Expanded replay brings rookie skippers challenges
PHOENIX -- When it comes to the expanded use of instant replay review in place in Major League Baseball, everybody's a rookie. The challenge system is essentially a strategic equalizer, whether you're Mike Scioscia, for whom Opening Day will be game No. 2,269 as leader of the Angels, or Brad Ausmus, for whom Opening Day will be game No. 1 as a manager at any Major or Minor League level.
But to the rookie skippers in 2014 -- the Tigers' Ausmus, the Nationals' Matt Williams, the Reds' Bryan Price, the Cubs' Rick Renteria and, loosely, the Phillies' Ryne Sandberg (entering his first full season) -- the challenges present yet another challenge.
Here at Spring Training, where the technology has been made available on a limited basis in Cactus and Grapefruit League play, the procedure of determining what to challenge and when to challenge has been yet another in the long list of areas in which these leaders of men are attempting to develop and establish their managerial personalities.
In some cases, a bit begrudgingly.
"I like the fact that we're trying to get the plays right," Price said. "But the statistics suggest there are so few plays that are missed. ... If the goal is to get the calls right, why don't we get it right when it's conclusive instead of making it a strategy?"
Price's words would likely bring a resounding "hallelujah" to many a manager already presented with so many in-game situations that are subject to second-guessing. But there's no denying the intrigue that could arise now that managers have just one challenge at their disposal (two if the first is successful), with the umpires unable to step in until the seventh inning and beyond.
And so a subplot to the spring has been the plotting of procedures. Organizations are deciding which members of their traveling party they'll entrust with the duty of being the eyes on the replay monitor [as one manager pointed out, former umpires would seem to be ideal candidates, given their inclination toward independent viewpoints], and managers are deciding the tactics they'll take in presenting their cases to the umpires while simultaneously receiving some sort of signal as to whether or not to request a review.
"I think the protocol will be if you want to challenge, you have to go out and talk to the umpire," said Renteria, "and either invoke it or he may ask me to invoke it depending on how long you stand out there conversing with him."
If there is any area in which the rookie managers have some ground to make up on their longer-tenured contemporaries, this could be it, simply because they're still in the process of establishing a sort of working relationship with the umps. There could be instances in which managers have to milk those precious seconds between the play and the heads-up from the bench.
"My tendency is to go right away on a play and react," said Sandberg, "so that's where the communication with the bench will be important. I'm not one to let a play happen and then lay back. All that will be second nature as far as going out there and talking with the umpires and possibly have them gather up and get some other angles, which is standard.
"Then the next thing would be to work around and get a look at the bench and see what they say and what the video shows and then make a judgment whether to challenge or not."
How many plays will actually be worthy of a challenge? Major League Baseball did a video review of the entire 2013 season and came up with one blown call every 6.4 games, with force and tag plays accounting for the vast majority of those mistakes.
It would seemingly behoove managers, then, to be as aggressive as possible with the use of the review system, despite the fact that an unrewarded challenge early in the game would leave them without a challenge should an obvious and potentially punitive mistake arise before the seventh.
"Statistically, they say you should challenge anything, even if it's 50-50, because there are so few missed calls," Ausmus said. "In my mind, the way it's set up with each club also having the same video that the office in New York has, I think the vast majority of times it will be pretty cut-and-dried as to whether the call has been missed or not. The truth is in 10 or 15 seconds, if you have the video, you can tell if the guy is out or safe."
That said, these guys wouldn't be in the positions they're in if they didn't have the mindset to analyze every situation and its impact on the game's bottom line.
Replay is yet another area in which managers will evaluate leverage and act accordingly. For instance, if there's a close play at first that goes against you with two outs and the pitcher coming to bat, do you risk wasting a challenge?
"Low leverage becomes high leverage," Price said, "when you decide not to use your challenge [in that situation] and then the pitcher hits a jam-shot base hit and the leadoff man hits a three-run homer and all of a sudden it's three runs."
Ausmus is of the opinion that just about every situation could be construed as high leverage when you factor in a particular pitcher's pitch count and what it means to his ability to last deep into the ballgame.
"Obviously the closer you get to the end of the sixth inning, you're running out of outs to use it," he said. "But I've thought about early in the game ... why not try to save your pitcher 5-7 extra pitches [if there is a questionable call]? It's not a hard difference as far as a play-call change, but you can save yourself seven pitches, assuming he gets the out. Especially for a guy who is a strikeout pitcher, a guy like [Justin] Verlander, whose pitch counts go up faster. Maybe you save them seven pitches and that gets them through the eighth instead of the seventh."
Clearly, these guys have given the matter a lot of thought, and they are far from alone. Though they acknowledge the challenge system has complicated their already steep learning curves, they each take comfort in the fact that 29 others are facing the same issue.
"I'm not the only rookie this year, in that regard," Williams said. "There are a lot of guys who have managed a long time that are in the same boat as I am right now."