Major League Baseball’s replay review era has arrived, and I already wish it would end. That’s because the system is a mess, robbing the sport of clarity and—just as significantly—drama. It’s too much to hope that, in this age of increasing dependence on technology in sports, we’re going back to reliance on the human eye to make close calls. But instead of tweaking the model, month after month, season after season, MLB should make one dramatic change to drastically improve replay: adopt a replay system from another sport. Only one pro sport features a replay procedure that is wildly successful and beloved both by players and fans. That sport is tennis.
Why is baseball’s replay so bad? MLB execs were rightly worried that promiscuous use of the challenge could slow the game to a crawl—well, OK, to an even slower crawl. (Thus far, the challenges are taking as long as five minutes.) So they slapped an entirely arbitrary limit on a manager’s right to ask for a replay. One challenge per team, per game—unless the challenge is successful, in which case a single additional challenge is awarded. That’s it. Right or wrong, no more challenges.
But of course there’s this odd other rule, whereby a manager can request, or beg, for an additional challenge after the sixth inning. Then the umpire decides whether to allow it. (Umps can also initiate replay reviews on their own.) MLB says that “chances are, the umpire will grant the request.” Whatever that means.
The way the challenge actually unfolds can be comical. Teams now have an employee designated to watch video replays of close calls, apparently from every known angle, and then to decide whether to challenge. But that can take a while, and once the next batter comes to the plate, the moment to challenge has passed. So, practically, that means that any close play on the field leads the manager who came out on the short end to hustle onto the diamond and perform a staged argument against the call. (Or he doesn’t even argue; the Nationals’ Matt Williams noted he usually just talks about the weather.) All the while the manager keeps an eye trained on the dugout for a sign as to whether to challenge the call. Once the thumbs-up is given, the manager officially asks for the replay. The umps then contact the “Replay Operations Center” in New York, who will then decide whether the original call was correct. It’s a pantomime, and a boring one, at that.
Meanwhile, here’s how tennis challenges work. When a player believes that a call of “in” or “out” is wrong, he or she can challenge the call. In practice this needs to happen almost immediately. The chair ump doesn’t want players to look up at their coaches in the stands for advice, or to challenge an “in” call only after hitting their own next shot long.
Players get three incorrect challenges per set. (If a challenge is correct, the player doesn’t lose a challenge, so in theory the number of challenges is unlimited.) And if the set is tied at six games apiece, to be decided by a tiebreaker, each player gets one additional challenge.
The video replay of the shot that led to the challenge is shown on a giant screen, and fans love it. A system called “Hawkeye” creates a simple film that shows, to within 5 millimeters (about one-fifth of an inch) of accuracy, whether the ball was in or out. As the film begins to roll, the spectators begin to clap rhythmically—and then burst into applause, sighs, or boos once the result is revealed. The players rarely argue, probably because it seems just silly to dispute a machine, and the game goes on.
This system could be translated into baseball terms, with great results. Here’s how:
First, limit the number of incorrect challenges only. It makes no sense for a team to get two challenges, be correct on both of them, and then … be utterly dependent on the whim of the umps. A penalty for incorrect challenges ensures that they won’t be used frivolously (except maybe at the end of a game, where there’s little to lose; tennis has this problem, too). One or two incorrect challenges per game seems about right. (A lot more balls are hit during a tennis match than during a baseball game.) However, teams should get one more challenge should a game go to extra innings.