MLB pitch clocks could wreak havoc on the lives of video replay officials

ST. PETERSBURG — Somewhere, a pitcher is muttering under his breath. A hitter is fidgeting in the batter’s box. A fan is grousing about the intrusion of a pitch clock on a game of timeless elegance.

To this, I say, pffffftttt!

You want real angst? Real pressure? Real job-changing significance due to baseball’s recent rule changes?

Talk to the nervous young man in the bowels of Tropicana Field. Randell Kanemaru was the Ivy League Player of the Year as an infielder at Columbia University in 2017, and he now works in the Rays’ advance scouting department. He is also the guy in charge of deciding which plays merit a video replay challenge.

That means his manager-is-waiting, umpire-is-staring, fan-is-fuming job is about to get even harder because the new pitch clock says he has only 15 seconds, and 24 video feeds, to decide whether a potentially game-changing play warrants a precious replay review.

“As a consumer watching the game, it might seem like a long time,” Kanemaru said. “But 15 seconds flies by when you’re in there because you’re looking at so much and you’ve got everyone waiting on you. I was super stressed out when I first started doing this.”

Life was less stressful for Randell Kanemaru back in his Ivy League days, before a pitch clock became an MLB reality.
Life was less stressful for Randell Kanemaru back in his Ivy League days, before a pitch clock became an MLB reality. [ GREGORY PAYAN | AP ]

Theoretically, the manager makes the final decision on whether a play is reviewed but realistically it’s in the hands of an anxious, faceless, low-in-the-power-structure employee in a video room. Kanemaru, who was in his first year on the job in 2022, estimates that Rays manager Kevin Cash followed his advice on 99 percent of the challenges last year.

Considering the potential implications of every challenge — it could be the difference between a run on the scoreboard if you’re correct, or the loss of your lone challenge if you’re wrong — it’s an enormous responsibility every inning of every game.

Which might explain why Cash felt the need to pull Kanemaru aside early last season and told him to relax.

“When you see how one call can impact a game, immediately your stress goes up,” Cash said. “He was fairly new at it, and you can talk through everything, but you can’t necessarily prepare for hearing, ‘You got another five seconds — make the call or not.’ That is very stressful. So I was more or less saying, ‘Hey, we trust you. We trust what your eyes are telling you. Just make the best decision you can. It’s not on you when a call doesn’t get overturned.’”

It helped, Kanemaru said, that the Rays explained he was doing it wrong if he was correct 100 percent of the time. That meant he wasn’t pushing the envelope enough. It’s impossible to figure out every play in 15-20 seconds — especially when MLB officials in New York can take up to two minutes to review the play — so they want him to use his instincts in situations when he’s not completely certain.

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There’s also a sliding scale of importance. A play at first base with two outs and nobody on in the second inning is not likely to change the outcome of the game, so don’t risk it if you’re not convinced it will be overturned. By the same token, if it’s the sixth or seventh inning you might as well gamble on a review because you can’t bank challenges and the umpires control the reviews in the eighth and ninth innings.

Rays manager Kevin Cash looks on as players practice with a pitch clock during the early days of spring training.
Rays manager Kevin Cash looks on as players practice with a pitch clock during the early days of spring training. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“If I tell them to challenge in the second inning and, it turns out I’ve made a bad call, and then there’s a run-saving play we can’t challenge in the sixth inning? That’s my worst nightmare,” Kanemaru said. “There were times last year where I told them to challenge and after I hung up the phone, I realized I screwed up. It definitely gets to you. A night or two later, I’d still feel terrible.”

Other factors also influence decisions on a night-by-night basis. Different stadiums might have slightly different camera angles, or video rooms, that Kanemaru needs to adjust to. And while he has up to 24 feeds to monitor, only a half-dozen might have an angle on any particular play.

He has equipment that allows him to adjust the playback speed, but there’s only a handful of high-speed cameras in each park that can be slowed down to a frame-by-frame look. If one of those cameras does not have the right angle, then Kanemaru is essentially guessing.

And now he’ll only have 15 seconds if there are no runners on base. With runners on, he gets 20 seconds.

With baseball’s insistence on speeding up games in 2023, there will be no fudging either. Kanemaru was on a conference call Friday and MLB officials said umpires will strictly adhere to the pitch clock. Which means, realistically, he might have 12 seconds to make a decision, tell bench coach Rodney Linares on the phone, who will tell Cash, who will inform the umpire before the next pitch is thrown.

And now shift rules can potentially be challenged, which means watching every single play to make sure a shortstop or second baseman does not have a foot on the wrong side of the field.

“It’ll definitely be more stress, that’s for sure,” Kanemaru said. “An extra five seconds might not seem like much to you, but it’s going to make a massive difference to me.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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