The challenges of baseball replay

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Brewers have a 10-7 record in challenging umpire calls via video replay this season, a not-too-shabby .589 “winning” percentage.

Which manager Ron Roenicke says means absolutely nothing.

“Really, nobody should care what the numbers are and how many you are right and how many you are wrong,” said Roenicke. “It really doesn't have anything to do with it.

“Once you get to a certain inning, you just challenge. If you think it is close, you challenge.”

Allotted one managerial challenge per game—you retain it with a successful venture—Roenicke figures there's nothing to lose once you get to the sixth or seventh inning, because rules allow umpires to initiate video reviews over the final three frames. Roenicke doesn't want to lose his challenge on a close play early in a game that could go either way.

“When you get to certain innings, you are going to challenge,” he said. “I don't care if I am right or wrong really; it is just the time to challenge. That's why how many you are right and how many you are wrong really has nothing to do with it.

“If you are doing a lot of wrong (challenges), if you are missing a lot in the first three innings, OK, you have to be concerned. But when you are missing stuff in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth—if it is close, you are going to challenge it.”

When the expanded video replay system was put into effect this year, some suggested there would be few challenges because umpires don't miss that many calls. That has not been the case, with rarely a game going by without one side or the other making a challenge or considering doing so.

By the all-star break, managers had challenged 606 calls, or once every 2.35 games. Of those, 318 (52 percent) were overturned.

Which isn't necessarily a good thing, says Roenicke.

“They miss a lot of calls,” said Roenicke. “But some of the calls that they miss I don't really like that they are challenged and overturned because that's not why replay was put in.

“That's (Carlos) Gomez sliding in safe (at second base) easy but as his weight carries him, he comes off the bag (a small amount) and they keep the tag on him. That's ridiculous. We shouldn't even be doing that stuff.

“Or the one where you have to look at six angles and the super slow-mo and you see the guy catching the ball and it hits the (tip of the glove) or does it have to fully go into the glove (at first base).

“I don't care about those. I don't like that I have to go out and challenge something. I want the obvious calls to be right. That was the whole point of replay.”

So, managers are getting a bit carried away with what they are challenging?

“We are,” said Roenicke. “We're too far in what we are doing with it. I don't like the length of what I am out there.”

One statistic not kept is how many times a manager walks on the field, awaiting word from his replay coordinator, only to decide not to issue a challenge. Major League Baseball vice president Joe Torre said if you add those plays—which teams are admitting the umpires got right—the rate of calls overturned drops to about 22 percent.

As with most managers, Roenicke does not like the long, slow stroll on the field as he waits for his replay coordinator, coach John Shelby, to see enough video evidence to decide whether a challenge is warranted. After exchanging pleasantries with the umpire in question, Roenicke tries to get off the field as quickly as possible if deciding not to challenge a call.

“It's awkward, and then after all that time you challenge, if (the umpires) aren't sure, then they are sitting there for how many minutes—three to four minutes at times,” said Roenicke. “Then the pitcher is just standing out on the mound.

“The other day I felt bad arguing (a call in Washington). Kyle (Lohse) had already gone through the argument on the other side and I went out to argue it. I was sitting looking at Kyle like, 'He's sitting out here probably fuming and I have to get off the field to let him get back into the game.'

“It's taking too long. I like it. I like a lot of it, but I don't know how we quicken it up.”

At the start of the season, Roenicke was an admitted fence-sitter on video replay. But despite the length of time it takes to review some calls, he now is a proponent.

“I do like it,” he said. “I just don't know how to shorten it up.”

What Roenicke doesn't like is when umps still get the call wrong after a replay challenge, such as the game last week when Cincinnati's Zack Cozart was bunting and the pitch hit his bat, then his fingers. Cozart was awarded first base on a HBP instead of a foul ball being called.

“That's the frustrating part,” said Roenicke. “If we are going to use replay, then come on, get the calls right.”

First impressions count

On the first day pitchers threw bullpen sessions in spring training, Roenicke came away impressed with what he saw from reliever Zach Duke.

“In my mind, he was always a starter, so I really didn't know and I came into camp not having a clue what he'd be like,” said Roenicke. “Then the first bullpen session he threw, the guy had good stuff. It wasn't what I thought.

“The first one, I was like, 'Wow. That's really good.' And that's what we're seeing.”

Reinventing himself as a left-handed relief specialist, Duke has been one of the pleasant surprises for the first-place Brewers. Through 48 appearances, he is 4-0 with a 1.07 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 42 innings.

The strikeout ratio has been particularly impressive for a pitcher who had a strikeout rate of 4.7 per nine innings in 169 career starts.

“He's obviously changed from what he was as a starter,” said Roenicke. “He'll drop down once in a while and he's got all these different pitches, but I don't think anyone expected him to be the strikeout guy that he is.

“It's because of that really good stuff. He's got a great fastball that has good movement on it. The slider is always good; the curveball is always good. And it's just a different look.

“What he's doing is more than what I thought he was going to do. And that's not to say I didn't think he was going to pitch well for us. But now he's a guy who, if it's the eighth inning and he matches up real well, I have no problem putting him in a ball game. He gets out righties and lefties. It doesn't seem to matter.”

Duke, 31, who made the team as a nonroster player in spring training, has adjusted to the different pace of pitching in relief after years of taking the ball every five days. He has learned to warm up quickly, save his bullets for games and try to be available to pitch as many times as possible each week.

“I pretty much just go on how I feel,” said Duke. “I learned that if I throw 20 pitches or more in an outing, I might need a day (off) or limit it to an out or two the next day. If I stay 15 pitches or less, I'm pretty much available every day

“It's different from starting, for sure. Thankfully, I've felt pretty good so far.”

One lesson quickly learned: Duke admitted relievers don't like to say no when the manager asks if they are available that day.

“Very true,” he said.

A support group

The prolonged offensive slump that infielder Mar kReynolds suffered through in late June and early July, including a power outage in which he hit just one homer over a five-week period, was, as he said, “brutal.”

What kept Reynolds from completely losing his mind was the daily support from teammates in what has become a very close clubhouse environment. And he also appreciated the encouragement of Roenicke, who kept putting him on the lineup card.

“To have support from your peers is important,” said Reynolds, who finally broke loose with a two-homer game Wednesday against Cincinnati. He hit another homer Saturday against the New York Mets. “More important was Ron having the confidence to keep throwing me out there.

“He didn't say anything in particular. We had a few conversations back and forth. We didn't really talk about my struggles. We mainly talked about staying aggressive and not being timid up there.”

Reynolds said the players like the even-keeled nature of Roenicke, who doesn't panic when things are going bad or get giddy during the good times.

“He doesn't overreact to anything,” said Reynolds. “He knows what we're going through. Players like that kind of manager.”

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