September 25, 2023

MLB executives should be challenging a lot more in 2023

NEW YORK – There have been other expensive teams in baseball history. There are even other expensive teams this year. But two teams in particular represent a philosophical, unrestricted approach to baseball. The way Steve Cohen spends money on the New York Mets and Peter Seidler on the San Diego Padres seems to indicate that the two billionaires are adhering to the “you can’t take it with you” financial approach to their fortunes.

That’s partly because Seidler literally told The San Diego Union-Tribune, “I kind of like spending money… You can’t take it with you.”

The implications may not be as profound, but the same can be said about manager replay challenges. There’s no downside to “spending” the amount allocated to each team per game – especially since you get to keep it if you’re right and the call is nullified – and there’s certainly no point in leaving them unused.

The advantage of challenges is, of course, strictly situational. But along with brains, muscles, and dollar bills, they’re a tiny bullet every baseball team has at their disposal. So why do these two teams – seemingly putting everything on the line to win – leave that bullet in the chamber so often?

Why are managers across the board so sparing about their challenges?

While a spring training session was dominated by new rule changes that ended in March, Jayson Stark wrote about something that had gone unnoticed: As part of Major League Baseball’s attack on dead time during games, managers would now be on a strictly enforced clock when it came to requesting repeat reviews. In the past, time limits have been loosely adhered to, but this required an adjustment to the process that had evolved, with managers standing still for a while while the team’s replay specialist looked at multiple angles, looking for something the referee might have missed with the naked eye.

The Mets, in particular, had developed a charming reputation for approaching that part of the game as an opportunity to get an edge. Showalter regularly mentioned Harrison Friedland, the team’s replay quarterback, by name in 2022, and Friedland’s re-signing was reported among the team’s other off-season moves. Together, Friedland and Showalter achieved a historic 78.8% challenge success rate during the Mets’ 101-win campaign.

But the new time pressure? β€œIt has made it more difficult for the manager. That’s for sure,” Showalter told Stark.

The Mets manager at the time warned that this rule change could ultimately slow play as managers held up their hands to indicate that they power more often provoke their repetition experts to buy at least a few seconds. There is no record of such near-challenges, but if Showalter thought a more rushed process would result in more actual challenges, he was wrong about himself.

And that is to the detriment of his team.

In 2022, Showalter challenged 33 times and got 26 calls reversed (the most in MLB). That’s 0.20 challenges per game and 0.16 calls per game rolled back in favor of the Mets. During 55 matches in 2023, he has challenged 11 times – also 0.20 challenges per match.

Far more meaningfully, however, those 11 challenges have resulted in just two recall calls β€” 0.04 per game, or a fourth from last year β€” tied with Padres manager Bob Melvin, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli and Angels manager Phil Nevin for the least successful challenges this year. After finishing with the highest pass percentage last season, Showalter has the second lowest pass percentage this season and only Melvin has challenged less often.

The point isn’t to bully Showalter and the Mets; rather, the disparity between last season and this – and the stakes of every favorable call-up for a team with high expectations enduring a slow start – helps to illustrate that the league as a whole appears to have failed to adjust. In 2022, MLB managers as a whole issued 0.22 challenges per game with a success rate of 49.0%, meaning 0.11 calls per game were reversed based on manager challenges.

Remarkably, for a third of the 2023 season, managers are challenging calls at exactly the same rate, at 0.22 per game. But with time to review a piece internally, they are less successful, getting only 45.8% of calls reversed.

Let’s go back to the extreme example of the Mets. Last season’s strategy was clear: precision. They challenged an average number of times and ended up with the most calls reversed. This year, at least so far, the strategy of only challenging when they’re confident they’ll get it right clearly isn’t working. In this new replay environment, the same approach sees them hold out in beneficial tilts. In that case it would be better for a manager in 2023 instead of being precise, to be liberal with the use of challenges, to make the mistake of asking for an assessment when the game is close, rather than waiting for something clearer.

Showalter told Yahoo Sports this week that the Mets have not missed a single opportunity. He was convinced that they challenged anything worth doing. That is difficult to prove or disprove. Close calls are not tracked statistics and there is no particular reason to believe that they are happening at a consistent pace. But, I don’t know, it does feeling airtight? With one challenge available to them per game, have the Mets really only been on the wrong side of a missed call twice this season?

As for casting a wider net with its challenges, Showalter’s concern is fair – what if you lose your challenge because you got it wrong the first time, only to need it later in the game, at a time with greater leverage , when the referee’s error is more obvious? That would be bad! But for the past two seasons, teams only challenge once a year four games. So chances are if you see an opportunity to potentially turn things back in your team’s favor, you can grab it without worrying too much that a better one is just a few innings away.

That’s especially true because despite everything I’ve written about the success rate, the only metric that really matters is the number of calls cancelled. Each turns the lost chance of winning into the added chance of winning, shifting a crucial moment (because even the lowest leverage situations have the potential to be crucial) and possibly return the momentum of the game to your team. While each failed challenge only costs the chance to challenge again that night – plus maybe a little pride.

I have to think the league wouldn’t appreciate a “Challenge Everything” approach. But, as the existence of replay review supposes, people are not perfect. Certainly at least some blown calls go unchallenged, and there’s just no reason for that.

After all, you can’t take them with you.

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