The National Hockey League has had a centralized video-review system in place for nearly ten years. Major League Baseball can learn a thing or two from the NHL about how to set up and operate a fair and efficient system.
A few weeks ago, Commissioner Bud Selig told a group of folks gathered in Wisconsin for a "sports and society" conference that he'd received "very little pressure" to add more video replay to baseball games. Selig's remarks came as a surprise to many baseball analysts and fans, who've noticed a considerable number of missed calls and other umpire controversies this season.
Perhaps Selig (finally) heard the outcry. Less than a week after the Commissioner's Wisconsin remarks, Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reported that Major League Baseball was seriously considering adopting a centralized video-review process. Al Yellon explained the details in this post, but they're worth repeating here:
A group of umpires will watch games from a central location.
On plays that are "clearly wrong" the group would then signal the umpires at the game and let them know there is an obvious call that needs to be changed.
hopes to implement an introductory version of the system in 2013.
The initial system would only review home runs, whether a ball is fair or foul, and whether or not a player caught a ball.
The system would then be expanded "after a year or so" once the system is optimized.
At that point, the system would be expanded "to all sorts of calls" to be negotiated among the league, the players and the umpires.
As Al noted, MLB's video-review proposal looks much like the system employed by the National Hockey League. In fact, the NHL's centralized video-review system has been in place for nearly ten years. Ten years! And for the most part, players, coaches and referees applaud the procedures, which work efficiently and fairly. Baseball can learn a thing or two from their colleagues in professional hockey.
The NHL first used video to review questionable goals in 1991. A "video-review judge" armed with replays from the television broadcasts -- often showing a play from different angles -- sat at ice level and made the final call on whether a questionable goal was good. To address concerns about consistency between these off-ice video review judges, the NHL created a centralized video-review process before the 2003-2004 season.
The Roger Neilson Video Review Room was born. Located in the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the "War Room," as it's called, is named for former NHL coach Roger Neilson, who pioneered the use of video for player development and practice session. Flat-screen, high-definition televisions cover the walls. There are also cubicle work stations with three smaller screens in each and additional cubicle work stations in a room across the hall. Video-review personnel monitor the video and audio feed of every on-going game. The video-review judges in each arena -- who also have high-definition video feeds of each questionable goal -- have a direct phone line into the War Room.
Questionable goals arise when it's not clear if the puck hit the crossbar or the goal posts, crossed the goal line, was kicked in by a player, or knocked in by a player's high stick. War Room personnel get involved in every review, watching the play from multiple angles, and conferring with the off-ice video judge and, on occasion, the on-ice referees. Most plays are reviewed and a decision reached in a minute or so. Some take a bit longer.
Here's a short video with a tour of the War Room and interviews with its key personnel:
As the video explains, NHL personnel in the War Room watch each game for more than just the questionable goals. They watch to see if referees are correctly calling penalties and look for trends in how the game is being played. That information is then used to evaluate the referees and the rules to see if changes are needed.
So what might Major League Baseball learn from the NHL's success with its War Room?
First, by making centralized video review part of the game on an everyday basis, the NHL places a priority on getting the calls right. Concerns about slowing the game down take a back seat to accuracy and consistency.
Second, the War Room is staffed mostly by former players and coaches and not by current or retired referees. While baseball's umpires' union is unlikely to hand over the reins on final calls to non-umpires, former players and coaches should be involved in baseball's centralized replay process in some way.
Third, like the NHL, baseball should use a replay "war room" not just to make final calls on questionable plays, but to monitor the game as a whole, including the conduct of players, coaches and umpires.
On Friday, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports argued in favor of additional video review in baseball, but raised concerns about the potential costs. Passan talked to football sources who said the NFL's system costs $4 million per season with many fewer games. It's not clear where that $4 million figure comes from or what it pays for. It's also not clear that baseball's centralized video-review system would cost more.
The infrastructure for watching broadcasts of every on-going game is already in place via MLB.tv, which is owned by the league and its teams. MLB has a great deal of experience in constructing rooms for simultaneously watching every on-going game. That's what the MLB Fan Cave is all about. If MLB is willing to absorb the costs of the Fan Cave -- which exists merely for entertainment purposes -- surely it can absorb similar costs to construct a centralized video-review center.
Professional hockey has "bang-bang" plays just like baseball, where things happen so fast they trick the human eye. For nearly ten years, hockey's put a premium on making sure that "bang-bang" plays that appear to result in a goal are called correctly and consistently throughout the league. There's no reason MLB can't do the same with its most important calls: whether a ball is fair or foul, whether a ball is caught or trapped, and whether a runner is safe or out.