With the implementation of the new instant replay system in MLB, a fan has to ask oneself, "Am I witnessing a fundamental shift in the game of baseball?" -And then ask oneself again "Am I?"
During today's game between the Angels and the Mariners, a play was overturned by instant replay. It was a play that answered the question for this fan, a play that said loud and clear, this is a whole new ballgame.
With one out and the bases loaded, a routine double play ball was hit on the ground to Angel's shortstop Tommy Field who cleanly fielded it and made a routine toss to Romine covering second to begin what looked to be a text book double play to end the inning. Romine anxiously bobbled the ball on what initially looked like the exchange between his glove and his throwing hand, as he may have focused for a moment on planting his foot on second base, momentarily losing control of the baseball on what looked to be the exchange. Initially the umpire called the runner out at second, but the Mariners' Manager Lloyd McClendon ran out onto the field to argue/delay the game long enough for the umpires to decide they would go ahead and have the play reviewed as it was now the 8th inning of the game. For the first time this Spring in an Angels game, the reviewed play was overturned, and the runner who was initially ruled out at second base ran back onto the field from the dugout. Instead of being runners on first and third with two outs, it was now bases loaded with one out.
There were several thoughts wildly galloping through my mind, as I tried to corral what this new twist would now mean to every double play in baseball. First off, the importance of touching second base on a routine double play, now seemed to be vital. If the batter is called out on the second half of a double play, then the out at second base is deemed not review-able, but what if the runner is called safe at first base? Does this mean that the in-the-vicinity element on the front end of every double play is now called into question? Does this increase the odds of shortstops and second basement getting taken out as they are tied to a closer proximity to that bag on every exchange to turn two? Will this lead to the eventual rules change on taking out the infielder on the throws, as they will now be closer to the bag and perhaps more exposed, causing more potential for violent collisions and injuries. Time will tell.
What if a base runner is called out in real time on the front end of a routine double play situation, but the infielder clearly doesn't touch the bag, and then throws the ball past the first basemen, causing the base runner running to first to get to either second or third base before the play is over? If a manager challenges the initial out and it is overturned, does the runner that was previously out either score or advance to third now?
Double plays can go from two outs to no outs with these new rules, they become riskier sequences. The rules state that the first out of a double play cannot be reviewed, but is that true when the runner beats the throw at first? Can a speedy base runner such as Trout seemingly reverse an entire double play by beating the throw at first, or will the umpire simply call him out on all close plays to insure that the first half of he DP won't be vulnerable to review, knowing the replay will be there to reverse the close calls? Does this change the way umpires think and behave now? It must have some impact, particularly during this era of uncertainty, the adoption phase.
It used to be that a manager would run out of the dugout to argue a close call, perhaps as a sign of respect for his team, but now, the reasons they will be running out onto the field will of course, include creating the time necessary for the review booth personnel, as well as the stadium scoreboard, to replay the controversial calls, thus, on every close play, it now behooves all managers to sprint onto the diamond and halt the game, whether the play is reviewed or not, just to buy the time necessary. This might cause Mike Scioscia to lose a few pounds, as he will now be jogging out onto the diamond perhaps a couple hundred more times a season. Hell Scioscia might need to wear cleats now, so he can sprint his way out there and halt the game on every close play between now and October. Will this cause umpires to start to tell managers to turn around and run back off the field on plays they don't want reviewed, in order to preserve the flow of the game? Will this cause managers that are overzealous to get booted earlier and more often as a result? Will this change the way managers and umpires interact? It seems that it will, how couldn't it?
If the third out of an inning is reversed, will the players all run back out onto the diamond? On close third outs will players all sprint off the field? Will fans who are making a run for beer and nachos have to turn around hustle back to their seats?
If a player is called out on a close third out, will the other base runners keep going in case the play is overturned, and will the defenders go for a fourth out to insure they don't give up another run at the plate? Will players now be caught in a mental pickle?
The Infinite Loop of an Endless Pickle.
