St. Louis Cardinals: Revisiting pace of play and instant replay

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 21: Umpire Tim Timmons
ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 21: Umpire Tim Timmons /

In light of ongoing drama in the National Football League surrounding rules and instant replay, how have replay reviews affected Major League Baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals?

One of the biggest story lines in the NFL, and all of sports this fall, is the inconsistency in the use of instant replay. With four seasons of expanded replay in the MLB, the St. Louis Cardinals have gotten a first-hand look at its effects on the game of baseball.

In 2008, instant replay made its major-league debut. For its first five seasons, only disputed home runs were reviewable. In 2014, the league expanded replay as part of its collective bargaining agreement.

Since then, officials have made some tweaks, but the system has remained largely the same. The MLB could take a look at the mess the NFL is in this season regarding catches vs. non-catches, replay review, and learn something from it.

The nature of replay in baseball has been this: If a play could go either way, a bang-bang call at first base on a ground ball for instance, the umpiring crew in New York will likely stick with the call on the field.

Of course, not all plays managers choose to review classify as “bang-bang” plays. Sometimes, umpires, human as they are, make honest mistakes and replay offers the avenue for what should be a quick, easy fix.

In 2017, umpires overturned just under half of all reviewed plays. That means the umpires usually got plays close enough to be reviewed correct. In that sense, one could consider reviews in baseball a waste of time on more than half of its occasions. Last season, the two most common plays needing a review were tag plays and plays at first base. These two plays alone accounted for more than 70 percent of all replays in 2017.

Umpires overturned just under half of all reviewed tag plays. Plays at first base yielded a different story, with umpires reversing more than 63 percent of challenged plays at first. When considering the statistics on replay review, the fact the majority of the second-most common reviewed play were corrected means instant replay has been a good thing.

Most fans accept that as an ever-growing truth in the game. Replay is good if it means getting calls right. That isn’t your average fan’s gripe today. A more legitimate concern, however, is the time it takes.

Baseball’s biggest problem when it comes to instant replay is not fair-or-foul calls on the infield or the strike zone still subject to human error, but the time an average replay takes.

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The time it takes to execute a replay review has risen since the system’s inception in 2014, and that has corresponded with an overall rise in the time it takes to complete a game in that same time span.

MLB has implemented rules to speed up the game, and a pitch clock may well be next. However, if it continues to ignore the time it takes to review plays, it will be driving simultaneously with one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the break.

Baseball’s efforts to increase pace of play are admirable, especially if positive results attract more fans to the game. Replay is also a tool to attract more fans to the game; consumers of baseball largely want to see the game called correctly, even if it takes instant replay.

If it takes more than one umpiring crew at the fabled New York review headquarters to speed up the process of replay, MLB should consider it. If it takes more camera angles instead of fewer, MLB should consider it. The opposite is also true.

One thing that may not speed up the game as much as MLB might think is a pitch clock. It may cause pitchers, late-inning relievers especially, to rush during critical moments instead of slowing the game down to their pace. As a result, pitchers could be more prone to make mistakes over the plate, and offenses could feast and produce large and long innings.

This brings up another point. MLB’s efforts to increase offense are also counter-intuitive to speeding up the game. The more time it takes to complete an inning because of more offense, and if a pitcher may be required by rule to finish an inning in the midst of an offensive onslaught, the more time a game will take.

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MLB should take these things into consideration when thinking of the best ways to draw fans to the game while speeding up the pace of play. None of the answers are easy, but they are worth pursuing to grow the brand of baseball. Other professional sports are experiencing their own difficulties with rules and replays. Baseball should learn from them in order to avoid this dilemma.