Thursday, April 19, 2012

Indecisive Umpiring + Complacent Base Running = Controversial Triple Play

There was an umpiring controversy in the Padres-Dodgers game on Sunday. A lot has been written about it since, but, for some reason, I only first read any of it on Tuesday, and have only just had enough time to collect and finalize my thoughts today.

Most of what I've read has been fairly objective—except this*—even if it's shown me the one area that is the Achilles heel of even the most well-respected bloggers is knowledge of the rules and umpiring mechanics.

*Incidentally, this particular post and most of its 500+ comments leaves me baffled as to why people seem to take it so personally when calls don't go their team's way.

Before I even discuss what happened, let me get one thing out of the way first. When I write about umpiring, I have a tendency to come down on the side of the umpires, for reasons that will be obvious to some of you. Maybe I do this to a fault, and I'm sure I could be accused of not always being objective on this sensitive subject.

In this case, there is no doubt there was a screwup on the part of the umpire at the center of this controversy. Additionally, his mistake was potentially made worse by Major League Baseball's response, which barely admitted any blame on the part of the umpire. That's not a good situation, but that's only part of the story, because there were others who contributed to the fact this crazy play was a big reason why the Padres lost the game in question.

OK, time to talk about the play. (Also, hopefully watch it below.**)

**Since the embed code was made available, I can only assume I'm within my rights to reproduce it here. If not, I'll take it down and you'll have to visit one of the above links to view the play, if you haven't already seen it.
With the Padres batting, and with runners on first and second and no outs of a tie game in the top of the 9th, San Diego batter Jesus Guzman attempted to lay down a sacrifice bunt. But, the pitch came up and in on him and was headed for his neck or chin when he got his bat on the ball.

The batted ball went straight to the ground and trickled out in front of home plate. Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis immediately pounced on it and threw to third. Both San Diego base runners were frozen with indecision and the after-effect of using the bat to defend himself from getting hit by the pitch caused Guzman to recoil in the direction of the third base on-deck circle. As a result, Los Angeles was able to turn an easy triple play.

But, there's a little more to this story than what I just described.

Home-plate umpire Dale Scott created a confusing situation, to say the least. As Ellis reacted to the play, and Scott attempted to stay out of his way, Scott's arms came up to the point his hands were maybe slightly higher than the top of his head. I've read this referred to as his signal that the ball was foul. This is absolutely incorrect.

Scott's next action, however, was the confusing part. He raised his hands up over his head in an emphatic motion that would seem to indicate he was ruling the play dead (either a foul ball or hit batter). He then immediately and almost in the same action pointed the ball fair.

Both runners froze. Presumably, both were looking at Scott for his call, when they should have been running the instant the pitch made contact with the bat. Remember, I said the ball went straight to the ground. Therefore, there was no reason for the runners to hesitate, even if they weren't sure if the pitch had hit the batter instead of the bat. In that situation, the play is dead anyway.

Furthermore, umpiring mechanics dictate that a foul ball be ruled with a vocal call (with remaining umpires echoing his call on less-than-obvious rulings such as this one), while a fair ball is ruled on silently. That way, runners and fielders don't need to look to the umpire for fair/foul rulings. By all indications, Scott did not make a verbal call. Why both runners chose to look at him for a call rather than run until they heard otherwise is unknown, but was clearly a mistake on their part.

Scott's indecisive hand signals were very similar to an umpire starting to outstretch both arms to make a safe call only to change his mind and lower his left arm while elevating his right to indicate an out call. Of course, this is not something you expect professional umpires to do frequently, but something that happens because they are, in fact, human.

Note I said very similar, not equivalent. The reason for this is an unintentional dead ball call rules a play dead, and all action ceases, whereas a call of safe or out doesn't stop subsequent action (unless an out is the third of an inning).

It was fairly obvious that Scott's indecision created confusion in the minds of the runners, enough so that I would like to have seen the umpires get together and talk this one through. I would also have liked to see Padres manager Bud Black ask for such a conference, but judging by his quick ejection he was in an arguing rather than a discussing mood.

One or more of Scott's partners had to have been initially confused by his mechanics as well. Would it be so crazy for the crew to have the authority to collectively decide what might have happened? Quite possibly, if expanded instant replay was adopted by Major League Baseball, a replay review could aid such a process.

Clearly, the runner from second would have been out at third on a bunt that landed right in front of home plate and was quickly retrieved by the catcher and thrown accurately to third base. Since Guzman, the batter, made no attempt to run to first, he would have easily been out as well. The only thing left to rule on would be whether the runner on first, if he hadn't been confused into thinking the play was dead, would have made it safely to second.

I suspect the end result of such a conversation, if it wasn't so outside the realm of how these situations are ordinarily handled, would have been to place the runner from first on second, with the runner from second and batter ruled out. In my opinion, that's the best possible outcome the Padres could have hoped for, despite the fact their fans were clamoring for the play to be ruled a foul ball. Which, of course, means those folks are complaining they were cheated out of the benefit of an incorrect ruling. I'll let you try and figure out the logic there.

But, of course, the same baseball culture that condones the type of unprofessional behavior that is routinely directed towards umpires also dictates such a compromise ruling would have created a firestorm of controversy from the other side. Or, quite possibly, both sides would have been unhappy with the outcome.

So, instead of being able to try to reach a conclusion that's right and fair, baseball umpires are forced to continue to umpire for their survival, even when that sometimes means standing their ground when admission of a mistake might be more appropriate and equitable.

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