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.

Umpire Cory Blaser made two atrocious calls in the top of the 11th inning

Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images
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The Astros walked off 3-2 winners in the bottom of the 11th inning of ALCS Game 2 against the Yankees. Carlos Correa struck the winning blow, sending a first-pitch fastball from J.A. Happ over the fence in right field at Minute Maid Park, ending nearly five hours of baseball on Sunday night.

Correa’s heroics were precipitated by two highly questionable calls by home plate umpire Cory Blaser in the top half of the 11th.

Astros reliever Joe Smith walked Edwin Encarnación with two outs, prompting manager A.J. Hinch to bring in Ryan Pressly. Pressly, however, served up a single to left field to Brett Gardner, putting runners on first and second with two outs. Hinch again came out to the mound, this time bringing Josh James to face power-hitting catcher Gary Sánchez.

James and Sánchez had an epic battle. Sánchez fell behind 0-2 on a couple of foul balls, proceeded to foul off five of the next six pitches. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Sánchez appeared to swing and miss at an 87 MPH slider in the dirt for strike three and the final out of the inning. However, Blaser ruled that Sánchez tipped the ball, extending the at-bat. Replays showed clearly that Sánchez did not make contact at all with the pitch. James then threw a 99 MPH fastball several inches off the plate outside that Blaser called for strike three. Sánchez, who shouldn’t have seen a 10th pitch, was upset at what appeared to be a make-up call.

The rest, as they say, is history. One pitch later, the Astros evened up the ALCS at one game apiece. Obviously, Blaser’s mistakes in a way cancel each other out, and neither of them caused Happ to throw a poorly located fastball to Correa. It is postseason baseball, however, and umpires are as much under the microscope as the players and managers. Those were two particularly atrocious judgments by Blaser.