When Major League Baseball gave managers the right to challenge umpires’ calls this season, even the staunchest proponents of replay review acknowledged it to be an unfinished work and that some tinkering probably was inevitable.
The first phase of tinkering begins next week, when MLB executives will talk with members of the umpires’ union about the two most controversial aspects of replay review: where catchers should position themselves for tags at the plate, and revising the interpretation of what constitutes a caught ball.
Umpires this season are requiring fielders to maintain possession of the ball through its transfer from glove to bare hand. Using common sense about this shouldn’t be difficult — a catch is a catch, a throw is a throw, and if the ball is dropped during the delivery of the throw, it’s still a catch — but the umps, perhaps as a statement of backlash against instant replay, have not been particularly vigilant in their use of common sense.
Which brings us to a pivotal moment in the Mariners’ game Friday night at Miami. With two on and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth inning, reliever Yoervis Medina picked up a bunted ball and threw it to third baseman Kyle Seager for an apparent force out.
Because the Mariners still were in a jam — the winning run was on second, with Giancarlo Stanton, the major league RBI leader, due up — Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon ambled to the mound to discuss strategy with Medina and his teammates.
It was during this discussion, some 55 seconds after third base umpire Lance Barrett ruled Seager’s catch an out, that Marlins manager Mike Redmond approached Barrett with a challenge.
I presume you know how the challenge turned out, and how Medina’s letter-high slider to Stanton turned out, and how a tie turned into an 8-4 heartbreaker on one mighty swing.
Afterward, there was a lot of grousing on the radio and the Internet about the injustice that had made the Mariners the latest victims of the catch-is-not-a-catch-until-it’s-successfully-transferred-to-the-bare-hand rule.
Such indignation might have been warranted if not for one detail revealed by replay review: Seager didn’t bobble the ball on the transfer. He bobbled the ball on the catch. By the time he secured it, the runner’s foot was on the bag.
The call wasn’t overturned because of the umps’ misguided interpretation of a rule that needs to be clarified. The call was overturned because Barrett missed it.
The new replay-review policy did no favors to the Mariners on Friday, but its essential premise — get things right — was realized.
And yet, Miami’s successful appeal of the play at third exposed another, more subtle flaw in using replays as a second opinion. Almost a full minute was spent before Redmond concluded he had reason to challenge.
Without the conference on the mound, the Mariners were a double play away from taking the game into extra innings. They were denied the chance, and there’s something wrong about that.
The replay-review rule notes “a manager must exercise his challenge ... before the commencement of the next play or pitch.”
OK, got it. But what if the challenge is exercised after the third out?
The manager must approach the umpire within 10 seconds of the call. Once the manager is on the field, he has 30 seconds to issue a challenge.
In other words, the rule on how much time is allowed for a challenge depends on how many outs there are. If there’s one or two outs, a challenge can be made after a four-hour rain delay. If there are three outs, the manager has 10 seconds to get ready and 30 seconds to go.
The discrepancy needs to be fixed, and a fix is obvious: Require every challenge, regardless of how many outs there are, to be made within a 40-second window.
A replay-review call that turned a ninth-inning first out into a bases-loaded, no-outs gut check for Medina didn’t cost the Mariners a chance at winning. Once Medina put two runners on, the Mariners basically were looking at checkmate.
But the play at third was history, and McClendon adheres to the old-school belief that checkmate isn’t declared until there are no moves left. McClendon was pondering those moves when his counterpart in the other dugout took advantage of new rules with glaring loopholes.
The call was wrong, the reversal of the call was right, but the challenge shouldn’t have been granted.
It was made too late.