Sports Nut

How to Fix Baseball’s Replay Mess

Steal tennis’s replay system: Make the players challenge and keep managers off the field.

Umpire and Manager

Most of this is just small talk before the bench signals whether a replay challenge is worth it.

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Major League Baseball’s replay review era has arrived, and I already wish it would end. That’s because the system is a mess, robbing the sport of clarity and—just as significantly—drama. It’s too much to hope that, in this age of increasing dependence on technology in sports, we’re going back to reliance on the human eye to make close calls. But instead of tweaking the model, month after month, season after season, MLB should make one dramatic change to drastically improve replay: adopt a replay system from another sport. Only one pro sport features a replay procedure that is wildly successful and beloved both by players and fans. That sport is tennis.

Why is baseball’s replay so bad? MLB execs were rightly worried that promiscuous use of the challenge could slow the game to a crawl—well, OK, to an even slower crawl. (Thus far, the challenges are taking as long as five minutes.) So they slapped an entirely arbitrary limit on a manager’s right to ask for a replay. One challenge per team, per game—unless the challenge is successful, in which case a single additional challenge is awarded. That’s it. Right or wrong, no more challenges.

But of course there’s this odd other rule, whereby a manager can request, or beg, for an additional challenge after the sixth inning. Then the umpire decides whether to allow it. (Umps can also initiate replay reviews on their own.) MLB says that “chances are, the umpire will grant the request.” Whatever that means.

The way the challenge actually unfolds can be comical. Teams now have an employee designated to watch video replays of close calls, apparently from every known angle, and then to decide whether to challenge. But that can take a while, and once the next batter comes to the plate, the moment to challenge has passed. So, practically, that means that any close play on the field leads the manager who came out on the short end to hustle onto the diamond and perform a staged argument against the call. (Or he doesn’t even argue; the Nationals’ Matt Williams noted he usually just talks about the weather.) All the while the manager keeps an eye trained on the dugout for a sign as to whether to challenge the call. Once the thumbs-up is given, the manager officially asks for the replay. The umps then contact the “Replay Operations Center” in New York, who will then decide whether the original call was correct. It’s a pantomime, and a boring one, at that.

Meanwhile, here’s how tennis challenges work. When a player believes that a call of “in” or “out” is wrong, he or she can challenge the call. In practice this needs to happen almost immediately. The chair ump doesn’t want players to look up at their coaches in the stands for advice, or to challenge an “in” call only after hitting their own next shot long.

Players get three incorrect challenges per set. (If a challenge is correct, the player doesn’t lose a challenge, so in theory the number of challenges is unlimited.) And if the set is tied at six games apiece, to be decided by a tiebreaker, each player gets one additional challenge.

The video replay of the shot that led to the challenge is shown on a giant screen, and fans love it. A system called “Hawkeye” creates a simple film that shows, to within 5 millimeters (about one-fifth of an inch) of accuracy, whether the ball was in or out. As the film begins to roll, the spectators begin to clap rhythmically—and then burst into applause, sighs, or boos once the result is revealed. The players rarely argue, probably because it seems just silly to dispute a machine, and the game goes on.

This system could be translated into baseball terms, with great results. Here’s how:

First, limit the number of incorrect challenges only. It makes no sense for a team to get two challenges, be correct on both of them, and then … be utterly dependent on the whim of the umps. A penalty for incorrect challenges ensures that they won’t be used frivolously (except maybe at the end of a game, where there’s little to lose; tennis has this problem, too). One or two incorrect challenges per game seems about right. (A lot more balls are hit during a tennis match than during a baseball game.) However, teams should get one more challenge should a game go to extra innings.

Second, shift the responsibility for challenging from the manager to the players. Most of the disputes will involve force or tag plays, where the runner and the fielder are in the best position to know what happened. In tougher cases, as when a line drive that may have bounced is ruled caught, the temptation is to let the managers challenge, but that’s only because we’re used to the spectacle. The manager will rarely if ever have the best perspective on the play, so let’s stick with the players. The contesting player closest to the ball can make the challenge. In the case of the player who hit the allegedly caught ball, put the burden on him to argue that the ball was trapped, not on the manager. If the player is lucky, there might be another baserunner from his team with a better view of the play, who could then challenge the “out” call right away. If he’s unlucky, well, that’s baseball.

Baseball relies too much on managers, anyway. In tennis, players are on their own when challenging, and sometimes the ball lands on or near the far baseline, as far as 90 feet away. Too bad—they are the only ones who can contest the call. Sometimes the player will try to steal a glance at his or her coach on whether to challenge, but that’s risky—the better chair umpires will deny the challenge if they catch the players looking to coaches.

Yes, baseball players wouldn’t know for sure whether they’re right, but so what? As matters have stood until now, managers have certainly had no problem arguing calls before seeing replays. At least this way we’d avoid the inane show of managers yakking while some intern frantically scans the video.

Finally, let the fans see what’s going on. If MLB does nothing else, they should do this. Whatever multiple angles the folks in the Replay Operations Center are seeing, the fans should, too, and at the same time. Baseball doesn’t have Hawkeye, but never underestimate the power of a dramatic moment in making fans feel included and a replay feel authoritative. As each of the many angles is shown, fans can groan, or whoop, or just break into small discussion groups. Then the remote “Voice of God” can announce the verdict. Since the conclusion can’t be as clear as the in/out call of tennis, some will still moan. More’s the fun.

The replay system, in some form, is probably here to stay. That’s the way sports are moving, for good and ill. (And the dispute hardly calls for invoking Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.) But right now replays are a tedious failure. Take this past weekend and a couple of time-consuming replay calls that probably didn’t even get the right result. In last Saturday’s Nationals–Braves game, the Nats’ Nate McLouth was called out at first, and then—after Williams jawed with the umps for a minute, followed by four buzz-killing minutes of review—the call was upheld, even though the replays available to fans and viewers showed he’d beaten the throw. Worse still was a call from the Red Sox–Yankees series, in which Yankee Dean Anna came off second base and, as shown by this photo, was tagged by Xander Bogaerts. The safe call was affirmed after replay review, but MLB later admitted that—oops!—the guys in New York had blown the call. So right now replay is long, confusing, and, by MLB’s own account, not even reliable.

Meanwhile, tennis fans and players mostly love the challenge system. One notable exception is Roger Federer: Although he’s grudgingly accepted replay lately, he prefers the human element to the machine’s calculations. (It’s probably not coincidental that his game is also less mechanical and more improvisational than most others’.) And former enfant terrible Jimmy Connors feels the same way, believing that the tirades that players like him (and John McEnroe) engaged in were part of the fun.

Some baseball fans might feel similarly, and my proposal to eliminate managerial intervention is the part of my plan most likely to be scoffed at by fans. No Lou Piniella throwing his cap. No Earl Weaver fulminating over a blown call. But is it really so much fun to watch aging men in near-pajamas screaming, often for no good reason? If they really need to come out of the dugout to spit and throw bases around, perhaps they should be automatically ejected. Half the time, that’s what they want, anyway. Meanwhile, a more efficient replay system that excludes them can carry on getting more calls unobtrusively correct.