How does a ballclub know whether to challenge a play, an option granted to managers this season under MLB's new instant replay system?
Well, there's someone sitting in every Major League clubhouse, surrounded by MLB-installed video monitors, watching the action with a careful eye tuned to up-to-the-minute details that could mean the difference between a win or loss.
"I think you can see the method that most clubs are using," Reds manager of video scouting Rob Coughlin explained. "You see the manager go out onto the field, you see the bench coach pick up the phone talking to somebody in the clubhouse. Some teams, it's the video coordinator, like myself. Other clubs have hired somebody specifically to handle the job and some teams are using an assistant coach."
For example, the Reds assigned replay duties to Coughlin.
"The instant replay hasn't added any time to my day, because I was already charting every pitch. It's added a new dynamic during the game, though," Coughlin explained, saying he uses replay angles provided by TV broadcasts -- factoring in game situations -- to give a recommendation on whether or not to challenge the play in question.
"Safe/out at first base, you'd think it would be pretty clear cut -- and most of the time, it is. But there are some quirky plays that have come up that we are still working through. The collision rule at home plate has been subject to a lot of scrutiny and all of these rules are being refined as we go," Coughlin said.
Once a play is over, the process of deciding whether to challenge occurs in seconds.
"Any [plays] that look blatantly wrong, [Reds manager] Bryan [Price] will go out on the field to discuss the call with the umpire, and that will create some time for me to review a couple of different angles," Coughlin said. "I can pause, rewind, do slow motion, but first you have to find the angles that are going to give you the best look and you will have time to only look at one, maybe two, in-depth.
"The manager's not going to run out for every play. In the case of whether the ball hit the player or a pickoff at first you have to make a decision in a matter of seconds because the challenge has to be made before the pitcher gets back up on the rubber or the batter gets back into the box.
"When the manager runs out onto the field, I would say I have 30-45 seconds to make a determination about the play. Hopefully within that time, I've had a chance to find a conclusive angle on the play," Coughlin said.
That can be a significant challenge.
Coughlin said the number of angles on the play in question depends on the TV coverage -- whether the game is broadcast by both teams or just one. From there, it's a matter of figuring out whether there are angles that show the play clearly enough to provide the incontrovertible evidence necessary to overturn a call.
So in the end, it'll be up to Coughlin to give a recommendation to Reds bench coach Jay Bell.
"If something is definitely right or definitely wrong, I will tell them," Coughlin said. "If it's too close to call, then Jay or Bryan will make a determination if the game situation warrants using the challenge.
"I'm definitely factoring the game situation in when I am talking to Jay Bell -- he's my contact in the dugout. In the end, the decision is Bryan's and I am just trying to give him the best information that I can," Coughlin said.
But from there, it's hands off. The final call is completely up to the umpire crew at Major League Baseball Advanced Media's headquarters in New York.
"I have no contact with the review officials in New York or the umpires on the field," Coughlin explained. "Until those umpires take off those headsets and make the call, we're just as in the dark as the fans are. Both clubhouses have the same exact views as they do in New York."
Coughlin said it's important to temper impressions of replay with the reality of the newness of the program.
"You would like to say the system is completely objective," Coughlin said, "but the calls are made based on interpretations by humans, so what we are seeing in our clubhouse and what the review officials in New York are seeing don't always match up.
"It's a new system as we go … the people that put together this system could not have dreamed up every single scenario that would happen and there is no precedent so the review official has to make an interpretation to the best of his ability."
So it's natural that there may be a learning curve for everyone involved, from umpires, managers and coaches down to replay officials and video coordinators like Coughlin.
"The toughest part was at the beginning of the year because we hadn't had the opportunity to use the technology yet, and we didn't know the standard the umpires were going to be using as to what was 'clear and convincing' evidence. It wasn't clear until we started to see what calls were being upheld, what calls were being overturned. I think that as the season has gone on all of the people in my position have become more comfortable with the system," Coughlin said.
Preseason interviews with baseball executives gave the same indication.
"The umpires are for this," Commissioner Bud Selig told MLB.com. "I understand why. I think they have done a remarkable job, but the game is fast-paced and sometimes there are split-second decisions. Whenever you do something new, there are going to be some critics. But I'm telling you in three or four years, there won't be a critic left. That's how good I think this is going to be."
In the end, the goal is simple, said Tony La Russa, who served on the committee in charge of implementing the replay rules.
"One of the most basic rules in the rule book is to get the play right, and so we are going to try to get the game-changing play right more often than it's ever been done," La Russa said.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.