It’s About Time: How Expansion of Instant Replay Will Change the MLB

MLB instant replay expansion
Houston, TX, USA; Third base umpire Jim Joyce upholds a call on the field during a replay during a game between the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds in the third inning at Minute Maid Park. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

To the people who argue that Major League Baseball is slow to move on from its old ways, you’re right. Whether it is creating and expanding drug testing policies, finding ways to speed up the game, or implementing advanced technologies into its product, MLB has always been reticent to change.

That’s largely because those in charge are traditionalists, preferring to preserve the aspects of the game that turned it into America’s Pastime more than a century ago. But we’ve settled into the 21st century. Long gone are the days of flannel uniforms, spitballs, and players leaving their gloves on the field. But, sometimes, the game feels like it is still stuck in that era.

One of the oft-cited necessities for baseball to get with the times was to implement a widespread instant replay system. As the other major sports leagues progressed in their use of technology to assist in officiating games, MLB stood pat, too proud in its history to incorporate such sacrilege, even as other sports enjoyed years of success with their systems.

Finally, in November of 2007, MLB executives voted to allow replay, but only for calls relating to home runs. It was a step in the right direction, but it was far too limited in scope. Now, though, baseball has realized it is time to do more, and the clubs have unanimously approved a plan to significantly expand replay starting next season. Outside of balls and strikes, most plays will be reviewable.


Under  the new expansion of instant replay, the following play types will be subject to review:

  • Home run
  • Ground rule double
  • Fan interference
  • Stadium boundary calls (e.g., fielder into stands, ball into stands triggering dead ball)
  • Force play (except the fielder’s touching of second base on a double play)
  • Tag play (including steals and pickoffs)
  • Fair/foul in outfield only
  • Trap play in outfield only
  • Batter hit by pitch
  • Timing play (whether a runner scores before a third out)
  • Touching a base (requires appeal)
  • Passing runners
  • Record keeping (Ball-strike count to a batter, outs, score, and substitutions)

All other plays will not be reviewable; however, the umpires may still convene on the field at any time to discuss the play.

As for the process by which plays are reviewed, it is reminiscent of the NFL. Each manager will have one challenge per game. If any part of the call is overturned, the manager will have one more challenge to use for the rest of the game. After the seventh inning, the umpiring crew chief can decide to review a questionable call.

The decision to overturn each call will not be left up to the umpires on the field. In fact, the umpires won’t leave the field at all. In a setup much like the NHL’s, they will be connected by headset to replay officials in a Replay Command Center in New York, and it is those officials who review the play and ultimately make the final ruling.

All in all, this is an excellent development for the game. There will likely be some kinks to iron out, but the improvement over what had been used, and not used, cannot be overstated.

One of the biggest criticisms against using replay in baseball is tradition. Baseball is a game that has always been governed by umpires on the field, for better or for worse. It’s the human element. “Mistakes are part of the game,” critics say. But the point of umpires is to make the calls and to get them right. Why should a team be penalized with a call going wrongly against it just for the sake of preserving said “human element”?

For those who argue that baseball games are already too long and that this will only lengthen them further, it’s not worth getting worked up about. As it is now, for the plays that are truly challengeable, the manager upset with the call will spend at least a minute or two talking or arguing with the umpires anyway. Sometimes this leads to a conference among the men in blue which can take another couple of minutes. After the conclave, the same manager may still protest if the call wasn’t overturned. If it was, you can bet the other manager will sprint out of the dugout to make his own case.

All told, this process can take several minutes and still may not result in the correct call on a close play. By instituting video reviews, the guesswork is taken out of it and all sides can accept that the outcome will be the right one. Going to the tape will take a couple minutes, yes, and, while it may not necessarily shorten the length of a game, it won’t be the momentum-killer that detractors will have you believe.

Helping to keep time from unnecessarily being wasted is the fact that the umpires will not leave the field at all. And that is one of the best parts of this process. Not only will it keep things moving, but it will also allow an independent authority to make the ultimate decision. Both of those aspects are improvements on the method that has been used in reviewing home runs.

Under that system, the entire crew of umpires left the field to review the call in question. But it still didn’t mean it was a guarantee they would make the right decision. In an early season game last year, Angel Hernandez failed to overturn the ruling on the field of a double, when replay clearly showed the ball hitting the railing above the wall, which should have been a home run.

Hernandez said the replay was inconclusive. But you’d be a fool to believe it had to do with anything but his ego. An umpire changing a call after seeing it on replay is an admission that he was wrong in the first place. It is rare that an umpire will admit to a mistake. Jim Joyce is the exception, not the rule.

This new replay system should take that element out of making the call. It will be in the best interest of MLB to get the plays right. If that means saying one of its umpires was wrong, they will do it. That’s what this system is designed to do. The self-governing ways of the last few years worked for the most part, but as Hernandez proved, they weren’t foolproof.

Of course, umpires have been the arbiters of in-game decisions since baseball began, and they have done their job well over the decades. But, mistakes do happen, and it’s unfortunate that they affect the games. Thursday’s decision will help mitigate those.

Ultimately, MLB should be happy with its new instant replay system. Time will tell if any adjustments will need to be made, but it seems to blend the best parts of systems like the NFL’s and NHL’s that are considered largely successful. Still, this move gets MLB into the 21st century, and now it has 86 more years to start planning for the 22nd, lest it risk being antiquated when that rolls around, too.

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