What MLB's expanded instant replay will mean for fans this season

After several years of limited instant replay offerings, Major League Baseball is preparing to launch a more expansive and sweeping replay system for the 2014 season.

A technician works in front of a bank of TV screens during a preview of MLB's Replay Operations Center in Manhattan.

Richard Drew / AP

Expanded instant replay is finally coming to a Major League Baseball stadium near you this season. It'€™s no small investment for the owners --€” around $50 million in total, by some estimates --€” but the hope is that greater control over reviewing a wider swath of potential plays will result in fewer game-deciding foibles made by umpiring crews, calls that could be easily decided with a few seconds and a high-def TV.

Of course, this may also result in longer game times, disgruntled umps who feel like their authority is being undermined, and some kind of system that resembles an exaggerated version of what we often see on NFL sidelines, with coaches chucking red flags at the last possible moment.

This season will be a learning experience for everyone --€” players, managers, executives, and fans --€” so here's a look at what'€™s most likely in store. It won'€™t be #robotumpsnow, but it'€™ll be better than what we'€™ve had.

First off, how did we get here? I thought baseball always hated instant replay.

Well, not so much. MLB quietly instituted a very basic video-based instant replay system in late August of 2008. The first time it was used to overturn a call was three weeks later, on Sept. 19. Carlos Peña, then playing for the Tampa Bay Rays, was denied an apparent home run during a blowout win. Umpires had called fan interference, meaning someone had touched the ball and caused it to carry over the outfield fence, so Peña was instead awarded a double. But crew chief Gerry Davis conferred with his fellow umps, analyzed the footage, and ruled Peña's hit a three-run homer.

"I was glad they went and checked," Peña said after the game. "I think they got it right." 

That was the first time in the more than 150 years of baseball history that an umpire's call was overturned by technology. It actually happened again to Peña three years later, when playing for the Cubs, trailing 3-2 late, and down to his final strike, clubbed what looked like a two-run, (potentially) game-winning homer. But even Peña hesitated when he hit second base, unsure it had been.

Indeed, with the benefit of HD slow-motion instant replay, umpires saw that Peña's ball bounced off the yellow tape that lines the netting atop Wrigley's ivy-lined walls and back onto the field. Peña was awarded a double and sent back to second base. The Cubs would not score again that day.

In 2008, Peña'€™s hit took more than four minutes to review. Three years later, that time had been cut to around 60 seconds. That also happened to be Star Wars Day at Wrigley, so it really was like the future, in some ways, had finally arrived, unfortunately for the Cubs.

OK, so home runs have been subject to replay. What'€™s new for this season?

The biggest change is that force plays and tags at bases will be subject to review, and that could have a big impact on the flow of a typical game, given what we know about how often umpires blew those types of calls last season. According to internal MLB data, of the 50,000 or so reviewable calls it looked at last season, umps blew 377, and 86 percent of those happened to be either tags or force plays. 

In addition, traps and fair/foul calls (in the outfield only), hit batters and timing plays are also subject to review. 

Richard Drew / AP

Yeesh, that sounds like it could slow down games quite a bit.

You'€™d think so. Except, let'€™s go back to the fact that MLB only discovered 377 blown calls last year in their 50,000-large sample size. That equates to one blown call every 6.4 games played. So what would that be? No more than two a day in all of MLB? That'€™s not the kind of thing that's going to dramatically increase the average game length of two hours, 59 minutes, but it also doesn'€™t take into account the time allotted to calls that could have been subject to review and upheld, so that'€™s also something to be considered.

Right, so how will the umpires decide what gets overturned?

The phrase to remember is "clear and convincing evidence," however nebulous you consider that threshold. But that'€™s the foundation that any overturned call will have to stand on.

Managers will get one challenge per game, and if their challenge results in a call getting overturned, they get another one. Umpires can request replays in the seventh inning and beyond.

There must be a lot of new infrastructure in place to handle this kind of workload.

No kidding. The heart of this whole effort will reside in a 900-square-foot room called the Replay Operations Center, centered at MLB Advanced Media'€™s offices in Manhattan, New York. There, HD monitors feeding in the 12 different camera angles at every stadium will be subject to review by a regular rotation of eight umpires, as well as other MLB officials on hand. In all, the room has nine workstations that each have four large HD screens keeping tabs on all the action.

Will this lower my typical amount of outrage during a MLB game?

That'€™s certainly what baseball hopes will happen, that fewer blown calls will result in a more pleasant sports-enjoying experience both at home and in the stands. You could call it the Joyce Plan, to ensure that the important calls get made correctly, no matter the effort or time it takes. MLB has understandably been hesitant to use replay to all these extents for some years now, even though the technology has fully existed. The clarity of HD camera feeds hasn't improved all that much in the past three to five years, but the cost of implementing it all surely has. This is why every ballpark now has its own MLBAM-approved video suite and an overhead camera directly looking down on home plate, in addition to 11 other angles.

But what does this mean for, oh, say, ROBOT UMPS?

Isn't this what Popular Science predicted back in 1939?

OK, not exactly, but we'€™re getting to closer to that day, right? Clearly, the use of expanded replay has to toe a tenuous line: At what point do you cross over from helping umpires do their jobs more effectively to, essentially, taking away the umpires'€™ ultimate authority to decide games? Baseball clearly doesn't want to let the prospect of the latter infringe on the former, but executives must be hoping that this year will yield not only positive outcomes on the field but few sore feelings in the umpires room after games. 

Baseball likes to cite "€œthe integrity of the game"€ when it comes to instituting new reforms such as replay, but if this season goes well and more replay means happier fans and players, we can likely expect more reviewable plays in 2015.

Dare to dream.

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