WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Replay rooms have become ground zero for what’s next for technology in Major League Baseball.
The ongoing Houston Astros scandal has brought the use of television monitors anywhere from the dugout on back into question. Monitors are now in place, a delay on the feed is also demanded and general access to the rooms is in question. That’s the current status. The players’ union and MLB are trying to figure out what’s next. Full removal of access to the replay room seems unlikely. More stringent rules about what occurs in there are being considered by the union. Both sides know public relations management is at stake as much as functionality.
Max Scherzer, who is among the players on the MLBPA executive board, is one of the leading voices in deciding what’s next.
“This is where the situation’s fluid,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “That, as players, this is how we see it: there’s a benefit to us in the game to be able to watch our at-bats, watch our pitches, where the pitch locations are and see what just happened, make adjustments on the fly. And, if we’re able to do that, it makes the game better. We can compete at a higher level. Everybody. So, I don’t necessarily believe we need to take replay away given where we were last year with it. There are rules and things we’re very cognizant of [when] trying to eliminate catcher’s signs on those replays so we can’t steal that.”
Replay rooms have replaced real-time discussion on the bench. In the past, players had no choice but to turn to hitting or pitching coaches, or teammates, for information when returning to the bench. Questions about hips leaking or swing path or tipping pitches were covered in conversation. Those still take place. But, the replay room has become an in-game magnet for both hitters and pitchers.
“For a hitter, if you’re looking at your swing, it’s more like positioning that you know is good or bad with your swing,” Ryan Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “It’s not like you’re going in there and looking at the sequence of the signs. It’s more mechanics and things like that. Same thing a pitcher would look at with their windup.”
Another thing being checked by hitters? Decisions against them from a prior inning. Irritation from a blown strike call can end up back in the batter’s box.
Scherzer also uses the replay room immediately after his start ends and his shoulder care is under way. He ices, does his maintenance routine, then pops into the room to review specific pitches from big moments. He’s trying to understand if the process or execution were correct. And, he wants to do so when everything remains in the fore of his mind.
“You’re so emotionally connected to these pitches, you want to be able to see what happened,” Scherzer said. “What just happened? What do these replays look like while everything’s still fresh? I don’t look at every pitch, but I go look at some of the big pitches, so what happened in this situation? For me, I’m self-correcting my instincts, was this a good pitch or was this a bad pitch and kind of getting that instantaneous feedback, so when you go home and sleep at night, you know what you’re sleeping on. You know what you’re thinking about as you kind of process what just happened.
“I get it, obviously those replays could be available after the game. If I’m not using replay to undermine the game, I’m using replay to benefit myself, I don’t think we have a problem. We need to be careful about how much regulation we put into the game. At the end of the day, replay for individual players is not a problem.”
“Using it to be able to convey signs in real time.”
The Nationals’ replay room requires a player to leave the dugout, head up the steps then take a left into the clubhouse and a right into the hallway adjacent to the clubhouse. It’s a few feet from Davey Martinez’s office. Inside, Jonathan Tosches, manager, advance scouting, watches the lone live feed and fields calls to determine if the team should challenge. The rest of the monitors are on an eight-second delay. A human monitor, installed by MLB and called a “chaperone” by the players, is also in the room. Another is wandering to denote if a player was on their cell phone during the game. Even more monitors were present during the 2019 playoffs.
So, the line becomes about coexistence. The players are considering a longer delay on feeds in the room -- perhaps up to 20 seconds. They hope, at a baseline, one (well, two) bad apples have not spoiled the situation for the bunch. They are also operating from a fundamental understanding of human nature: the issue with temptation is it exists no matter what.
“I wonder if all of the camera angles and the cameras that we have around, I wonder is it tempting for teams to try to do what the Astros did and bend the rules to cheat and try to gain an unfair advantage? I honestly don’t know,” Doolittle said. “Was that the natural progression all along, when you have this many cameras in the stadium looking at so many different things? I don’t know.”
“You want to reduce temptation by altering what’s available during the game,” Scherzer said.
“No matter what you do, there’s always going to be somebody who tries to cheat,” Zimmerman said.
Which leads to one more, non-technical element. Players want the league to take complaints more seriously. The conundrum for the commissioner’s office is wading through what’s sour grapes and what may be an actual grievance.
“One thing we keep coming back to, the players, that stuff with technology seems almost secondary,” Doolittle said. “One of the big changes that we would like to implement, that we would like to see, is some sort of system where a club or a player can file a complaint or tip. If a club could say to MLB we think something is going on here knowing that it would be taken seriously and investigated.
“Because after this scandal with the Astros, we now know MLB had had several reports from teams asking for investigations or asking them to check it out and they didn’t do anything and nothing changed, nothing came to light until there was a whistleblower. A guy put his career on the line to talk about this publicly on the record. It shouldn’t have to come to that. They had some knowledge of this and it didn’t look like it was taken seriously. If we had a system where we knew some reports would be taken seriously, and acted upon in a timely manner, I think that would help a lot, too.”
The one unified thought is the current system is not working. The 2017 World Series champion was shown to cheat. The 2018 champions are under investigation. The 2019 World Series champions are a secondary story in their own complex. Something needs to change.
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