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More video review: A first impression!

Bob Levey

Tuesday night in Arizona, Major League Baseball conducted its first-ever public experiment with the expanded video review we heard about last summer. I watched the game, and took notes and stuff.

Before I share those with you, an aside ... While I appreciate that MLB is using the Arizona Fall League as a Guinea pig, this only whets my appetite. Why can't they do something like this every year? Why not experiment with mound heights, and strike zones, and pitch clocks, and three-ball walks and orange baseballs and anything else that ever flitted through or across Charlie Finley's fertile mind?

Well, I actually know the answer: the Arizona Fall League is a training ground, not a test bed for wacky rules and such. Which is why I will recommend, once more, that Major League Baseball subsidize one of the many independent leagues, with that money buying the right to try out some of the aforementioned schemes. Also, some unaforementioned schemes.

Aside concluded. About Tuesday night ...

There were four challenges, which included three close plays at first base and a trapped ball in the outfield that nobody in the ballpark thought was actually caught; that play was challenged by the manager only, it seems, as a test of the system. In practice during the real games next year, the managers will presumably have a limited number of challenges. But in these games, they can challenge whatever they like. And for testing purposes, the more the better.

The four challenges:

  • In the top of the second, C.J. Cron slapped a grounder up the middle. Second baseman Jacob Wilson ranged far afield, came up with the ball, and threw to first from short center field. With my naked eye, I thought Cron beat the throw. The umpire thought Cron was out. Next, the manager challenged the call. Plate umpire Hal Gibson took a few steps away from his usual position, and was immediately given a headset by someone who works for Baseball. Fifteen seconds later, Gibson took off the headset and informed the first-base umpire, who made an out signal for everyone to see.
  • Basically the same thing happened in the top of the fourth. Tyler Collins led off with a grounder to the first baseman, who fumbled the ball before throwing to the covering pitcher. The throw was obviously in time, but there was some question about whether the pitcher brushed the bag with his foot. This time it was more like 20 seconds before Gibson took off the headset, and this time both umpires signaled the out.

    One interesting thing, which I probably missed the first time: To announce to the world that he wanted help, Gibson looked toward the press box and drew a rectangle in the air with his index fingers. We might be seeing a lot of imaginary rectangles next summer.
  • ln the top of the fifth, Matt Skole shot a liner into left field, where Tim Wheeler came up well short of making the catch. But as a test of the system, the manager went ahead and issued the challenge. Gibson made his rectangle, wore the headset for 20 seconds, and signaled safe.
  • In the bottom of the eighth, Dustin Garneau grounded one to Skole at third base, and Skole's throw to first base was scooped in good order by Cron. But it was close and it seemed that Cron's foot might have come off the base. For the fourth time in four tries, though, the initial call was on the money. Or close enough, anyway; the replays we saw at home really weren't conclusive.

So how much time did the challenges add to this particular game? The times between the initial calls and the next pitches were 1:28, 1:43, 1:38, and 2:23. By comparison, the usual break between unchallenged out and the next pitch was approximately 30 seconds. So the average "extra" time was 80 seconds; in this game, the four reviews added roughly five minutes to the game time.

One argument you've probably heard -- and an argument I've made at least once -- is that when considering how much time you're adding to the games with more video review, you have to also account for how much time won't be wasted by managers running onto the field and screaming at umpires.

Well, yes. But. But most games do not include a long argument. Also, an argument between the manager and the umpire can be entertaining, while watching an umpire wear a headset isn't entertaining at all. Well, it was entertaining Tuesday night. Because it was a novelty. But I'm sure that sight will get old real fast when it's happening three or four or more times in every game. This is essentially dead time, and the fundamental "problem" isn't the time of the games, but rather the pace of the games. And there's no way to keep expanded video review from slowing the pace.

I think we've all decided this is a tradeoff worth making. I agree, especially after seeing how quickly the new system can work. But there were four challenges in this game, and there might be six or more in a lot of the real games, as the managers are slated to get at least three challenges apiece. So now we're looking at something like eight extra minutes per game. Which is substantial.

But even if you can't do anything about the pace, you can do something about the time. It's really simple. Once MLB has a good handle on the number of challenges, they can start selling 30-second commercial spots during the challenges. If there are six of those per game, just cut the commercial breaks between half-innings by 30 seconds in the middle of the game, six times. Boom. You've not lost any ad revenues, but you've shortened the now-lengthened games by three minutes. More to the point, you've excised three minutes of dead time.

That's my take, anyway. After one whole game. Progress!