"The opportunity to test our ideas under game conditions with future Major Leaguers will be an important next step," Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz said in a press release. "We look forward to examining new perspectives generated by play on the field and learning what modifications might prove beneficial before our committee issues our formal recommendation later this offseason."
Schuerholz is part of the committee leading the efforts to study the expansion of instant replay for 2014, when managers might be given the right to challenge certain rulings on the field. Other members of the committee include MLB executive vice president Joe Torre and special assistant to the Commissioner Tony La Russa. Both Torre and La Russa, it is believed, will be in Arizona to oversee the testing at least for one of the days on the schedule.
"The testing protocol will not at all be reflective of what the system would look like if it is implemented [in Major League Baseball]," Schuerholz explained in an interview. "But it's a chance in real time to have umpires, managers and replay officials see its workability in one way or another."
Fans checking out how the system is implemented should know, Schuerholz pointed out, that they will not see the finished product in Major League games in 2014. Managers in the Fall League will not be limited in the number of challenges they can issue. They will be encouraged to make challenges on legitimate plays so Major League Baseball officials can really get a sense of how it works. The final product will almost certainly have restraints on how frequently a manager can challenge a play.
"We want to test it as much as we can without abusing the integrity of the game," Schuerholz said. "We will do this while balancing the understanding of the job the managers and players have in the Arizona Fall League. As we unroll it at the Major League level, it will be different, it won't be the same paramaters. It will be more refined and precise at the Major League level."
In the AFL games, replay officials will be in house, in the stadiums where the games are being played. Going forward, umpires will be connected with replay officials at MLB Advanced Media's headquarters, much like they did for home run challenges in 2013.
Time restraints will also be a bit more liberal during the Fall League games. Officials won't let the process go on endlessly, but since this will be the first time for anyone involved to use such a system and they won't have the same technology they'll have at their disposal next season, they won't put the same kind of time limits that will be sure to be included in any final system. Any play outside of balls and strikes will be open for challenges in the AFL, but those paramaters might be tighter as well moving forward.
"All we want them to measure is how it works in real time," Schuerholz said. "This is the first testing opportunity. We will get feedback, anecdotal observation and empirical data. We will be better for it than not."
Once the recommendation on the new instant-replay system has been finalized, it will need to be approved by Major League teams, along with the MLB Players Association and the World Umpires Association.
The Arizona Fall League feels it is more than up to the task. It's not the first time the AFL has been asked to try something new, doing things like testing out a new helmet in 2009 that was designed to provide more safety against fastballs. Different colored foul poles were used one fall as well, and back in 2008, Major League Baseball considered using the Fall League to test out the first iteration of instant replay.
"I think we have a history of being a testing ground, a laboratory if you will, for some of the procedures that have evolved," Arizona Fall League executive director Steve Cobb said. "It's nothing new for us, to be the venue for testing new approaches."
"It's definitely good to do as a trial period, to do it in Arizona," said Mike Maroth, currently a pitching coach for the Mesa Solar Sox who spent parts of six years pitching in the big leagues. "You look at football, with instant replay, there were a lot of people against it at first and it's worked out pretty well for them.
"The biggest thing about it, umpires are human and they're not going to get every call right. We have the technology to help them in certain situations. We'll see what happens with it. If it worked for football, I'm sure it can work for baseball."
The one concern, voiced by many when the topic of instant replay comes up, is how it might slow things down in a sport where time of game has been a long-standing worry. Both Maroth and Angels first-base prospect C.J. Cron mentioned it, while still advocating for its use in some capacity.
"I think it will be interesting," Cron said. "I guess it'll be an experiment next week. Like with a lot of things, there are positives and negatives. Getting calls right is huge. It's going to take longer. But at the end of the day, I think it will benefit baseball."
One benefit for the Fall League, aside from helping Major League Baseball prepare for this potential new chapter, is the upside of getting to try this out on MLB Network and MLB.com.
"We're thrilled that our players are going to receive additional national exposure as a result of this testing," Cobb said. "We think there's a lot of upside being the venue of choice for this. I think the additional exposure is great for the Arizona Fall League. It's a chance for fans to see, an additional opportunity to see the next wave of Major League players."