A Typical Night in the Video Replay Booth

Using This Great Game’s easy method of comprehensive video replay, here’s how a replay crew would spend its time at a typical baseball game.

By Eric Gouldsberry, This Great Game—Posted June 5, 2013

TGG Opinion

In 2010, I outlined a simple, quick and pain-free way to integrate comprehensive video replay into baseball. For those who didn’t catch it then, here’s the shorthand version:

Questionable call is made on the field. The umpire crew chief, wearing a light headset, is alerted by the replay crew located near the press box to call time while they review the play. The replay crew gives themselves a minute—nothing more—to examine the play in question. If it’s clear that the call was right or wrong, it will take less than a minute to inform the umpire to uphold or overturn the call. If it’s too close to call and a minute passes, it’s likely too inconclusive to determine and the original call stands. The umpire is notified and play resumes. And that is it. Pure and simple.

In the three years since I devised what I call the “TGG Method,” I’ve heard all sorts of questions and criticisms regarding the various suggestions on how to instigate video replay. Who’ll be in charge? Who’ll call for the replays? Will umpires rebel? Will games go on forever because of it? Will it kill the flow of the game? How much will it cost?

Stop it. There is nothing intrusive, outrageously hi-tech or cultural shock-ridden about the TGG Method. Yes, it won’t be cheap, with cost estimates ranging as high as the tens of millions, but Major League Baseball is a multi, multi-billion-dollar industry. This will hardly throw the sport into instant recession. The TGG Method will, however, do this: It will make the game more accountable, mistake-free and, because it will cut down on intense nose-to-nose arguments between the managers and umpires, it will actually be faster.

How does one picture all of this? I’ll draw it out for you by selecting a game at random and showing the TGG Method in action. So let’s go to the Coliseum in Oakland, where the A’s and San Francisco Giants are playing an interleague game on a cool late spring evening in Northern California. Up next to the press box in the second level, the replay crew has settled in for the first pitch. Who does the crew consist of? Three people: Two are MLB representatives trained in the art of video replay, the other a fifth umpire of sorts who’s actually considered part of the crew on the field. Why three people in the booth? We’ll get to that later.

Even though the rounded, recessed shape of the Coliseum’s bowl makes for an unusually long distance from the field—at Oakland, no seat is on top of the action—the crew still has a good view of the game. But like most folks in the press areas at MLB ballparks, they’re accompanied by TV monitors. And this crew has a real nice one: A 40-inch hi-def monitor with the sharp resolution they’ll need to parse a difficult call, should it come to that.

In the bottom of the first inning, it appears the crew may have to spring into action. Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes hits a grounder to the right side, fielded well off the first base bag by the Giants’ Brandon Belt—who has to quickly shovel an assist to pitcher Michael Kickham, making his major league debut. Kickham has obviously trained for this moment; he flawlessly accepts the feed from Belt and touches the bag without breaking stride—a hair ahead of Cespedes, who’s declared out. It looks like a good call from upstairs, but the replay crew wants to be sure. They quickly call for a preliminary replay before making any contact with the umpires of the field, tapping into the various camera angles, going forward or backward, regular speed or slow, all at will. They don’t have to bug the guys in the truck trying to direct the broadcasts to the fans watching at home.

Don’t think this is possible? Of course it is. Home viewers have all but had this ability before: The Chicago Cubs and WGN have allowed cable viewers to view selected games at Wrigley Field through some 10 different channels, each one representing a certain camera view. If Joe Schmo gets access, trust us, these guys will, too.

Okay, you say, so it’s possible. But is the crew technologically savvy to expeditiously pick their camera angle and toggle the speed on its own without slowing down the game? Ah, that’s where the third guy in the booth, the second MLB employee, comes in. He’s part judge, part tekkie. He knows his role as replay reviewer as well as the others, but he’s also well trained in the process of knowing his camera angles for the day and at handling the equipment once a close play like Cespedes’ grounder comes along. The other two tell him to quickly cue up the best angle, likely the first-base side camera. In this case, they’ll quickly confirm their initial instincts and agree with first base umpire Brian Knight: Cespedes is out, and there is no need for a formal review to stop the game.

The game moves on through the next three innings. Controversy is absent as calls are made with ease; there’s nothing to doubt the umpires over, nothing to boo about, nothing to prompt fans to angrily shout, “Hey, Four Eyes!” It’s beginning to look like the kind of game MLB would certainly frown over after throwing millions into the process: Three somewhat well-paid people sitting in a booth with nothing to do. Let’s be sensitive about this: How could MLB feel better in this situation? Maybe one of the two MLB folks is the official scorer. Perhaps the umpire serves as an alternate for his colleagues on the field, called into duty at a moment’s notice should someone get hit by a comebacker or a foul tip or, in the case of Brian O’Nora, gets sick from accidentally swallowing his chew.

