It's official: Major League Baseball will vastly expand the use of video review in 2014, which means the number of blown calls will plummet. Dramatically. I mean, dramatically. I don't know if MLB will ever release the numbers (which they've got) for fear of embarrassing the umpires, but this is going to make a huge difference.
Will calls still be missed? Of course. Particularly in the first six innings, because ... well, here's the guts of the new system:
Managers will have at least one challenge to use. If any portion of a challenged play is overturned, then the manager who challenged the play will retain the ability to challenge one more play during the game. No manager may challenge more than two plays in a game. Once the manager has exhausted his ability to challenge plays during the game and after the beginning of the seventh inning, the Crew Chief may choose to invoke instant replay on any reviewable call. Home run and other boundary calls will remain reviewable under the procedures in place last season.
Six innings can be a long time. It won't be terribly uncommon for a manager to max out his challenges, only to find himself powerless when he thinks a call was blown in the fifth or sixth inning. It's going to happen, and if it happens often enough it simply won't be tolerated and the system will be revised.
But as much as everyone would like to eliminate all incorrect calls, a) that's impossible, as we've seen in every other sport, and b) even getting reasonably close might add 10-15 minutes to each game. I'm guessing about that amount, but there is an issue here, and Baseball's trying to find the right, or at least an acceptable, balance between getting the calls right and not destroying the pace of the game (which is more important than the actual times of the games).
Actually, we know the system will be revised. We just don't know exactly how, yet. But everybody knows the system hasn't been seriously tested, and the serious testing will reveal flaws. With that in mind, this system seems like a perfectly fine start. If you don't believe me, here's Jayson Stark with a comprehensive rundown of what it should like in practice. And if you somehow don't think this is a good thing, here's Grant Q. Brisbee with so many reasons to rejoice.
But yes, I do have a complaint. The list of reviewable plays is long, and consists of virtually every play ... with one bizarre exception:
Force play (except the fielder’s touching of second base on a double play)
Uh, exactly how does that work? How do you go to GREAT LENGTHS to get every call right ... and essentially codify wrong calls?
This of course is the so-called neighborhood play: If a middle infielder's in the neighborhood of second base, he doesn't have to actually touch the base whilst trying to turn a double play and avoid a potentially injurious slide. Which seems a lovely sentiment, but also happens to GO AGAINST EVERYTHING THAT SHOULD BE HELD HOLY.
It's a simple principle: If you can't touch the base, you don't deserve the double play. Just like you don't deserve the out anywhere else if you can't can't touch the base. Yes, by all means! Protect yourself from injury! We encourage self-protection! The out's not worth a broken angle or a torn knee ligament! But you should make that decision, without any help from a sympathetic umpire.
What I think is that this strange exception to the new rules is a sop to the old-school baseball men who advise Commissioner Bud. Some shred of tradition must be preserved.
But this one won't be for long. As Larry Granillo wrote just last summer, the neighborhood play -- a/k/a the "phantom double play" -- was already on the way out. But this new scheme's going to kill it. Kill it dead. Even if a few umpires, probably the oldest umpires, persist in looking the other way when a fielder doesn't actually touch the base while in possession of the baseball, it can't last long. Ultimately, nobody except a few veteran infielders will tolerate sanctioned blown calls. Especially if said calls are plastered on the massive video boards now gracing more and more of our baseball cathedrals.
The neighborhood play is one of the last gasps of the we-don't-give-a-damn crowd. You know what I mean. We don't give a damn if catchers get destroyed. We don't give a damn if the guy actually makes the play. We don't give a damn if pitchers throw beanballs. Slowly but surely, the we-don't-give-a-damn crowd dies off, or retires. Within a year or two, the neighborhood play will be a quaint memory, a relic of the time when there was room for people to make up rules on the fly. For better or worse, that time is almost gone.