2014 Preview: The new replay rule is here

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If Major League Baseball got this right, we may never see a game turn on a blown call again. At least an important game. When everyone is paying attention. And if there weren’t more egregiously blown calls earlier in the game.

Expanded replay is a new fact of life for the 2014 season and that little caveat above reflects the fact that, while baseball could have instituted a system in which every close play is examined, it chose to start more conservatively. It has put the onus on managers — not umpires — to make sure controversial plays are reviewed, and it has given managers a somewhat limited ability to initiate such reviews. The basics:

    • Managers will start each game with one replay challenge to use;
    • If a manager uses a challenge and any portion of a challenged play is overturned, then the manager who challenged the play will retain the ability to challenge one more play during the game.  Under no circumstances may a manager challenge more than two plays in a game.
    • If the managers challengers are used up — and if it’s after the seventh inning — the umpires may choose to invoke instant replay on any reviewable call.  Home run and other boundary calls will always be reviewable, however.

As for the procedure: there will be a headset near home plate in all 30 parks.  From there, the Crew Chief will be connected to the Replay Command Center at MLB Advanced Media headquarters in New York.  There, major league Umpires will be staffed as replay officials, viewing the video feeds. Replay officials will make the ultimate determination of whether to overturn the call on a “clear and convincing evidence” standard. The hope is that the process will only take a minute or two. In spring training thus far, most reviews have been short and relatively seamless.

The obvious goal of the limited challenge system is to keep the delays to a minimum and to keep obsessive managers from challenging every single potential missed call. Inherent in this — but not too often said lest baseball officials be seen as minimizing the impact of blown calls — is that not too many games actually turn on umpire mistakes. Oh, they do in the aggregate in the form of inconsistent strike zones, but balls and strikes were never going to be on the table here. But they don’t turn on an egregiously bad out/safe call at first base or a blatant misapplication of the rules too terribly often. We certainly remember those, and a big part of the replay system is to make sure that those memorable missed calls no longer affect outcomes and, at the same time, don’t stick in people’s memories and reflect poorly on Major League Baseball.

But whatever the motivation and whatever the actual impact on games and outcomes, it’s a pretty big and pretty welcome step for Major League Baseball to turn to technology. The league has always taken a conservative approach to innovation, especially technological innovation, and while baseball wading into replay is pretty late compared to the other sports leagues, it’s downright visionary by its own historical standards.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.