Monday, October 19, 2009

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Since it's the playoffs, and there was a controversial call this past weekend that wasn't strictly about the umpire's judgment, I thought I should chime in on the issue. Saturday night's ALCS game two call by umpire Jerry Layne on Erick Aybar's double-play-that-wasn't had the potential to result in serious controversy. Well, since the call went in favor of the hated Yankees, there probably will still be a lot of conspiracy theory discussion, but fortunately, it turned out to have no noticeable effect on the outcome of the game.

Layne was roundly criticized by FOX commentators Joe Buck and Tim McCarver for not allowing the "neighborhood play" on a potential 10th inning double play. The problem with the so-called neighborhood play is that, since there's no specific definition, the amount of leeway each umpire is willing to give would have to vary. To illustrate this by exaggeration, if Aybar had caught the flip from second baseman Maicer Izturis two feet from the bag, and clearly did not touch the base as he followed through to make the throw, I don't think any umpire would have given him the call. However, is it possible that one umpire would give a few more inches margin for error than another? Of course it is.

If we asked them, no major league umpire would admit that such a neighborhood play exists, but it may very well be that Layne gives the call as long as he doesn't see daylight between the foot and the bag. Of course, we'll never know. But, what we do know is that "in the neighborhood of the base" is not as easily defined as "touching the base."

Due to these potentially significant inconsistencies, I contend that the neighborhood play is a myth. The origin of the term is likely unknown, but its use certainly has been perpetuated by the sports media. Having been to professional baseball umpire school myself, I honestly don't recall how we were instructed to handle these calls. What I do know is that a major philosophy of umpiring is self-preservation.

Self-preservation, in this context, means not going out on a limb when it's unnecessary. Could Layne have gotten away with calling the runner out in this particular circumstance? Probably. So, did he go further out on the limb than he had to? Most likely. Did he properly define the unwritten rule that is commonly referred to as the neighborhood play? There's really no answer to that question.

The call that went against the Angels in last year's ALDS probably wasn't as controversial as I contended it should have been. Ironically, this call was much more controversial than it had the right to be, particularly considering it technically was the correct call. Fortunately, though, the call didn't result in a second consecutive year that this Angels team was potentially robbed by a strangely controversial call.


  1. A must read....

  2. Speaking of self-preservation, Tim McClelland needs to learn a thing or two about that. The crew should have conferred on the play with Posada and Cano last night, and the out call on Swisher tagging up is a blatant example of sticking his neck out when he shouldn't have. To call a runner out for leaving too early, it has to be fairly obvious.

  3. I read that article about Moneyball. I feel that it goes a little overboard in criticizing the book and the Beane philosophy.

    The book discusses how the A's manage to compete on what essentially is an unfair playing field, by emphasizing undervalued skills that can be measured by statistics. Unfortunately, that's a moving target, as the article points out that OBP isn't as undervalued as it once was. So, I'm sure Beane continues to look for new ways to identify undervalued skills.

    I don't think Lewis ever contended that Beane's methods were ideal, but rather just his way of making do with fewer resources than the big guys. I think it could be argued that the Red Sox have had considerable success by taking Beane's principles a step further by adding financial resources to statistical analysis.