Despite the fact MLB’s new replay rules would’ve helped Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, right, and his team last year when the umps blew an infield fly-rule call in a one-game Wild Card against the Cardinals, Gonzalez says he hates the new proposal and wishes the game would remain the way it is. (File photo)
ATLANTA — The Braves were off Thursday, so they had some extra time to think about the new, far more extensive system of video review by umpires that Major League Baseball unveiled and plans to have in place for the 2014 season.
A day to ponder it didn’t seem to clear things up for some Braves.
“I have mixed feelings,” third baseman Chris Johnson said. “I don’t want it to slow the game down. But if we’re taking — they said on average is 3-1/2, 4 minutes — for every review now, and there could be three challenges per team, that’s six challenges times four minutes each — how long is that? That’s a lot of standing around.”
Under the new system, which was devised by a special three-man committee that included Braves president John Schuerholz, managers will be allowed to challenge one call over the first six innings of a game and two after the sixth inning. Calls that are challenged will be reviewed by a crew in MLB headquarters in New York City, where a final ruling would be made, ideally in 75 seconds or less.
A manager would file a challenge with the home-plate umpire or crew chief. Only reviewable plays can be challenged, but non-reviewable plays can still be disputed by managers, who can request that umpires discuss such calls to see if another ump in the crew saw the play differently.
“I wish we had it (last year in the Wild Card game),” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said, referring to the controversial infield-fly ruling that worked against Atlanta in its loss to St. Louis. “I like that you can’t challenge every single play (under the proposed system). Some people are going to have mixed (reaction).
“The human element is a big baseball thing. But as long as the call gets right, I like that it’s only one (challenge per team) through six innings, and I guess two in the later innings. I think it’s good. I’ll see what other people think about it. Human element is a big factor, but when you’ve got close play — we saw it last year with us — it can change the course of a season. I think it’s good.”
Reviewable plays would no longer be open for argument by the manager, nor would the subsequent ruling.
Challenges not used in the first six innings will not carry over to the later innings, and a manager who wins a challenge retains it and can use it again. Umpires themselves can also decide to review a call if a manager is out of challenges.
“I don’t know all of it, what exactly the details are, but I’m not a big fan of replay,” Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. ” It just drags out the game. And, I mean, if you’re going to look at everything (on replay), why do you have so many umpires out there anyway? I’m not a big fan of that.”
Balls and strikes and hit-by-pitch calls would not be open for challenge or review, but all other plays would be. The current replay rules used for home run calls would be grandfathered into the new system.
“I’m not a huge fan of it, but I guess they know what they’re doing,” Simmons said. “I mean, they’re trying to make it better. But I like — even though they make mistakes, I like the human element. It’s OK, I think. It really hurts when it doesn’t go your way, but that’s the way it’s been played so long. To change that … I don’t like changing the game that much.”
The new system will be presented to baseball owners for a vote in November and must also be approved by the players association and umpires.
“I just think we need to leave the game alone,” veteran Braves catcher Gerald Laird said. “I just feel there’s so much history in the game, and teams have won championships and games, and lost games, on (questionable) calls. I just think that’s part of what makes our game so special total, we don’t have the replay. The human element.
“I know we’re more advanced now (technologically), I understand that. But it’s the purity of the sport. You’re going to miss some things. I think managers like to see the manager come out and argue. I just don’t think there’s any need for it.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he would wait to talk to Schuerholz and get all the details before commenting on the matter.
“Just on the basis of whatever has come out so far (about the system), I don’t like it,” Gonzalez said. “But we’ll see. It’s a new thing. I didn’t like replay back when it first came out. I didn’t like the Wild Card — I don’t like the one-game Wild Card definitely — but when the Wild Card came out, it’s been almost 20 years, I was (against it). But you know what? It’s OK. You kind of grow into it so. I’m going to hold on until I find out more information.”
Laird said if the new system is put in place, it would only be a matter of time before replay would be expanded again.
