Howard Bryant has an article in ESPN the Magazine about expanded replay and some of its potential worrisome unintended consequences. It’s a good piece, noting the untenable nature of the league’s traditional insistence that it always has and always will survive blown calls. It also has an interesting quote from Tony La Russa — Bud Selig’s point man on these sorts of matters — which puts lie to the idea Selig keeps floating about how no one really cares about replay. Seems, per Mr. La Russa, that they do.
The general upshot, though, surrounds how problematic it would be to implement a challenge system, noting that in other sports such as tennis — with which Bryant is intimately familiar — challenge systems create some altogether new problems, such as umpires afraid of overruling the line judges and then, themselves, being overruled by a challenge.
I asked Bryant on Twitter about why he assumes a challenge system and he said that he doesn’t personally, but that a challenge system is what Major League Baseball officials are talking about. I really hope that’s not the league’s focus, because a challenge system seems like the worst possible option. Both for the reasons Bryant notes in his article and because it would do maximum damage to the game flow that MLB itself seems most interested in preventing. Fixing one problem — blown calls — should neither create more nor fundamentally change baseball strategy, which would certainly happen. Give a manager a lever, he’s gonna pull it.
The only workable option for a rigorous and useful replay system would be to have the umpires manage it themselves as a closed system. Put a fifth ump in the booth and make him a full member of the umpiring crew. Have him be the eye in the sky who is only heard from if he sees something his colleagues missed. Make it explicit that umpires will not be penalized or judged harshly by the league for getting initial calls wrong or being overturned by replay.
The most important thing is to make replay a tool for the umpires to do a better job, not a threat that risks exposing them when they do a poor one.