It must be tough, being a manager. It’s a job where probably the majority, if not overwhelmingly so, of your responsibilities and effectiveness are done out of public view. The part that is in public view, though, is completely in public.
The decisions– from the lineup, to pitching changes, and now replay challenges– are all open to criticism and normally without the manager’s benefit of hindsight. With that out of the way, let’s engage in some hindsight criticism of managerial challenges up to this point in 2021.
These are the worst challenges so far this season.
First, what makes a challenge “bad?” First, this is an extreme bit of post-hoc analysis, but obviously, it’s one that’s unsuccessful. After all, you can challenge every play in a game as long as you keep getting them right.
Along those lines, another bad challenge is one that is unsuccessful and happens early in the game, as the manager then loses his challenges for the remainder of the game. From the MLB rulebook:
The club retains its manager challenge if the replay official overturns any challenged call (even if he upholds other challenged calls), and loses its manager challenge if no calls are overturned. Once a club has exhausted its available manager challenge(s), it will no longer have the ability to challenge any additional play or call in the game.
The final criteria for our “worst” challenges are that these early, unsuccessful challenges also have lower stakes than normal. If a play is unlikely to change the course of the game, the risk (losing the challenge for the rest of the game) is not worth the benefit (a low-stakes play overturned).
To assess the stakes, we turn to the leverage index, which measures how important a particular play is to the outcome of the game. An average leverage index is 1, meaning a leverage index of 2 is twice as likely to swing the win expectancy of the game.
Each of these challenges took place before the fifth inning of a game, in low-leverage situations, and were ultimately unsuccessful.
3. Charlie Montoyo, TOR, 5/12/21, Leverage Index .6214
Bo Bichette was the second batter of a scoreless game against Atlanta. After a misplay in shallow right by Acuña Jr., Bichette took too wide of a turn and was tagged out by first baseman Freddie Freeman.
A great play to be sure, and one that would lead to the second out of the top of the first. Upon closer inspection, it was an awfully close call, one that in real-time probably could have gone either way and the play would have been upheld due to a lack of evidence.
Ultimately though, the replay review center ruled against Montoya’s challenge at first, and instead of one out with a runner on first, Toronto would have two outs, nobody on, and without the ability to challenge for the remaining eight and a third innings left in the game.
2. Dusty Baker, HOU, 6/8/21, Leverage Index .305
Leading by seven runs in the bottom of the fourth inning against the Red Sox, Dusty Baker decided to challenge this hit by pitch call on Rafael Devers.
The replay result was that the call stands, meaning there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call.
It seems unlikely that the ball struck Devers, but may have grazed his pants. What’s more certain is that this use of replay benefits no one. With a seven-run lead and no one on base, the leverage index was less than a third of the average situation.
That lost Baker his challenge for the rest of the game in a fairly low-stakes situation, but above that, it’s difficult to imagine how such a replay makes the game of baseball better. If Devers in fact wound up to be the winning run it seems there would be a lot more to worry about than this play in hindsight.
1. Brandon Hyde, BAL, 6/6/21, Leverage Index .1016
At last, we’ve come to the worst challenge of the year, based on our criteria. This play had a tenth of the leverage of the average MLB play. Leading Cleveland 7-1 in the fourth inning, Manager Brandon Hyde decided to challenge an out on the bases at third on a Cedic Mullins shot to the outfield.
Cleveland executed a near-perfect relay throw from the wall and Mullins was out at third. In real-time the ball appeared to beat him by plenty, but the slowed-down review looked much closer than the initial play:
To be honest, I’m not sure Mullins is actually out on the play. His hand does appear to reach the bag before the tag gets to his body but may come off the base as the tag is held on him. That uncertainty is likely why the ruling umpire decided to uphold the call, but still – Montoya had a six-run lead and the play was unlikely to materially change the outcome of the game.
It’s difficult to call this the “worst” challenge of the year, given that the play actually looks like it probably was miscalled in real-time. But at this point of the game, with a 7-1 lead, the challenge was best served to stay in Hyde’s pocket in case he needed it later.
This is ultimately a data exercise and one of hindsight, and given the endless supply of things managers have to, well, manage, it’s probably not fair to label these the “worst” challenges. There can be other intangible benefits to a managerial challenge.
Perhaps the manager up big in the early going might use his challenge to show his players he has their backs and will support them, and figures that being up six or seven is a good time to do that. A middle infielder that’s gone hitless for four games might benefit from the confidence of his manager, even if overturning the call seems dubious. It’s a human game, and one that isn’t played just in probabilities.
That fact illuminates the challenge with replay in baseball, though. If it is in fact used as a way for managers to manage their teams, rather than to overturn clearly incorrect calls, we’ve perhaps lost the thread. Replay challenge is here to stay, but a rule that would limit certain challenges in blowouts, or otherwise needlessly extending downtime in a game would be a positive development.
In the meantime, managers would be better served from a win-expectancy standpoint in assessing the risk-benefit of challenging early and in low-leverage situations.