“Yeah, they want to get the calls right,” he began, “but we’ve been doing this for a long time now, why change it?… It’s going to be weird. I’m not for it. I hope the guys stand by and go with how it is. Because it’s never going to end (if we pass this). It’s going to come down to balls and strikes now. That’ll be next, if this goes through.”
BULLPEN BECOMES BRAVES’ BIGGEST STRENGTH: Middle relief is not sexy.
A bullpen doing its job quietly hums along, not drawing much attention. Even closer Craig Kimbrel — “Welcome to the Jungle” entrance music and flame graphics notwithstanding — brings mostly a workmanlike attitude to the most glamorous position in the pen.
But let’s pause and reflect on the dominant work of the Braves’ relievers.
They carry the best ERA of any bullpen in the major leagues at 2.38. At 23-9, they are the only bullpen in baseball without double-digit losses.
This is a bullpen that lost top left-handed set-up men Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters to season-ending Tommy John surgery in a one-week span in May.
“We had the two best lefty relievers in the game of baseball go down,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “They’re the two best. And for these guys to step in their shoes, it’s great to see. They’ve been in roles that are unfamiliar to them, late-game pressure situations, and they’ve all handled them as good as you can possibly handle them.”
Jordan Walden proved to be that much bigger of an offseason acquisition. He worked through some shoulder soreness about the time O’Flaherty and Venters went down and came back dominant with his upper 90s fastball.
Left-hander Luis Avilan continued to come into his own. He has a 1.09 ERA and a streak of 35 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run, since May 21, the day O’Flaherty had his surgery.
“We knew it was going to be tough for the rest of the year when we lost O’Flaherty and Jonny,” Avilan said. “And we were like, ‘OK. We have to step it up and try to show everybody that we can do that job, too.’ “
David Carpenter joined the Braves’ bullpen in April as “added depth” when Avilan had some cramping in his hamstring and again when Luis Ayala went on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder related to high blood pressure.
Carpenter could throw upper 90s, too, but really took off once he honed his slider with some advice from Tim Hudson. Carpenter watched Hudson throw his slider in the bullpen warming up for a start in San Francisco and asked him about it the next day. Hudson suggested changing his thumb placement.
“Having the thumb a little bit too far under the ball was causing it to pop out,” Carpenter said. “(Now I get) better depth on it, it allows me to stay on top of the ball.”
Carpenter now is a pitcher who manager Fredi Gonzalez will go to for multiple innings and in late innings when Kimbrel or Walden need rest.
The Braves’ bullpen got key contributions from rookie left-hander Alex Wood, and when he returned to the rotation, general manager Frank Wren brought in veteran left-hander Scott Downs in a trade with the Angels, and Downs hadn’t missed a beat in seven scoreless appearances as a Brave following’s Friday shutdown inning in the Braves’ 3-2, 10-inning win against the Nats. Mix in steady work from Ayala and Anthony Varvaro, and the combination is working.
Downs, 37, said this is the best bullpen he’s been a part of, and he’s pitched in relief for the past nine seasons, including six in Toronto with the likes of closer B.J. Ryan.
But ask Downs, any of the other relievers or McCann, the tone is set by Kimbrel.
“When he gets on the mound, Craig Kimbrel expects to go three up, three down,” McCann said. “And you can see it in his face. You can see it when he walks out those doors. His intensity is on a whole ‘nother level, and I think he leads without even leading. Guys look at that and they’re like, ‘Man, I need to step my game up when I’m on the mound and focus like that.’”
Kimbrel needed only seven pitches to dispatch three Phillies in the ninth Wednesday night, helping Carpenter out of a jam and collecting his league-leading 38th save in the process. He also surpassed John Smoltz for the franchise record by converting his 28th consecutive save.
Bullpen coach Eddie Perez likes to kid Kimbrel that he started throwing harder this season when Carpenter showed up. Kimbrel doesn’t dispute it. He just smiles. And that’s part of why this whole thing works.
“Yeah, I can’t let anybody else try to throw harder than me,” Kimbrel said. “We push each other. We push each other to get better each outing. That’s just part of it. That’s how you become better, never settle for doing good. You want to do better the next time out. We all kind of have that mentality.”