June 10, 2021

It's Time for MLB to Adopt College Football Instant Replay Rules

Since Rob Manfred became MLB Commissioner in 2015, it’s been no secret that his top priority has been to shorten games and improve the pace of play. Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to do in that area.

In fact, the problem might be getting worse. 

One of the biggest culprits in MLB’s pace of play is the league’s video replay system. MLB’s version of instant replay has proven to be inefficient without even getting the call right every time. If Manfred wants to get MLB’s pace of play under control, he first has to find a better way to conduct video reviews.

Fortunately for Manfred, college football might hold the answer.

The Current System

On paper, the current replay system doesn’t even seem that efficient, and it certainly isn’t any better when put into practice. When there is a close call that the umpires on the field could have potentially gotten wrong, one of the managers simply holds up his hands to indicate to the umpire that he wants to pause the game, giving him a 30-second window while he gets word from the team’s replay official whether the play is worth challenging or not.

If the manager determines that the play is worth challenging, he’ll inform the umpires. Two of the umpires then walk over to a headset, allowing them to communicate with umpires in New York who are watching every game. The New York umpires examine the replays and determine whether the call should be changed or not. That’s a lot of steps and a lot of people involved in judging whether the right call was made on the field or not.

It seems even more inefficient when you consider that within seconds of the play being over, every fan in the stadium can look at the stadium’s ginormous video screen and know almost right away whether the call was right or wrong.

The Solution

By adopting the replay system that’s currently used in college football, MLB could considerably speed up the process.

First, there would be no central location in New York with other umpires watching games being played hundreds or thousands of miles away on monitors. Instead, there would be a designated replay official in the stadium for every game. In college football, replay officials can buzz down to the field to alert the head referee that he wants to review the previous play. In baseball, the replay official at every MLB stadium could do the same thing.

After a controversial play, the replay official could buzz down to the umpire crew chief, who would then communicate with the replay official. Since the replay official is in the stadium actually watching the game, they can see in real-time whether a call might be wrong. In less than the 30-second window that managers receive to make a decision to review or not, the in-stadium replay official will be able to see a replay of the play and know for sure whether the call was accurate or if it warrants a closer look. 

For example, if there is a bang-bang play at first base, in the time it takes for the pitcher to collect the ball, return to the mound, and get ready to throw the next pitch, the replay official in the stadium should be able to determine whether the call was correct. It should be quick and simple for a replay official in the stadium to relay a safe-or-out call to the crew chief in the same amount of time it takes fans in the stadium to make the same conclusion based on the stadium’s video board.

Role of the Manager

With a replay official in the stadium, there will no longer be a need for managers to make a challenge or for teams to have a video official in the clubhouse. Having a dedicated replay official in the building will be more efficient than communication between the manager in the dugout and a team representative watching from the clubhouse. Essentially, this cuts out the middle man, leading to a more efficient replay system.

To be fair, managers who get irate after a call can ask the umpires to take a look at a play. However, much like college football when every play is reviewed, the replay official will take a second look at every play and will know if it warrants further examination. If the manager still has a gripe, the crew chief can inform him that the replay official looked at the play and doesn’t see enough evidence to change the call.

Who Makes the Call?

Last but not least, MLB needs to change who makes the call in instant-replay situations. In the current system, umpires rotate to the central replay location in New York. Predictably, the umpires are sometimes hesitant to change calls, implying that their long-time colleagues got a call wrong. This is why in-stadium replay officials should not be current or former umpires. Obviously, they should understand the rules of the game, but they should not have a personal or professional connection to the umpire crew who's overseeing the game.

Umpires are notoriously stubborn, and understandably so. They don’t like making incorrect calls any more than players like making the last out of a game. However, they also don’t like admitting that they got something wrong or being told by instant replay that they made a mistake. The umpires handling reviews in New York understand this because they are also game umpires who are sometimes overruled by replay.

This is another reason why the college football model would benefit MLB. The in-stadium replay official should be neutral of both teams and neutral of the umpires as well. This will help lead to more objective and accurate calls on plays that go through the replay process.

More importantly, the entire replay process will become more efficient, reducing its impact on the slow pace of play in baseball that Manfred continues to fight.

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