How managers should use expanded instant replay to their advantage

BY Gabe Kapler • January 28, 2014

Expanded instant replay has been instituted for the 2014 baseball season. What is still uncertain is how managers will choose to use this new rule to their advantage.

Here are some thoughts …

First basemen beware.

Imagine Prince Fielder is receiving a throw from Elvis Andrus on a sharply hit ground ball struck by a gimpy Miguel Cabrera. Prince is feeling a little playful, knowing that his former teammate is rumbling down the line and will be out by a country mile. In an attempt to make the play appear even more lopsided, the big, smiling first baseman snatches the ball out of the air cockily and leaves the bag just a tad early.

It seems like we see this play once a game and have come to accept it as just another nuance of the strange dance that is baseball. But the day of reckoning has arrived.

This simplest of plays – a routine 6-3 grounder – might become a heavily challenged play this year. If I’m Brad Ausmus, the rookie manager of the Tigers, in this scenario, I’m running out to challenge as early in the game as possible.

The way the rules read, each manager begins a game with one challenge. If he correctly challenges a play, he retains the right to challenge no more than one additional play at any point during the game. If he incorrectly challenges a play, his one challenge is gone and it wouldn’t be until the beginning of the seventh inning that a play could be challenged again in his team’s favor. Only at that point it is up to the umpires to initiate the review. The umpires, however, are precluded from reviewing a play unilaterally if the manager who would benefit from the review is still holding a challenge after the start of the seventh inning.

So for the umpire to review any play under the new rules, it has to be after the start of the seventh inning AND the manager of the team who would benefit from the review has to have exhausted his challenge(s).

This leads me to believe that if a manager is even remotely confident that he saw a play better than the umpire did, he should use his challenge as early in the game as possible, thereby ensuring the opportunity, should it arise, to impact one more play.

Basically, you don’t want to be left with a challenge late in games when, theoretically, umpires are responsible for reviewing close plays.

So how will managers employ this new “power”?

It is likely that experimentation has already begun. No doubt skippers in every dugout are studying, with the help of their front offices, how to most efficiently and effectively use their allotted challenges.

Ausmus is in a unique position as he will begin his tenure alongside the induction of this new rule. In addition to the normal laundry list of obstacles associated with being a first-timer, Ausmus also must christen a new replay system.

“At this point, I’ve really been looking for holes in the system,” Ausmus told me. “I’ve also mulled over and discussed when the right times to use and save challenges are.”

This should prove no easy task and will likely produce many theories on how to best utilize this new strategic device.

Diving deeper, Dan Brooks and Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus told me that "Managers should probably use challenges even on plays where they might be wrong, because the marginal value of saving a challenge is very low on aggregate."

Brooks describes the math like this for manager’s challenges:

"The problem is that the overall likelihood of a play being one you’d want to challenge is very low. This means that virtually any play that is currently available to be challenged (e.g., a close call at first, even one you’re not sure you’ll win) is worth more probabilistically than waiting around for a ‘better’ opportunity to challenge (e.g., a miscalled grand slam or home run).”

Essentially, a manager should seize the earliest opportunity to challenge because the likelihood of there being an opportunity to impact a play later in the game is so incredibly low.

If I was a manager and I was even on the fence that the call would be overturned, I would challenge on the first pitch of the first play of the game on Opening Day. If nothing else, I'd be conducting the experiment. It’s the equivalent of "seeing a pitch" by the leadoff hitter. I'd be figuring out how the system works and how it would be perceived by the opposing manager and players.

Come this time next year the great experiment could be over and a consensus might have formed on the best practices of the challenge including whatever revisions are made, but for everyone’s sake, let’s hope MLB revises the rule to provide a flag similar to the NFL for heaving and an added bit of drama.

As it stands now, to initiate a review the manager informs the umpire of his intention verbally and in ‘a timely manner’.

This seems to eliminate an incredible opportunity for conflict. What an entertaining scenario it could be to watch a former pitcher, and venomous manager fire a flag (John Farrell, a big dude with a big arm comes to mind), scraping the tip of an unsuspecting umpires nose (innocuously, of course).

Maybe in year two.

For now though, it makes zero sense for a manager to save his challenge for a play that might never happen.

Only time will tell and that time, as well as the acquisition of data, begins the moment the season does.  

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