The best eyes in baseball peered at the television monitor at Progressive Field on Saturday, and no, they did not belong to shortstop Francisco Lindor, one of the most complete players in the game, or Indians manager Terry Francona.
With apologies to Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who possesses the most striking set of eyeballs in sports, the best eyes in baseball belong to a former a minor-leaguer and bullpen catcher who milled about the visitors’ clubhouse as the Royals prepared to play the Indians.
Bill Duplissea might not agree with this sentiment, of course. His job is a simple one. He lives behind the scenes.
Yet the numbers offer support for his case. In 2016, Duplissea, an advance scout and the Royals’ instant replay coordinator, was the best in baseball at successfully challenging umpires’ calls. This year, he is closing in on holding the title for the second straight year.
In the latest internal statistics released to teams on Friday, the Royals were 22 of 30 on replay challenges this season, forcing an overturn 73.3 percent of the time. The Yankees were second, just percentage points behind at 27 of 37 (73.0 percent).
“Billy should become a free agent,” Royals manager Ned Yost deadpanned.
Major League Baseball instituted expanded replay in 2014, a system designed to give managers the ability to challenge questionable calls. In practice, the replay review is executed at a command center in New York and the decision radioed back to the umpires on the field. In four years of replay, few teams have mastered the system like the Royals.
On Sunday morning, they entered a series finale at Progressive Field at 73-75, four games out of a playoff spot. On the field, they have faded in August and September. Yet inside the clubhouse, Duplissea and the staff remain one of the best at replay.
Duplissea spends games in a back room, monitoring the action on a set of screens and reviewing all close plays. He has just seconds to check the accuracy of calls. If he believes the Royals should challenge, he phones bench coach Don Wakamatsu on a dugout telephone, who then relays the recommendation to Yost, standing near the top step of the dugout.
Yost has come to trust Duplissea’s judgment and track record. Yet he also believes in challenging only if they are sure the umpires will reverse the call. As a result, the Royals had only issued 30 challenges as of Friday, the fifth fewest among 30 teams.
“I told Billy,” Yost said. “‘This is stupid. I’m not going to slow the game up unless you’re sure that it could be overturned.’”
A former catcher in the Dodgers’ minor-league system, Duplissea is in his 12th season with the Royals. He joined the club as a bullpen catcher in 2006 before adding advance scouting duties in 2012. The advent of replay brought more responsibilities in 2014. Duplissea, known as “Dup” (rhymes with Doop) inside the clubhouse, jumped into the role. Nearly four full seasons later, he’s still improving, he says.
“The equipment is constantly updating,” he said.
During games, he works to find the best on-screen layouts to quickly review plays. He attempts to put himself in an umpire’s shoes. Some calls look wrong, he says. Yet if there is not a clear angle, he won’t challenge.
He’s learned that challenging a crew chief’s call can be less successful than challenging a regular umpire. He’s learned that the most difficult call to challenge is a stolen-base at second base because one camera angle rarely shows both the tag and the runner reaching the base.
“Those are the toughest,” he said. “You have to use two different cameras, and then there’s a center-field cam. So when there’s a play at second base, I know where to go.”
Duplissea also keeps up with the numbers. In 2016, the Royals led all of baseball with a 69.2-percent success rate (27 or 39) on challenges. For one day on Friday, they had topped 73 percent. It put the club in first place. Duplissea knew this. He knew the Yankees were close, too.
“Just barely,” he said.