In a move that's finally bringing a sport steeped in tradition into the modern age, MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced that a new instant replay system will be implemented next season to verify that umpires are making correct calls. For the first time, managers will have the option to challenge almost any call made in the game, with the final decision being made by league officials reviewing the play at MLB's New York City offices. This is the MLB's second foray into instant replay — since 2008, umpires have had the option to review home run calls where it's not obvious if the hit ball was foul or fair, but it's the first time managers have any control over the process. It's a bold move for baseball, given the sport's reluctance to add instant replay reviews for fear of longer games and the removal of the game's "human element."
The 'human element' gets a technological assist
However, it's a move that had to be made sooner or later — the extreme clarity and constant replays during TV broadcasts meant that fans were getting a good picture of just how often umpires were missing big calls. Perhaps the most notable example happened in 2010, when Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from throwing a perfect game — he lost out on that historical moment because of a blown call at first base. Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, part of a committee that had been studying the feasibility of instant replay, said this new system would "cover 89 percent of those incorrect calls that were made in the past." He also said that with the NYC offices reviewing and making the call, reviewing controversial calls should take only a minute and fifteen seconds, down from the three minutes for current reviews.
To keep the replay system from being a free-for-all, there are some specific restrictions in place: managers have the right to make one challenge during the first six innings, and two from inning seven through the end of the game. It's rather odd system that places more importance on events happening later in the game rather than putting the same value on every out. Another interesting wrinkle is the fact that if the manager's challenge is correct — the umpires made a bad call — he gets to keep his challenge to use again.
The strike zone will still belong to the umpires
And, of course, one "human element" of baseball isn't going away — managers will not have the option to argue against an umpires ball and strike calls, arguably a place where the umpires could use the most help. Thanks to the Pitch F/X system, which is installed in every MLB stadium, fans and MLB executives alike can see just where every pitch thrown in a game lands — and how often umpires miss calls on balls and strikes. The fact that the MLB has such data available that it decided to completely ignore is another example of how resistant the league is to technological intrusions on its traditions.
While most of the details behind the system have been announced, it's actually not a done deal yet. MLB's owners will be voting on the proposed instant replay plan this November during the next league meetings, and both the MLB players union and World Umpires Association will both need to approve the change, as well. So far, Schuerholz said the umpires are welcoming the change, so it seems there's a good chance the new replay system will go into effect next year. Assuming everything moves forward, teams will have a few new chances to make sure that the outcome of their games isn't affected by human error — unless we're talking about balls and strikes.