A Major League Baseball official refers to the game's massive changes in 2014 as "a celebration." And, to some degree, it is.
To reach this point on instant replay and home-plate collisions, as well as making at least some progress on headgear protection for pitchers, took an enormous amount of time, work and energy. But more than a celebration, the season should be viewed as historic. And most people in baseball agree that eventually the changes will make the game better.
"Two or three years from now," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, "we'll all be saying, 'What took us so long?'"
It might take two or three years to refine, if not perfect, the processes, which can be ambiguous and complicated. This first season of expanded replay and protection of the catcher is a work in progress, a learning experience, with almost as many questions as answers.
So here are some questions that fans, managers and players will be asking in 2014.
How will the pace of game be affected by instant replay?
"I don't think it will be slowed by very much," Showalter said. Hopefully, this won't be like the NFL where the officials disappear into a cone of silence for five minutes as we wait to find out if we're allowed to cheer.
Baseball's replay system will be aided by the fact that virtually every play will be viewed live by an umpiring crew in the command center in New York. So if a play is challenged, the command center probably has already seen the play. When the crew chief calls for a ruling, it shouldn't take long to uphold or reverse it. The hope is that the entire process won't take more than 90 seconds, which might be ambitious. Many people believe baseball is slow and boring, and slowing it more would be a huge mistake. It will take more than a year for the process to be quick, concise and foolproof.
What plays will be challenged most, and why?
According to MLB data collected from last season, 86 percent of all missed calls came on force plays (46 percent -- most of them at first base) and tag plays (40 percent). According to MLB data from 2013, there were 377 missed calls- -- that's clear and convincing evidence -- in 2,431 games, or one missed call every six games. In only 27 games were there two such calls missed. And in only three games were there three such calls missed.
"Replay is going to show just how good the umpires are," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "They are the best in the world at what they do." Showalter said, "It's also going to show how much the umpires care. The game is so fast now, some calls are educated guesses by the umpires. We watch the play three times on slow-motion replay, and we're still not sure if the runner is safe or out. The umpire only got one look at the play in real time."
What plays are not eligible for review?
There are many, most notably the following:• Balks
• Tag-up plays on fly balls
• Fair/four trapped balls in the infield
• The infield fly rule
• Check swings
• Neighborhood play at second base
Why so many? It's all about cameras, and camera angles. Some games -- depending on the telecast -- will have as many as 40 cameras from which to get a replay, but other games will have only eight cameras. On a tag-up play, it's unlikely that a separate camera can be set simultaneously on the runner's foot on the bag, and on the ball first touching the outfielder's glove. The same goes for obstruction and interference; there may not be a simultaneous camera angle on the runner and the fielder.
As for the neighborhood play, baseball is trying to become a safer game for the players. The contact around second base on the double play can be extremely dangerous. Asking a second baseman not to exit the bag a split second early when a 230-pound runner in metal spikes is bearing down on him is simply not necessary, or prudent. Anyway, most middle infielders are so quick and nimble around the bag, there aren't as many neighborhood plays as you might think. Infielders touch the bag with the ball, then avoid the runner, all so quickly.
"I think we'll find after this year that more plays can be challenged and reviewed," Showalter said. "But the replay system this year is going to show exactly how talented the players are. It will be like, 'Hey, he was out on that play.' It will, say, show what a great tagger a player is."
Will the use of a challenge become a strategic element for managers?
Maybe. A manager gets a maximum of two challenges per game, and only one if his first challenge proves to be wrong. So, he needs to be judicious about when to use the challenges. If the manager challenges a call in the first inning, and is wrong, what if another challenge-worthy call happens in the fourth inning, and the manager is out of challenges?
"It will be like having a great pinch-hitter on the bench; you have to pick the right time to use him," said Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who served on the committee that made the decisions for expanded replay. Some see this as a delicious added element of strategy, but one manager said, "I totally disagree with Tony on this one. The challenge system is not about strategy; it's all about getting as many calls as they possibly can in a game."
How often will the crew chief invoke replay from the seventh inning on?
Hopefully, as often as it is needed. If the goal is to get as many calls right as possible, then any questionable call after the sixth inning should be reviewed. And before the seventh inning, if a manager is out of challenges, but requests that an umpire review a highly questionable play, hopefully the umpire will confer with his crew to see if anyone had a better look than he did. Most umpires, it seems, will be more willing to confer than ever.
How will the review room work in each ballpark?
Each ballpark will have an instant replay review room with a hard phone line that rings directly to the dugout. Each team will have a club employee in that room reviewing every play of the game. When the manager runs out to argue a call, and decides if he will challenge that call, he will look into his dugout and get a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down from a coach on the phone to the replay room.
"The umpires are allowing us to face our own dugout when we are discussing the play with them," Farrell said. "The umpires are working with us on this." That guy in the replay booth is now a very important person. The Orioles have hired a former umpire to be their review room guy, thinking that he might be more knowledgeable about the process than anyone else, including a former player. The Orioles' instant replay guy, for consistency purposes, will work both home and road games.
What are the potential kinks in the system?
There could be many, depending how things go this first year. Surely, some tricky situations will arise, situations that no one has even considered. But the toughest call for umpires might be the placing of runners after a call is challenged, then reversed. MLB has installed overhead cameras in each ballpark to track where the runners are, and should be.
"Replay is going to work, but we have to simplify the process as much as we can," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "When you open Pandora's box like we are doing, it gets more complicated. There are so many moving parts now. To me, when there's a double down the right-field line, and it's unclear, fair or foul, a call is made, then reversed, it should be two bases for the hitter, two bases for the runner, instead of relying on an overhead camera to place the runners. Same thing on an out/safe call at first: one more base advanced, that's it. To make it work, we have to nail it, simplify it, then add on from there."