One thing is for certain, this season will be a year of trial and error, retrial and appeal. For the first time in their professional careers, players, managers, and umpires will be uncertain of how the rules of the game will play out at any given moment in the game. In an effort to remove controversy from the game, this might become the most controversial season in many years, as the myriad of new dilemmas and questions play themselves out on the diamond every night, over and over again.
Pitchers will find themselves waiting longer than ever between pitches on controversial plays, perhaps needing extra warm up tosses to stay sharp. Over turned third outs might cause pitchers who have already put on jackets to keep their pitching arm warm, to quickly disrobe and run back onto the diamond; raising pitch counts and perhaps even causing unintended consequences for their age old routines. Ground ball pitchers might have a number of double plays during the year fall apart, as second basemen and shortstops fumble exchanges with a heightened awareness of needing to find the bag on the exchange, and to indicate they do indeed, have control of the ball when they tag the base in the first place, as we saw in today's game. The lost third outs will raise pitch counts and increase scoring, league wide. It would be surprising to see these new rules lower the average runs per game, indeed, I would bet on more runs being scored, as critical outs are reversed.
Historically, when a player attempts to steal second, if the throw gets there at just about the same exact moment as the runner, the umpire rings up the runner. That might not be a given anymore, and thus, stealing might become more viable, valuable, and lethal in the new game. Mike Trout might become even more fearsome, and inclined to force umpires to closely scrutinize the point of every tag. If Trout is rung up on a close call, Scioscia will need to scoot out onto the field long enough for the crowd to watch the play unfold on the big screen and react, forcing the umpires to confront the truth, whether Scioscia uses his review or not.
No matter how hard the league tries, these new rules are going to have a profound impact on the strategy, and the outcome of many games. Indeed, a new category of statistics will now be invented to cope with the new variables. All managers will have a Review Percentage, the ratio at which their review requests cause reversals. Umpires will have a ratio of how many of their calls are overturned. Will the stat of Umpire Errors be born of this? Players who force reviews with hustle, speed, and determination will be seen as assets, as they push the envelope on every close play. Catchers will now wonder how to position themselves on plays at the plate, and runners trying to score will have to plot new trajectories as they slide home awkwardly. Players might even develop techniques to block out camera view angles, to increase their odds of success, new body language will be born of this.
It seems like this might lead to a sort of fan review of all close plays, as the scoreboard will expose all bad calls, over and over again, while managers debate with umpires on the field, to a chorus of either boos or cheers.
Indeed we are in for a wild season, one that we can look back upon, again and again, during each game. The uncertainty will add excitement and controversy, it will result in more hustle on the part of practiced veterans, it will frazzle the nerves of unproven rookies and fringe players, it will irritate pitchers who have to trot back onto the diamond to try to get the "fourth" out. It will create a lot of reviews in the sixth inning, as both managers choose to use their reviews before the seventh inning begins when they are rendered moot. It will cause the fraternity of umpires to create new etiquette, as they try to galvanize themselves against being overturned by one another. It will put a lot of power in a room, located at MLB's version of the NSA headquarters, where every play is being studied and reviewed by The Big Umpire in the Sky, league officials behind them vocalizing what's best for the "Game". It will add new slots for advertising, as the dead time of reviews will undoubtedly be whored out in some kind of split screen arrangement, to be sure.
Most of all, it will change the flow of baseball, for better or for worse. Indeed, for the first time, the tie will go to the runner at first base perhaps, except on double plays, in which case, the tie will always be broken in the booth, to protect the integrity of second base calls.
The way we watch, and the way we talk, will now reflect the realities of our new digital world, where every phone conversation is recorded somewhere for posterity, every traveler is naked on a computer screen, every email, and bad decision, preserved in the digital bowels of infinite. Where Umpire's lay awake at night, wondering how much longer they will call the strike zone. Where Vegas odds makers can bet on more heartburn this season.
Indeed there's no looking back, except when there is, which is always and forever. New language will be born of this reality, statements like, "Let's play two, again." As an Angels fan, as a baseball fan, as a fan of life, I have to admit, this is going to be a really interesting year to look back upon, in real time.