In the fourth inning, things start to get a little more curious. Coco Crisp hits a soft liner to second that Giants second baseman Nick Noonan appears to snare off the ground…or does he? The question is rendered moot when Noonan, who probably isn’t sure himself, throws to first with plenty of time to retire Crisp. Things might have been more interesting had a runner been on first in that situation, as he would have been unsure as to whether to break for second or haul tail back to first. Confusion might have led to replay, but since no one was on, no worries—except for the official scorer, who’s trying to find out, for the record, if Crisp grounded or lined out.

In the top of the fifth, the Giants’ Brandon Crawford has a chance to beat out an infield hit; hr crosses first just as the throw arrives, and Knight starts what looks to be his “out” motion. Uh oh. At that instant, the fans watching have processed their own opinion, which is that Crawford looks to have barely beat it out. Bad call on the way? Replay team ready for action? No. Halfway into his motion, Knight changes his mind and spreads his arms out in quick compact fashion to say that Crawford is, indeed, safe. The replay crew checks the play informally and quickly agrees with Knight; there’s no need to contact crew chief Gerry Davis.

A half-inning later, the A’s Josh Donaldson hits a comebacker that ricochets off the forearm of Chad Gaudin, the Giants’ fourth pitcher of the night. Gaudin collects and whips a desperate throw in an attempt to retire Donaldson, but Knight rules him safe. But it’s awfully close—so close, the replay crew doesn’t even want to check it out informally; they notify Davis to call time while they make their first official review of the night. That’s okay with Davis; Gaudin is nicked up by the comebacker and needs a few moments to recover.

Meanwhile, the replay crew gets to work. The clock is running at one minute and winding down. The tekkie selects the same first-base view to get the best angle on the play—but he doesn’t get an initial vote. That is the job of the main MLB reviewer and the fifth umpire. If for some reason those two would disagree, the tekkie becomes the tiebreaker—hence, the importance of his replay training.

Why would there be a disagreement between the first two reviewers? It happens. Keep in mind: The presence of the umpire in a replay booth, determining whether one of his own has screwed up, is fraught with iciness. Yes, he’s professional, but he’s also human; umpires are notorious for backing each other, no matter how ridiculous. After all, how is it that, in baseball’s pre-replay environment, when a horribly blown call is made by one umpire, the other three don’t see what 40,000 others obviously are witness to and refuse to huddle up, do the right thing and overturn the call? It’s one of the reasons we’ve found ourselves discussing replay in the first place.

On this play however, there will be no debate in the booth. There will be no overturning of the initial call, either. The reviewers nod in agreement that Knight was right, and Donaldson is safe. They quickly call down to Davis, watching Gaudin’s progress, and tell him one simple word: “Safe.” Clear enough for Davis, who points to first, followed by the safe motion. Gaudin is fine, play continues, and not a moment is wasted because of the crew.

Two innings later, Donaldson provides more potential drama for the replay crew. He lashes a drive down the right field line, and it drops in near the chalk, ruled fair by Knight back near first base. Donaldson winds up at second, and there he’ll stay; the replay crew takes the quick informal look but it’s obvious that Knight has once again made the right call. No review, play on. The double turns out to be the last time the crew will need to take a second look at anything on the night.

The game glides to a finish. The A’s, who took the early lead, are never threatened by the Giants and win, 6-3—though it really seems more one-sided than the score indicates. But what seems to be a relatively mundane and stress-free affair—for both umpires and players—still takes over three hours to complete. Don’t blame the replay crew. And on this night, don’t blame the managers who might come out to argue calls and delay things as a result—the one aspect of the game where replay can actually shorten things.

This replay-is-shorter argument never was more clearly illustrated than during a 2012 game in Los Angeles when then-Colorado manager Jim Tracy couldn’t believe a blown call that went against his team, and went nuts on all four umpires with a profanity-filled rant that easily earned him an ejection. When Tracy finally finished, four minutes after replay would have settled everything and proved him right, Dodger announcer Vin Scully succinctly opined: “They say (replay) would slow up the game, what did (Tracy’s rant) do?”

It’s an uneventful night in Oakland; it won’t be the next day in San Francisco when the Giants and A’s meet again, as the replay crew will have their hands full. The A’s will win again, but they’ll have to overcome two blatantly bad calls that the crew will easily (and quickly) overturn. They will earn their pay and make it right for the players, coaches, umpires and the fans who pay good money and demand to see this great game played without bogus decisions that could turn a team’s fortunes in an instant.

As complex as the TGG Method seems, it’s all very simple. In a game that attempts to explain balks, infield fly rules, knuckleballs and Wins Above Replacement, this is a no-brainer. Use it, MLB.

TGG OpinionAfter Further Review: Making the Right Call on Replay As baseball struggles to grasp video replay, here’s our suggestion on how to expand upon it and make it efficient—if not flawless.