A Review of Replay Technology in Major League Baseball

Comi Sharif, Managing Editor

This week marks the end of the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season, and with it, the completion of the first regular season under the league’s expanded rules regarding the use of instant replay technology. Though MLB initially resisted utilizing instant replay, holding out longer than other American professional sport leagues, an agreement between team owners, the players association, and the umpires association produced a gross expansion of the use of replay technology beginning this season.

The expanded rules permit managers to “challenge” at least one call made by an umpire during a game. The types of calls allowed to be challenged are limited to objective plays such as whether a runner was safe or out at a base, or whether a fielder caught or “trapped” a batted ball. Subjective umpire calls, including calls regarding balls and strikes and “check” swings, are not reviewable. The complete set of MLB’s instant replay rules is available here.

As alluded to above, the process of going from the idea of instant replay in baseball to actual implementation was long and complex. First, rule changes must be collectively bargained by MLB and the players association (MLBPA). Thus, the proposal to expand the use of instant replay had to be proposed during the recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) discussions in 2011. What both sides agreed to was language in the CBA stating that subject to approval by the umpires association, MLB baseball could expand the use of instant replay. Second, after agreeing to general idea of more instant replay, MLB developed specific rules and policies for instant replay, which had to be approved by the owners of the 30 MLB franchises. Once the owners approved the specific rules, which they did unanimously, the rules could finally be put into action. One issue to watch is how each of the different parties involved in the approval process reacts to the changes instant replay has on the league. The current CBA expires in December of 2016, at which time wholesale changes to the current instant replay system could be realized.

The replay technology used by MLB is somewhat unique compared to that used by other professional sports leagues such as the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. Often in the NBA and NFL, referees or officials view video replays of a contested call themselves with technology located at the playing venue itself. MLB, however, created a “Replay Operation Center” (ROC), located at MLB headquarters in New York City, where a team of umpires reviews video replays and communicates a final ruling through headsets to the umpires on the field. Additionally, MLB permits each team to have a “video specialist” located in the clubhouse to watch for challengeable plays; the specialist can call the manager by phone to communicate whether or not the play should be challenged.

In one sense, the MLB system may be advantageous because it allows the ROC to have the best available technology, whereas the NBA and NFL have to adapt the sophistication of their replay systems to make it possible for use at every stadium and to the referees or officials at the venue immediately. While the NFL and NBA referees and officials typically look at one relatively small monitor when reviewing a play, the ROC houses 37 high-definition televisions, each of which can be subdivided into 12 smaller screens. Though this may not seem like a big deal to the casual observer, a number of calls are so close that the quality of the image available on replay can directly impact the call. One might conclude, then, that because MLB has more advanced technology at its disposable, its replay system is, in fact, more accurate. The MLB system does have its downsides, however. Outsourcing the review process can lead to lengthy delays and put decisions in the hands of an umpire thousands of miles away from the action, which many find unappealing.

The site Retrosheet has a comprehensive collection of data on MLB’s replay system, including an entry for every play reviewed, its result, and the length of time taken for the review to be completed.

Overall, there are mixed reviews concerning the success of the expanded replay rules used in MLB this season. Though it’s unclear exactly how MLB will adjust its system in the future, if the current trend continues, as increasingly effective technology becomes available, the impact of that technology on the sport of baseball is only likely to rise as well.