It’s easy to sit in your living room yelling at the TV set: "That ump’s blind! Lay off bad sliders; it’s easy! I coulda hit that! Challenge the call, you fool!" I do that a lot, which is considered especially strange when I am watching "Modern Family" but I can’t help it.
MLB made deciding whether or not to challenge much more difficult this year, cutting the time to 30 seconds before a manager must choose. No longer can the A’s chat up Adam Rhoden until he has seen countless angles and has a level of certainty about whether or not a call is likely to be overturned.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the A’s and Bob Melvin have handled the new system with aplomb (or really with any kind of fresh fruit). Let me break down precisely where I believe the A’s are erring in their "replay challenge pedagogy"...
Context Is King
The A’s are not putting enough stock in the importance of the call, the context of the possible challenge. Let’s compare two hypothetical scenarios that take place in the same inning with the same score. In the first one, you feel like you have about a 40% chance of prevailing and if you prevail you will have the bases loaded and nobody out. In the second one, you feel like you have a 70% chance of prevailing and if you prevail you will have a batter up with an 0-2 count, 2 outs and the bases empty.
You want to challenge in the first scenario a lot more than you want to challenge in the second one. A recent case in point was Chad Pinder’s attempt to score on a base hit to RF Saturday night. It was a bang-bang play in which McCann’s tag was deemed to find Pinder’s body before he touched the plate, even though rarely can a catcher sweep back across the plate and hit the runner before he hits the plate. In fact, to my eyes live and on the handful of replays I saw, Pinder was safe. Yet the A’s declined to challenge.
The main reason to challenge, unless the A’s saw conclusive evidence that Pinder was out, is that a run was literally on the line. If the call is overturned, the A’s get a run, period. That’s a really good time to challenge, whether your odds of prevailing are 30% or 70% and to me, on this one it was a no-brainer to ask New York for a second opinion. Even if you’re not sure how it will go, don’t worry about losing your challenge for later: go for it. As Leo Durocher once famously said, "Never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain."
A Bird In The Hand
This brings me to the next concern I have: the A’s are putting way, way too much value into not losing a challenge for later. Several times on this road trip, Melvin has declined to challenge a play around the 5th inning for fear he could lose a challenge he needed more later.
While this is a legitimate issue in the 1st inning, an inning in which the game is rarely at its biggest crossroads, with each passing frame the odds of needing a challenge more later than now decreases sharply. By the 8th inning it will be strictly in the hands of the umpires anyway. Yes, a crucial call in an even higher leverage situation, in which you are certain you’re right, could come up in the 7th. That, however, should not be hamstringing you from challenging calls in the early-to-middle innings if the play is important enough and you have a shot at getting the call overturned.
Take Wednesday’s A’s-Angels game...please. In the 2nd inning, the A's declined to challenge when Matt Joyce was called out at 3B on a bang-bang play that looked like it may have have been missed -- it would have put runners at 1B and 3B with nobody out at a time when the A's led 2-0 and had Matt Shoemaker on the ropes. Then in the 5th, Mike Trout was called safe at 2B on a stolen base attempt and even though it looked like he may well have been out, the A’s once again decided not to challenge. Not only was Trout driven home to give the Angels a 4-2 lead, but there were no controversial calls in the coming innings. The A's never used a challenge in that game, which they eventually lost 8-5.
Finally, here is where I feel the A’s are repeatedly dropping the ball — this time figuratively — in responding to the new 30 second deadline:
Blind Challenges Can Prevail
Too often, the A’s are deciding not to challenge because in 30 seconds they cannot get a view that tells them conclusively enough, "We will probably win the challenge." They are acting on the flawed principle that if they can’t see a replay that suggests they are right, then they shouldn’t challenge.
In fact, just because you can’t see the evidence you’re looking for, in the time you have to peek, doesn’t mean the evidence isn’t there. Certainly if you see evidence that you’re wrong, you should refrain from challenging. But what if in 30 seconds you just can’t see enough to say one way or the other what the fine folks in New York are going to see and likely rule?
Your job isn’t to challenge if you see that you’re right — your job is to challenge if you have a fair chance to prevail and the call matters enough to take your best shot. And if all you can tell, in 30 seconds, is "we’re still not sure," it may well be that what they see in New York is that you’re right.
The A’s need to stop trying to predict whether they are going to win or lose challenges. It’s all about risk-reward assessment and there are many factors, other than "we know we’re right" that come into play.
Of course the more reason you have to think you will prevail, the more you should challenge. But also, the closer you are getting to using it or losing it, the more you should be aggressive about challenging. And the more important the call is, the more aggressive you should be about challenging even if it’s earlier in the game, or you don’t have a great chance to prevail, or 30 seconds are coming to an end and you really have no idea.
The A’s have been, in my opinion, way too conservative overall and in the process have already declined to challenge several calls that were not only very important in context but which I think they had a decent chance at winning. You don’t get a prize for having the highest percentage of success in your challenges.
Navigating A Dumb System
By the way, if you want to know how badly thought out the replay system is, consider this: The way the rules are written, every single game, if it has its challenge still available every home team should always automatically challenge the call on the last out of the bottom of the 7th. Think about it. Really, there isn’t anything an MLB think tank can’t make worse.