MLB in no rush to expand replay

Tim Welke blew a call last week. I’m sure you saw it. Jerry Hairston Jr. was called out at first base in Denver, even though Todd Helton’s feet were in Wyoming.

Many of you screamed (or typed) the same reaction: INSTANT REPLAY!

That’s reasonable. But if you thought Major League Baseball would respond by rushing to expand instant replay, you were mistaken. Baseball has one speed when it comes to matters such as this, and that speed is tectonic.

Joe Torre, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations, told me Wednesday that instant replay does not have an official place on the agenda at the owners meetings next week.

But Torre, who supervises umpires among his duties, said he and his staff will be prepared to answer questions from owners who are curious about the status of baseball’s replay program.

“That is the hot topic, and we want to keep the owners up to speed,” Torre said in a telephone interview. “We have volumes of things about instant replay, pages upon pages on the technology, the cost, all of that. Some of the research has been done, and we’re waiting for more results.”

Those results won’t come fast enough for baseball to change its rules this season. During our conversation, Torre ruled out the possibility of an in-season adjustment. He thinks there may be more discussion about the future of replay at the following owners’ meetings, in several months.

“You always get an outcry when a call is missed,” Torre said. “It’s usually a curse when (an umpire) is on ESPN. But I don’t want to get caught in a trap, just because everybody wants replay. Unless we have the technology to support that, I’m not comfortable with it.

“(Instant replay) has been good for us, but I really haven’t seen technology that would make us much better than we are right now. Would we get some more calls right? Sure. But if you look at the numbers, the fair/foul calls that are missed, I’m not sure that it’s really that big of an advance for us. I’m not saying we’ve closed our mind to the idea, or that we won’t eventually get there. But I’d rather just sit tight now and wait until the technology is what we need.”

The key, Torre said, is to “make the game better without dragging it on.” So, accuracy isn’t Torre’s only concern. It’s efficiency, too.

For now, replay will remain restricted to home runs: whether they went over the fence, whether they were fair or foul, whether a fan interfered with them. Many people associated with the sport seem comfortable with at least the current level of replay, which was instituted in 2008. But when there is talk of extending it, the consensus erodes somewhat.

The new collective-bargaining agreement provides for the expansion of replay, including fair or foul balls beyond the bases, questionable catches or traps, and fan interference throughout the ballpark on non-home runs. But those changes haven’t been carried out, because MLB has yet to decide on the means to regulate them. (One question: Would there be a “replay” umpire on site?) Some in the game have expressed concern over the lack of uniformity among HD television feeds at ballparks. On top of that, any changes would need to be approved by the umpires’ union.

The proposed changes arose from the CBA negotiations between MLB and the players’ union — which is strange, because expanded replay wasn’t necessarily a key part of either party’s platform. (Do you think any player threatened to strike if his manager wasn’t given a challenge flag?) Instant replay has relatively little to do with maximizing profits or earnings, which are the pervasive issues whenever industry decision-makers huddle about the rules of engagement.

Expanded replay is in the CBA because MLB and the MLBPA figured fans want it there. It was a nice gesture by the lawyers. But without a powerful figure to publicly champion the cause, the commissioner’s office was bound to be methodical about the implementation.

I actually don’t have a problem with that, as long as the sport arrives at the appropriate conclusion: Instant replay should be applied in the rare cases when a blown call would result in (a) mention on national network news, (b) a co-authored book, and/or (c) infamy as a worldwide trending topic on Twitter.

I call it the Armando Galarraga rule.

The irony of the CBA-endorsed expansion is that it would do nothing to address the most famous blown calls of the past several seasons. Galarraga and Jim Joyce? Play at first base. Jerry Meals, Braves-Pirates, 19th inning? Play at the plate. Welke last week? Play at first base. All non-reviewable.

So, even if replay had been changed before this season, there would be calls to alter it again. That tells us the sport isn’t close to arriving at a comprehensive solution.

The best option might be to have a fifth umpire stationed in a stadium box, with a device to notify the crew chief when an egregious mistake was made by the crew. (Not including balls and strikes, of course.) If “egregious” seems subjective, that’s because it is. We need to be able to trust the umpires’ judgment, because that is their chief qualification to do the job

The umpires in Major League Baseball are excellent already. Why not give them one more tool?

Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin suggested a similar plan to me this week: He would allow the fifth umpire to correct calls that were obviously missed because of a bad angle by the umpire. (That would cover the Welke play, for example.)

Another feature of Melvin’s plan: “I would recommend each club gets one upstairs review on offense and one on defense during the game. I would experiment in September with games but not activate it and see how many calls that would be reviewed could impact a game. The umpires, players and field staff should all be a part of the process to determine if replay should be extended beyond home run calls.”

It sounds quite reasonable to me. MLB ought to consider it. If baseball officials are going to take their time, they might as well get it right.