Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Upon further review, NPB's replay system winning over doubters

by Jim Allen

Kyodo

Those who doubted the value of Nippon Professional Baseball’s video review system a year ago have officially left the building.

On Tuesday, NPB announced a few tweaks to a system that got some negative press last year, but was — on the whole — considered a success.

“We’re better off with it than we were without it,” Tokyo Yakult Swallows manager Junji Ogawa said after NPB’s 12 managers learned they would have wider scope for requesting reviews in 2019, but that those who argued the subsequent rulings would be ejected.

Skippers will now be able to question whether a slide was dangerous or whether a catcher obstructed home plate or if a batter was hit in the head by a pitch — resulting in the pitcher’s automatic ejection.

“This will lead to managers wanting more and more request options. That’s fine, but at some point we just have to trust the umpires,” Ogawa said.

Umpires feared losing that trust and more a year ago, when NPB first allowed managers to call for video reviews.

Osamu Ino, who chairs NPB’s umpiring technical committee, said many umpires went into the 2018 season crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, but ended up becoming fans.

“We considered the video something that could be a threat to our pride, but now we realize this is a great time saver when you factor different things in,” the former umpire told Kyodo News last week. “There was certainly a fear that reviewing our calls would open us up to public shaming.”

Video review had been available to umpires on a limited basis prior to 2018. During that time, managers had no authority to challenge calls. But when unhappy with a reviewable call, managers would stand on the field, point and the umps would confer and agree to exercise their option to review the play.

In 2018, when NPB became the last of the world’s elite leagues to allow managers to ask for video reviews, the umpires were not happy campers.

Eighty percent of the umpires were opposed,” Ino said. “When I said ‘This is how it’s going to change next year,’ I heard a lot of ‘If this goes through, we’ll lose our jobs.’ Nobody knew where this would lead.”

“The head umpires and I listened and actively responded to the concerns. And by the time the season started, the opposition was down to about 50 percent. I heard, ‘OK. Let’s go. I think it’s a good thing,’ or ‘It’s out of our hands so we might as well accept it.’ Also, Taiwan had it, South Korea had it, and the major leagues had it. Japan was the last, with the realization we were behind the times, we reached 50 percent acceptance.”

But once the season started and the system was implemented, it worked better than expected.

“The fans liked it. The system worked smoothly. For the first time, the fans could see the close plays (on big screens). Umpires had been opposed to that. They expected fans to shout, ‘You’re lousy!’ or ‘How could you make that mistake?’ “

“In reality, when the umps went under the stands to review the calls, they themselves were excited to see whether the guy was safe or out. And when they got back on the field, there were no insults. It was completely different (from our expectations). The umpires here were blown away by how positive the fans were.”

Ino said that for the umps, too, the reviews allowed a sense of closure, a chance to move on from a questionable call. Instead of listening to fans’ relentless heckling after a close call, the game moved forward for the fans and umps alike.

“If you’re the plate umpire, you have no time to review your calls in your head,” Ino said. “But on the bases, you’re going, ‘Was that call right? A mistake?’ and you carry that with you the whole game. Now they know and move on. They liked that part of it.

“What they don’t like is having to review their own calls. They ask us, ‘Why do we have to do that?’ “

The answer is money, Ino said. The owners are unwilling to spend the cash needed to make the system more efficient. A compromise this year will be that the ump whose call was disputed will not take part in the review.

“The teams say that if the system does not work perfectly, it’s our inability to execute. It’s our fault and has nothing to do with the equipment we have available to us.”

The system’s most public failure came on June 22, when a 10th-inning foul call was overturned and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Akira Nakamura was mistakenly awarded a two-run home run that lifted his team to a 5-3 win on the road against the Orix Buffaloes.

“The issue there is the quality of the monitor available for the umpires’ use,” Ino said. “But owners have so far been unwilling to upgrade those.”

“All in all, it was a success. I was expecting some negative feedback from the umpires, but only got suggestions how to make it better.”