Bill Brink on the Pirates: Open lines of communication

Banister consults with video coordinator on reviews

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Watch your television closely the next time the Pirates are involved in a close play.

Most of it will look familiar. There are the replays, from three different angles, of the play in question. There's manager Clint Hurdle, trotting out of the dugout to have words with one of the umpires.

You'll also see something new. The cameras will cut to a shot of bench coach Jeff Banister, one hand holding the dugout phone to his ear, the other extended toward the field, thumb parallel to the ground, waiting.

Banister serves as the middleman in the Pirates' process for deciding whether or not to challenge a play, a facet of the new video review rules that took effect this season. Five plays during the Pirates' first three games were challenged or reviewed, and managers around the league have used their challenges aggressively.

"We're not going to get clear video on everything," Banister said. "If it's worth a challenge at the time strategically, then, hey, you might get it."

Like in football, managers may now ask the umpires to consult a replay if they think the umpires on the field missed a call. Umpires staffing a replay command center at MLB Advanced Media headquarters in New York City, not the field crew, review the plays. And like in football, coaching staffs can consult with a team employee who has access to all the camera angles and replays before making their decision.

For the Pirates, that man is Kevin Roach, the team's video coordinator. He communicates with Banister while Hurdle talks to the umpires. When they come to a decision, Banister will signal Hurdle: Thumbs up means challenge, thumbs down means hold off.

The system must work quickly because Hurdle has to challenge in a timely manner and cannot stall for minutes on end while his staff looks at the replay. Banister said he and Roach have worked during spring training to synchronize the way they process close plays.

"Anything we see on the field, I'm going to immediately call Kevin," Banister said. "Anything he sees, he's going to immediately call me, just so that we have enough time to talk it out and watch the video. Our communication lines have been quick."

In addition to the guidelines for how the replay system would work, Banister said, MLB sent the teams video examples of what plays would stand and what plays would be overturned. That helped Wednesday night when Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria challenged a double play at second base.

Challengeable plays, according to the MLB press release, include "force play (except the fielder's touching of second base on a double play)." In other words, managers can't challenge the neighborhood play -- except when a neighborhood play isn't a neighborhood play.

Renteria challenged the fact that Neil Walker's throw to Jordy Mercer at second base pulled Mercer off the bag. A neighborhood play, according to the league, must occur during a clean double play. If the throw pulls the fielder away from the bag, that requirement is not fulfilled and the force-out can be challenged. The umpires overturned the call, resulting in a run for the Cubs.

"That's one of the examples that they gave," Banister said. "It played out almost exactly like that play."

Gray areas like that one abound in the new replay system, which the league acknowledges is a work in progress that it hopes will improve in the coming years. San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy discovered a loophole the hard way this week.

After losing his only challenge when the umpires upheld a "safe" call on a pickoff attempt of Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock, Bochy had no recourse when Pollock was later ruled safe at the plate but appeared to be out. The play occurred in the fourth inning. The umpires cannot initiate a review until the seventh inning. Bochy was out of luck.

Players are also adjusting to the new rules, which pause the game for roughly two to four minutes at a time.

"It's definitely different," Mercer said. "Definitely the flow of the game is interrupted and it seems like every close play towards the end of the game is going to be reviewable. Either safe or out they're going to go look at it. I mean, why not? Why not have a coach go out and check it out?"

The Pirates took steps to prepare for the game's new wrinkle. They looked at close plays from last season, Banister said, without knowing whether or not a replay would overturn them, and ran through the decision-making process in dry runs.

"In spring training, our communication via walkie-talkie or even before and after the game, we kind of practiced without video and what [Roach] sees on the TV, just trying to match our eyes up and just trying to get on the same page," Banister said.

The system blends 21st-century technology with managerial decisions that were forever part of the game. It relies on high-tech cameras and video equipment informing a coaching staff that must decide whether or not to take a risk, giving that thumbs-up or thumbs-down, in a matter of minutes.

Looking ahead: Cubs

When the Pirates begin their three-game series against the Cubs, their opening-day opponents, at Wrigley Field Tuesday, they will set about stemming the onslaught from the man who tormented them earlier this week: Emilio Bonifacio.

The 28-year-old utility player went 11 for 16 in three games against the Pirates, stealing four bases and scoring three runs from the leadoff spot. He got help from third baseman Luis Valbuena, a left-handed hitter who shares third base with Mike Olt and plays against right-handed pitchers. Valbuena went 3 for 7 with three walks against the Pirates.

They will also have to reckon with a Cubs pitching staff that held their offense to seven runs in three games. Four of those runs came against the Cubs' bullpen.

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