Should MLB really take a replay cue from … tennis?

Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington argues a call with umpire Paul Schrieber.

Kevin Jairaj/Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I do a fair number of radio spots. Before the season, more than once I was asked this question: “What are you going to be watching this season? What’s most interesting to you?”

The stock answer here is usually some small list of players. Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, blah blah blah. But players generally aren’t all that interesting before the fact. Leaving aside the occasional weight-loss superstars like CC Sabathia and Pablo Sandoval, and high-powered guest workers from faraway lands, players aren’t all that interesting before the season. Because we’ve got time-tested methods for guessing what they’ll do.

Granted, players will often surprise us. But we don’t know before the season which players those will be. So I don’t become particularly interested in many players until they’ve played enough to become interesting.

What’s interesting are changes in the game. And my, what changes. We knew that radically expanded video review would be interesting. We knew the new rules about close plays at the plate would be interesting. What we didn’t know — or what I didn’t know, anyway — was that a new “transfer” rule would be enforced, and lead to numerous rhubarbs.

So that’s three significant changes in one spring, which is three significant changes more than we’ve seen in most previous springs. Which is really interesting.

I’d like to discuss just one of those changes today: Video review. Which I know I’ve written about before, but there are new plays and new arguments and new complaints every day. Earlier this week, Slate’s John Culhane offered a radical rethinking of video review:


… 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.

Tennis? I told you it’s radical.

Before Culhane offers his solution, he lists the problems, which essentially boil down to this: There are too many steps in the process.

Nos. 2 and 3 are the problems. We were told (and I might have told you) that much (and maybe all!) of the extra time for reviews would be balanced by fewer extended arguments about calls. But did anyone factor in all the time that’s been wasted by managers sauntering around on the field, just waiting to get the word from some kid upstairs about the worthiness of a challenge?

This seems a fairly simple equation to me. If you can keep nearly all reviews under two minutes — basically the same as a quick commercial break — they’re worth keeping. But if you have more than a wildly rare review that lasts more than three or four minutes, you’ve got too many.

Yes, I know there’s a subset of baseball fans who literally don’t care if every game lasts four hours. But I believe that’s a tiny subset; in fact, the vast majority of baseball fans, especially those fans who actually attend games, would happily trade 15 minutes for a blown call every two or three weeks.

Anyway, that’s mere conjecture. Getting back to Culhane, he recommends two changes for baseball: 1) limit the number only of incorrect challenges, and 2) shift the responsibility of challenging calls from the manager to the players.

The first of those seems perfectly reasonable. If the umpires blow three calls against your team in the first six innings — by the way, as we’ll see later, that’s highly unlikely — why shouldn’t you be allowed to challenge the second and third calls? Isn’t the point to get the damn things right? You do have to penalize managers for challenging correct calls; otherwise they’d challenge every single close call, which really might add 15 minutes to every game. But it’s only fair to reward managers who don’t issue frivolous or misguided challenges.

Culhane’s second suggestion, though, seems fraught with issues. His reasoning:

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.

Well, no: The runner and the fielder are often not in the best position to know what happened.  Often they’re just too close to know. On a close play at first base, the runner almost always thinks he just beat the throw; the first baseman, vice versa. It’s not that they’re lying. It’s that they’re blinded by both proximity and desire. In fact, they would be wrong so often that those situations just wouldn’t be challenged very often at all.

And maybe that’s a good thing! You gotta love the Law of Unintended Consequences. Maybe the umpires are good enough and the consequences slight enough that the challenge of a play at first base should be extraordinarily rare.

But my general criticism here holds, I think; often the players just don’t have enough perspective, proximally or emotionally, to know what actually happened. Too, this would be an awful lot of responsibility. It’s different in tennis, where a player is responsible only for himself (or his doubles partner). In baseball, he’s got 24 teammates, the entire coaching staff and front office, all the fans … does anyone really want to burden him with that responsibility?

Again, maybe this would simply mean far fewer challenges. And again, maybe this is a good thing.

Just a few weeks ago, I believed that this massively expanded video review was here to stay. With some modifications, sure. But the system as it exists, with manager challenges and the big board in New York and all the rest, was essentially the way of the future.

I still believe that. I’m just not as confident as I was. According to, there have been 103 challenges this season, and 37 have been overturned.

Thirty-seven calls in 464 games do not seem like a lot. Thirty-seven calls in 464 games seem like maybe they’re not even worth the trouble. You know, just considering how many people were actually watching those 464 games, and how many games actually turned on those 37 calls.

This might seem sacrilegious to you, but maybe some calls are more important than others. Could you live with delaying the full Monty every season until September, when at least the games seem more important? With the additional benefit of getting everybody ready for more full Monty-ing during October’s championship tournament?

I’m going to guess that most of you couldn’t. But I could. I’m not saying it’s ideal. But there are always going to be tradeoffs. And right now I’m not sure the increase in time and tedium and managers talking to umpires about the weather is worth getting two extra calls right every week.