25 August 2008

Rays @ White Sox: Pierzynski's Botched Run-Down Highlights Umpires' Need for Instant Replay

One of the stranger plays in the realm of baseball occurs any time there's a run-down in a game.

Rundowns, in and of themselves are interesting to watch, if not uncommon, and it's a rare baserunner who can regularly get out of such a pickle. Jackie Robinson was supposedly great at it, as was Willie Mays, I believe, but otherwise, I don't know of any notable players who had such a reputation.

Unlike throwing to the cut-off man, or the roundhouse play for defending a bunt, there's no standard, time-honored set of rules for who throws the ball to whom at what time. The fielders just have to keep throwing and running, running and throwing, until the batter is either tagged out, arrives safely at a base, or runs out of the baseline and is therefore called out by the umpire.

But on Sunday, White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski found a new way to get out of a rundown: Get tagged out, but brush up against a fielder who doesn't have the ball and fall down. Then the ump, thinking that you were a victim of interference, will call you safe.

In this case, the umpire in question was Doug Eddings, and the play was between second and third base. Willy Aybar had just been running A.J. back to second base and he tossed the ball to shortstop Jason Bartlett at second base, who tagged A.J. as he fell down, trying to reverse his momentum toward second. Pierzynski's left arm touched Aybar as he passed, though from watching the replays, that was clearly not the reason for his falling down.

Second base umpire Eddings was watching the play from the infield side of second base, which is to say with Pierzynski between him and Aybar. Eddings called "safe" due to interference by Aybar, whom he presumably could not see well, since A.J. was between them. Given his vantage point, it seems like Eddings probably thought that Aybar somehow tripped him, which of course would be a legitimate reason for calling interference, right? An honest mistake, right? Wrong.

From an umpire's perspective, an honest mistake is still a mistake, and umpires do not make mistakes, no sir. Or at least they don't admit to them. (Must be tough being married to an umpire, don't you think?) Another umpire, either the crew chief or an ump who had a better view of the play, is allowed to overrule an umpire's call.

For example: Third base ump Ted Barrett had a better view. What did he think?

"As a runner, you're allowed to do that. What Doug ruled at second base was, even though A.J. did kind of stick his arm out to make contact, Aybar was still in his way. So A.J., if he would have turned, he wouldn't have been able to continue on to third. So after making the throw, Aybar is no longer in the act of fielding and he can't obstruct the runner, which is what Doug ruled happened. And in a rundown, even though A.J. was going back to second, the rule of obstruction during a rundown is he gets his next advanced base and that's why he was rewarded third base."
So Barrett, whether he thought the Pierzynski should have been out or not, has decided to side with Eddings, and in order to do so, has asked you to perform some mental gymnastics. Let's break this down:

"...even though A.J. did kind of stick his arm out to make contact, Aybar was still in his way."

Wait, even though A.J. had to reach out to touch him, he was still in his way? By this logic, I could sue the State of Pennsylvania when I drive off one of its roads and into a bridge abutment, because even though I had to get off the road to hit it, the thing was still in my way, right?

"So A.J., if he would have turned, he wouldn't have been able to continue on to third."

Aybar was slightly behind him, but mostly to his left when A.J. fell down, so Barrett must be thinking that third base is located in short left field somewhere. However, Eddings did not realize that this was a moot point, as Pierzynski suffers from Zoolander-ism, an inability to turn left.

"So after making the throw, Aybar is no longer in the act of fielding and he can't obstruct the runner..."

Fair enough, but is he obstructing him from running to second base by being behind him? Do you think Pierzynski wanted to run backward all the way to third base?

"...even though A.J. was going back to second..."

So Aybar was in his way even though Barrett admits that A.J. was not actually going that way? Pierzynski was facing 2nd base and he was moving toward 2nd base, at least until he noticed that guy on 2nd had the ball, at which point he did his best impersonation of Manu Ginobili and hit the dirt, in hopes that he could steal a call. By this logic, anyone standing in the baseline next to third base, 75 feet away from A.J., is also guilty of obstruction, because if A.J. had turned around and Usain Bolt-ed it to third, there would have been someone in his way. Even though that's also impossible.

"If Aybar's got the ball, there's no obstruction. You protect the fielder when he's in the act of fielding. Once that ball's released and out of his hand, he has to vacate."

Vacate? He was doing that. He tossed the ball to second and was moving off when Pierzynski reached out and elbowed him. But he can't get out of the way instantaneously. He's subject to the same laws of physics as everyone else. Aybar was trying to vacate. Barrett makes it sound like he needed to vaporize.

The real irony here, and with some of the other notable botched calls this weekend, is that just last week the MLB Umpires' union complained about and eventually settled on a system for using instant replay to review disputed home run calls, and only home run calls. No discussion has been made of reviewing balls and strikes, or safe/out plays at a base using instant replay, but there have been noises about using it for checking outfield catches that might actually be trapped balls and other difficult judgment calls.

Like, you know, run-downs. This kind of play begs for the use of instant replay, and yet the MLB umpires stubbornly refuse to budge.

As a rule, umpires have a tough job, and I freely admit that I wouldn't want it. Traditionally, I think, they've held the ridiculous position that they are all but infallible under some misguided notion that if they admit to ever making a mistake, the players can somehow use it against them. Perhaps that was true a hundred years ago, before digital, high definition TV and Pitch f/X and other technological marvels invaded the game, but now? Now the only reasons for sticking to their guns are tradition and stubbornness. Which is another umpiring tradition, anyway.

And perhaps because they think that by conceding something like this, they are owed something in return. Allowing MLB to change the rules, something they do not have to do, is something that should entitle them to some added benefit under their collective bargaining agreement.

Never mind the fact that this actually makes their jobs easier in the long run, as they can make the "gut call" they feel they should make in a given situation with the knowledge that if they're wrong, instant replay can set things right. No more need to lose face being overruled by another human being. Everyone knows that machines and computers are better at this stuff than we are. No need to worry about having screwed someone out of a run or an out. The play will have ended with the correct result regardless. You can always say that you just didn't have as good a view as the TV camera did, and let it go.

No more mental gymnastics, even if the baserunner is performing gymnastics of his own.

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Ron Rollins said...

This is not an excuse to use instant replay. That's insanity. I've been umpiring since I was 14. Sometimes plays do get missed, just like players make mistakes.

People can't start screaming for instant replay everytime ESPN shows a (in their judgement) bad call.

What does need to happen is MLB needs to get rid of the prima donna umpires who think they are more important than the game.

And instant replay is exactly why they wouldn't go to another umpire to try and overturn the call. Then they would have to admit it was a bad call and change it. Because then everyone will talk about how it was a bad call and start demanding instant replay.

Baseball is great the way it is.

Lets leave it alone. Its survived in a professional basis since 1871, when they used one umpire.

Its just fine the way it is.

Travis M. Nelson said...

Appreciate your comments, as always, Ron.

But I disagree. Sure, it's nice that there's a human element in the game, as long as it doesn't hurt your team. They had only one ump in 1871 because there wasn't as much riding on professional baseball at the time. And they never used IR because it wasn't an option until a relatively short time ago (i.e. 20 or so years, when the quality of the video became good enough to settle such disputes). With all the cameras planted all over the field, the only reason not to use IR is for the sake of tradition and/or because of the fear of slowing down the game. But frankly I think the latter of those will be assuaged by the fact that the IR process will eliminate some of the arguing that tends to prolong games now, and should nullify that effect.

Not that I think IR is the answer for everything, mind you. A little humility and reason among the umps is definitely warranted. But it could help to deal with some of these kinds of things.