Today, all major American teams and individual sports have some form of instant replay or an appeal (or challenge) system for players and coaches to dispute an umpire’s or referee’s decision. If you had to guess which sport was one of the last to adopt this technology, which would you guess? It’s not professional bull riding; they have had instant replay since 2006.
If you guessed that MLB was one of the last sports to incorporate a challenge system to be decided by video, you’d be right. But why did they hold out so long when every other sport embraced technology?
- MLB is the last major American team sport to adopt a challenge system via replay, but they did it the right way.
- The role of replay officials is to review all possible video angles of a play to make sure that the right decision is made on the field.
- Most challenges are successful 50% of the time, but this number varies for different types of plays.
- There have been many plays over the years that have sparked instant replay and challenge conversations within MLB.
Overview of MLB challenge system
While baseball may be the last major American team sport to incorporate challenges via replay, they did it the right way. For those in New York, you may already know that MLB invested in a technology center in the historic Chelsea Market building just steps from the Hudson River. This facility is a 900-square-foot control room with dozens of video screens, computers, and other video and telephone technology connecting them to 15 different cities on any given day.
This facility is the core of the MLB challenge system. For all games, at least one official umpire staffs the MLB Replay Operations Center to make decisions and is joined by at least one trained video technician to operate the equipment. So, what are they looking at, and what plays can be challenged? Here are the most common:
- Tag Plays on Baserunners (Almost 40% of all reviews)
- Play at 1st Base (32%)
- Home Run (challenging if it was fair, foul, or went over the wall – 8%)
- Close tie between Force Plays and hitters Hit by Pitch (about 5% of all reviews each)
The remaining 10% of plays include whether a hit ball is fair or foul, runners tagging up too early, and the times when a base runner forgets to step on the physical base as they advance on the basepath.
When a play is challenged, and the team in New York goes to work, the umpire on staff in the Replay Center has three possible decisions they can make:
- Confirmed – the umpire made the correct decision on the field
- Stands – the video replay was not enough to overturn the decision on the field
- Overturned – there is clear evidence that the umpire made the wrong decision
Number of challenges allowed
In MLB, team managers are given one challenge to start regular season games and two for the postseason. Teams can challenge up to two plays in regular season games, but they must be correct the first time. Once a team challenges a call and it is wrong, they lose the ability to challenge any other play during the game. This fact makes the use of the challenge a strategic one.
The process of requesting a challenge
To request a challenge, managers have 20 seconds from the end of the play to inform the umpire whether they will challenge a play. The manager can walk onto the field and tell the umpire or give them a hand signal from the dugout asking for a review. However, once the manager makes the challenge official, there is no taking it back. If they realize it was a bad challenge, it does not matter.
Role of replay officials
The role of replay officials is to review all possible video angles of a play to make sure that the right decision is made on the field. When a manager challenges a play, the umpire on the field is not the one to do the full video review. It is the role of the umpire on staff at the Replay Center to confirm or overturn calls on the field and then relay those decisions to the umpire on the field. The umpire on the field then announces the decision to the players and fans.
The success rate of challenges
The success rate of challenges in MLB fluctuates between 52-48% in any given year. This is an overall number based on all plays, but for the most part, challenges are a 50/50 endeavor. This doesn’t apply to all plays, though. Here are shortlists for the most and least successful challenged plays:
- Fan interference (66% overturn rate)
- Play at 1st Base (63% overturn rate)
- Force out (52% overturn rate)
- Home plate collision (92% unsuccessful)
- Baserunner missing a base (83% unsuccessful)
- Tag-Up plays (81% unsuccessful)
Controversy and criticism
There have been many plays over the years that have sparked instant replay and challenge conversations within MLB. Still, the need for the challenge system can be attributed to what most consider the worst umpire decision in MLB history.
In 2010, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was one out away from pitching a perfect game. In the Guardians’ final at-bat, a slow ground ball to second base was going to close out the game, but a blown call at first base changed history for a young man who was going to be just the 19th pitcher at the time to throw a perfect game in MLB history.
To understand the heartbreak of not being able to challenge an obviously wrong call, it is better told in video. Watch the condensed clip of Galarraga’s almost-perfect game, where at the 5:00-minute mark, you will see the play that changed baseball and technology forever.
How long can a manager use a challenge?
At the beginning of a regular-season game, managers get one challenge that can be used at any point. They can use it in the first inning or the last, but the only rule that matters is that they have only 20 seconds to officially challenge the play that just happened.
What happens after a manager challenges a play in baseball?
Once a manager challenges a play, the umpire on the field calls a timeout and informs the fans that a challenge and review are underway. From this point, the review responsibility moves to the Replay Center in New York, where they have 2 minutes to review and decide. These time limits are in place to encourage a faster pace of play, which has been a fan complaint for many years.
What happens when a manager uses up all his challenges?
Once a manager has used up all his challenges, they are simply out of luck. The MLB rule is clear: teams get one challenge per game and a total of two if they get the first one right. After that, the only time a play can be challenged is after the sixth inning, and only if an umpire on the field requests the review (think: a fly ball hitting a foul pole or fan interference).
Which calls can a baseball manager challenge?
A manager can challenge just about every play on a baseball field, whether their team is hitting or in the field, but there are a few exceptions that cannot be challenged, and those are considered “subjective calls.” These unchallengeable calls include check swings, infield fly rules, and balls and strikes (though that may change soon).
Do teams ever get more than one challenge?
Yes, teams get two challenges in postseason MLB games. For regular season games, teams will get a second challenge in a game if they get their first challenge correct. In the case of critical game situations after the eighth inning, if a team has no more challenges left, but a play could be considered controversial, the umpire can initiate a challenge on behalf of a manager that does not have any challenges left for the game.
We are now in the digital age, and technology has taken over many aspects of our daily lives. When it comes to baseball, technology has improved the way we watch the game on TV and the fan experience at the stadiums. In many ways over the last few years, it has saved the integrity of baseball as well. There will always be folks that prefer the “good, old days,” where human error was just a part of the game, but try telling that to Armando Galarraga or any Detroit Tigers fan for that matter.
he truth is that as baseball embraces technology, the game will stay true, fans will be more connected than ever before, and MLB can continue to grow and offer new and exciting job opportunities in the digital world.
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