Posted November 08, 2012

Replay, expanded rosters among hot topics at GM meetings

instant replay, rule changes

Cries for replay grew in frequency and volume after a blown call during the ALCS. (AP)

The general managers meetings kicked off in Indian Wells, Calif., on Wednesday, giving GMs a chance to conduct business face-to-face with each other — often laying the groundwork for later trades — and to consider potential rule changes. Among the topics up for discussion this time around are  the increased use of instant replay, new rules regarding September roster expansion, and the possible introduction of protective headgear for pitchers. While the specifics of how such changes would be implemented are up for debate, the major concepts discussed have plenty of merit, and we should expect some of these changes to be implemented in time for the 2013 season.

Instant replay

The GMs are discussing an expansion of the system beyond the so-called boundary calls that can be used to determine whether a potential home run cleared the fence or landed in fair territory. Replay for such situations using available television camera angles was introduced in 2008, and despite concerns that it would cause too many delays, game times haven’t varied by more than a minute from year to year since the system was introduced. The Collective Bargaining Agreement reached between owners and players last winter allows for an expansion of the system to aid fair/foul and trapped ball calls, but MLB failed to reach an agreement with the umpires’ union in time for implementation this season.

In late August, MLB began testing the camera-based Hawkeye System (used in tennis) and the radar-based Trackman system (used in golf broadcasts), and tested them further during the Arizona Fall League. Which system will be used is one of the items for discussion, though MLB executive vice president Joe Torre has said both systems have limitations: “We still have a question if that’s going to work for baseball. I’m not saying it can’t be adjusted or they can’t make it work for our game. It works for tennis. But let’s face it, a tennis court is only so big, and it’s easier to cover than [the area] we have. But the technology is certainly interesting enough to look at it and see if it works for us.”

Further expansion of replay, such as using television cameras for safe/out calls on the basepaths — as I advocated for during the playoffs — would have to be negotiated separately with players and umpires. Such a system might either involve an off-field umpire reviewing video on site, or a centralized review system at MLB Advanced Media headquarters in Manhattan. According to Torre, a football-like challenge system was also discussed, though he himself isn’t fond of the idea, because it creates another decision where a manager can be second-guessed.

As I’ve written here before, expanding replay won’t solve all of the problems that plague MLB umpiring, but it will result in correct calls being made significantly more often, likely without lengthening games significantly. Expect some implementation of the fair/foul and trapped ball calls for 2013, but don’t be surprised if there’s no advancement on the safe/out front for another year.

Roster expansions

Under current rules, teams are allowed to expand their rosters from 25 to 40 players as of September 1, with all of the players eligible to be used in a given game. Because of financial issues as well as their affiliates’ involvement in postseason play, teams aren’t uniform in how they handle such callups, and so may be playing with different-sized rosters in given game, giving one team a tactical advantage over the other when it comes to pinch-hitting and pitching changes. Managers can go overboard on the latter front; in 2012, there were 16 cases in which a manager used at least nine pitchers in a game, 11 of which happened in September, with the Giants’ use of 11 pitchers on Sept. 4 against the Diamondbacks leading the way, and the Mets, Dodgers and Indians all using 10 pitchers once in September as well. Of the 23 times in which a team has used at least 10 pitchers in a game since 2000, 18 of them have come after September 1, making for drawn-out slogs that approach the point of absurdity.

It appears likely that some change will be made to ensure that each team has an equal number of players on the roster, with 28- and 30-man limits two numbers mentioned by Torre. When the subject reared its head this past September, the idea of designating a given number of players as game-eligible from among a larger pool was floated. A team would choose its active players (25 or 30 or another number) for a given game or series from among the 40, possibly with a pre-September “lock-in” to prevent teams from routinely deactivating rotation members who aren’t on turn. The MLB Players Association would have to approve any changes, but union head Michael Weiner appears open to the idea. “This was a subject in bargaining in 2011, but no agreement was reached,” he said. “If MLB has a midterm proposal to make, we will consider it. This clearly is a mandatory subject.” GMs appear to favor such limits as well, with the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman reporting “unanimity that the rule is archaic and needs to be fixed” back in September.

Indeed. While getting a glimpse of called-up prospects is one of the great features of September baseball — and one of the few reasons for fans of noncontenders to stay tuned — a degree of uniformity is in order to keep teams playing under the same rules, particularly during games that can separate teams that go to the postseason from those that don’t.

Pitcher protection

Two scary late-season incidents in which batted balls hit pitchers in the head have renewed calls for additional protective gear. Oakland’s Brandon McCarthy sustained a skull fracture in September caused by a line drive, and required emergency surgery to alleviate, while Detroit’s Doug Fister was hit in the head during the World Series but was apparently unharmed. During the World Series, MLB vice president Dan Halem said that the safety issue was already on a fast track, with MLB medical director Gary Green talking to equipment companies about various options. Pitchers such as McCarthy, Barry Zito and Matt Cain have come out in support of such an idea, though such views are far from unanimous.

One possibility under discussion is a cap liner made out of Kevlar, which is used by law enforcement, the military and the NFL for body armor. Green is scheduled to present a report to the teams at the December winter meetings in Nashville, and it’s possible that implementation in the minor leagues could begin next season. Any introduction at the major league level would require the approval of the players’ union.

Despite the reservations of some players, it sounds as though change is on its way. Once upon a time, batting helmets were new and met with resistance; the first ones were introduced at the major league level in 1940 or 1941, but they didn’t become mandatory for new players until 1971. Today, no one questions their usage or doubts that such equipment saves lives. Catchers’ gear has increased over the years with improved masks and helmets, and today the consequences of concussion via increased exposure to foul balls and other blows to the head are more widely understood, with protocols being introduced to protect players. It may take years before pitchers are fully comfortable with some kind of protective headgear, but in time we’ll look back and ask, “Why did it take so long?”

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