A look inside the most controversial building in baseball
Expanded instant replay has improved the quality of Major League Baseball. There was nothing dumber than shrugging off an obvious blown call to “human error.”
Yet in managing its new powers of technology, baseball has grappled with a new concern:
Two weeks ago, at the MLB owners’ meetings, commissioner Rob Manfred — who has worked extensively to curtail time of game and pace of play — said: “At some point, everyone focuses on the four-minute replay, or whatever the heck it is. At some point, I recognize the fact that that one additional call correct comes at the cost of a four-minute delay. You’ve got to ask yourself whether it’s worth it or not.”
However, it turns out that baseball’s biggest headache this season has been not long replay reviews, but rather the frequency of them. Through Monday’s action, the time per replay review had reached a new low of 1 minute and 44 seconds, according to MLB, compared with 1:51 last year and 1:46 in 2019, the initial year of expanded replay.
On the flip side, with clubs approaching the season’s one-third mark, there had been 488 reviews through Monday, putting it on a pace about 15 percent ahead of last year’s 1,338; there were 1,275 in 2019. The accompanying time-per-nine-inning-game jump — from last year’s 2:53:19 to 2:59:25 through Monday — has heightened scrutiny of the expanded-replay system, and this confluence of forces has drawn the attention of baseball officials.
This concern and scrutiny led me to a tour of Replay Operations Center, or ROC. Given the technology and brainpower available each day here — I visited during a quiet time, as MLB doesn’t allow media tours during games — you can understand the temptation for both umpires to go long on a replay review and managers to go often to their replay challenges.
“I think that’s always been the intent from the beginning: We want to get the calls correct but not pause the game,” Peter Woodfork, MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations, said Tuesday. “Try to keep the flow going.
“… Our issues are when we have a difficult call, and there are a lot of camera angles, everyone wants to get it right. Overall, we’ve done a good job. We have had some bumps, which is not shocking, When [the replay reviews] go long, people really notice.”
For MLB, expanding replay — and moving past an era in which teams had to accept obvious blown calls — was worth a multi-million-dollar investment. The ROC, located at MLB Advanced Media’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, is 900 square feet and features 37 high-definition monitors.
Enter and you see six stations with two chairs apiece. The umpire sits on the right, the video operator on the left, and their assignment will be to oversee two games being played, usually at the same time. At the rear lies the back wall, with a surplus of video operators. An umpiring supervisor positions himself at a control panel in the middle of the room.
At its busiest, like a Sunday afternoon with 14 games going at once, the room will hold between 35 and 40 people. The work shifts, like those at the ballparks, are measured not so much in hours and minutes as in outs. ROC employees speak of getting through 810 outs — 15 games, times two teams, times 27 outs — on a full day.
Umpires get a review decision relayed to them.Getty Images
The goal of each replay review, Woodfork said, is to arrive at a decision within 60 to 90 seconds of the umpire’s call. That means a rendering within 30 to 60 seconds from when the review is formally requested. The moment a possible replay occurs, a “Close play” alert goes off, with the numbered station being announced over a loudspeaker, giving officials roughly a 30-second head start. Umpires will leave their stations, with the operator staying put to ensure that no game goes unwatched, and lend their perspective, with the understanding the final decision belongs to the umpire who is assigned to the game in question.
The umps know the process and the lingo well enough they can identify the specific camera angles — high, medium or low from first base and third base, for instance, or high from home plate, to get what they want. They also can request multiple angles run simultaneously or a “spool” of several shots aired one after another. As they get to work, they know, too, that the super slo-mo angle from the game’s telecasters will arrive about 30 seconds after the rest. Like a great dessert at a restaurant, it’s always worth waiting for that.
The continuing development of super slo-mo, as well as greater camera coverage, are among the reasons that could account for managers’ increasing willingness to use their replay challenges. Other possibilities include an increase in reviewable plays, most notably the rules at second base that resulted from the Dodgers’ Chase Utley’s controversial slide into the Mets’ Ruben Tejada last October, and less success by umpires on the field; through Monday, 44.3 percent of challenges had been overturned.
“When it becomes too much, our fans, the media, our clubs will tell us, ‘You’ve gone too far,’” Woodfork said. “You’re more likely now to go to a game and not see a replay review than see one.”
It’s a delicate balance between right and long, between baseball’s ROC and a hard place. MLB will keep working at it, counting on the rest of us to let them know if expanded instant replay becomes too much of a good thing.