Will there still be manager-umpire confrontations?
"Oh yes," said former manager Jim Leyland, who like La Russa served as part of the committee on expanded replay. There will be arguments over whether the replay process was handled correctly. There will be arguments if a manager is out of challenges and wants a play reviewed. There will arguments if an umpire is unwilling to review a play from the seventh inning on. But clearly, said Farrell, "there are going to be fewer arguments."
Why is Rule 7.13 on home-plate collisions an "experimental" rule?
It is a work in progress. It will be tweaked this year or next, however long it takes to get it right. "I've asked three different umpires about the new rules, and I've gotten three different answers on how they interpret it," one AL catcher said. "It's like MLB wanted this so badly for this season, they didn't think everything through. We will see how it goes."
Are catchers mostly in favor of the new rule?
Yes. "I understand where they are coming from, trying to protect a catcher who is looking the other way. Catchers are so vulnerable," Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "But we've been playing the game this way for 100 years. We'll see how it works. They are trying to protect the catcher, but are they looking out for the baserunner also? I don't know exactly how all this is going to work. It is going to be controversial."
Can a runner collide with a catcher, score, and be called safe?
Yes. "The rules are as they have always been," Maddon said. "A catcher can block the plate with the ball. A runner can knock the catcher over. If a catcher puts himself in harm's way, it's his fault." The new rule states that a catcher cannot block the plate without the ball, which is the old rule; it just wasn't enforced. Now it will be. The idea of the new rule is to prevent a runner from targeting a catcher, going out of his way, veering from his path, in order to crush a catcher. But if, say, the catcher has to move up the third-base line to catch a throw, he is in the path of the runner. If the runner cannot slide, he has no choice, on incidental contact, but to run over the catcher.
"I think it's going to make more guys slide," Hanigan said. "We'll see if it's going to work. I know some of the bigger runners I've talked to are unsure about it. Some of them don't know how to slide into the plate without getting hurt." Matt Wieters said, "We are trying to eliminate the cheap shot to the head. But, as a catcher, you still have to be prepared to get hit. That's how some catcher might get hurt when he thinks the runner has to slide."
Will it change how a catcher blocks the plate?
Yes. But catchers have been trying new ways to block the plate without getting hurt since the Giants' Buster Posey was flattened, and lost for the season, in 2011. Bruce Bochy, Posey's manager and a former MLB catcher, told him not to block the plate as aggressively anymore. Showalter told his primary catcher, Wieters, who blocks the plate as well as anyone in the game, not to block the plate as often because the one run he might save in June is not worth the four months that he might lose on the disabled list if he hurts his knee in a collision.
"It's not going to change how I do things. I've always left an opening in the plate for the runner when I don't have the ball," Hanigan said. "But now, I'm not going to keep an eye on the runner as much as I used to. I'm not as concerned who is running. It's an opportunity to focus on catching the ball as much as possible, which is obvious. But I am anticipating the slide. There will not be as much peeking. I will not be as worried about how to roll after I get hit. I will worry only about catching the ball. It will be a lot less dangerous."
Said Wieters: "We have worked all spring on this because this is a significant change. We are going to treat home plate like it is second base or third base. [Shortstop] J.J. Hardy is one of the best taggers in the game. We're now trying to tag runners like an infielder would." Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said he has adjusted his plate-blocking style, but added, "Two outs, ninth inning, Yankee Stadium, I'm not going to 'ole' a runner coming to the plate."
How many pitchers are wearing protective caps?
Not many, if any. A prototype hat/helmet has been approved for MLB use, but the idea has not spread, even in light of the horrific shot that Aroldis Chapman took off his face March 19. The hat/helmet is padded; it is like a hard-shelled cap, and it doesn't cover a pitcher's face.
Is there a hat/helmet that is going to protect a pitcher? "No," Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett said. "What happened [to Chapman] is unfortunate, but it is part of the game. I won't wear a helmet when I pitch. If I did, that's all I would be thinking: 'Hey, I have a helmet on my head.' That's not what I should be thinking about."
Said Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon: "When we all sign up for this game, we know what we're getting into. Something could happen; that's part of it. It's like any job. When you sign up to work on an oil rig, you know what you're getting into. When you join the military, you know what you're getting into. When you go to the mound, you might get hit."
Do pitchers value performance over safety?
Yes. Completely. "I tried one of them [hat/helmet] two years ago, and it felt heavy and hard on my head," Burnett said. "One of the keys as a pitcher is to keep your head still, and pick up the target. I couldn't do that with that thing on my head. What happened [to Chapman] I wouldn't wish upon anyone. It was a freak accident. I don't think there is a solution for it."
Said Papelbon: "How are you going to wear a helmet while you're pitching without it falling off, especially for a guy with a herky-jerky motion? I would use one [protective cap] if they made one that worked. I don't care if it's not comfortable. If you do something long enough, you will get comfortable. I can live without comfort, but when it affects performance, it's a whole different animal."
Will MLB ever mandate the use of hat/helmets for pitchers?
Not until the players association signs off on it, which won't happen until a hat/helmet has been invented that won't affect performance. Still, 50 years ago, there were those who said batting helmets would never be mandatory, and eventually, they were. Someday, so will hat/helmets for pitchers, but only when the technology gets to the point where everyone is happy.
"I don't think it's impossible, not with technology these days," Papelbon said. "But now? No."