royals have trained two staffers to split the duties.
"You want a guy that's calm and level-headed," said Royals manager Ned Yost, who said his experience has been good. "A guy who knows the technology. The information is going to get back real quick.
"There was a bang-bang play, I saw him out. What was it? He was out. But it was always before the next pitch is made. So if I see it and I think he's out, what was it? And [the video coordinator] goes, 'Hmm, he might have been safe.' I still have time to call time out and go out and challenge it. So I think the system is going to be efficient, I think it's going to be quick. I think it's going to be OK, man."
Naturally, some managers will be more aggressive than others in using their challenges. Yost said he doesn't expect to utilize it very often.
"Maybe you're in a huge game and you want to take a chance and get a challenge out there," he said. "But for the most part, I'm just looking to change those calls that are borderline obvious. The kind that just drive everybody up a wall. The umpire didn't do it on purpose, but he just missed a call and the replay shows it and everybody's just up in arms in the dugout. This is going to solve all that."
Rays manager Joe Maddon isn't so sure. He had his team rehearse a situation this spring where they got the final out of the inning on an infield out, then threw to the plate to cut down a runner trying to score from second. The rationale was that if the play at first was challenged and reversed, if nothing else the runner would not be allowed to score.
"I think the what-ifs are almost limitless," he explained to reporters. "That's the part most people don't understand. When you open Pandora's Box, it's not as cut-and-dried as you think."
Maddon may be right. But baseball expects the unexpected when it comes to replay and anticipates being able to correct whatever needs fixing.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.