Monday, October 31, 2011

Obstruction and Adrian Beltre's Foot

OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.

Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.” It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the “act of fielding” the ball. For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.

A few postseasons ago I wrote about the controversial call that wasn't, a play I thought should have been more of a controversy than it turned out to be. In contrast, this year's World Series included a somewhat controversial call that shouldn't have been. At least in my opinion, but not if you ask a couple bloggers who have since written about a play in game six they think was, or at least should be, against the rules.

If you're interested in completely digesting this subject, you can read those viewpoints at The Captain's Blog and The Platoon Advantage.

First of all, let me say both bloggers made some solid points in their posts and in subsequent discussions I engaged them in, either via comments or on Twitter. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't feel my own explanation of the play to be worth the effort.

As I said, the play in question occurred in game six of the World Series. In the bottom of the 6th inning, with the bases full of Cardinals and one out, Rangers catcher Mike Napoli picked St. Louis' Matt Holliday off third. But, replays showed Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre had used his foot to at least partially block Holliday's return path to the bag.

Both of the aforementioned bloggers claimed this was obstruction, that Beltre moved his foot there with the intention of blocking the base, not because he had to in order to receive the throw.

First of all, let me just say that when a fielder possesses the ball, he's allowed to be anywhere he pleases. It's really as simple as that. He has no obligation to yield any kind of "right of way" to the runner. By the same token, the runner, in this instance, has equal right of way as the fielder. As you're probably well aware, this is why there are occasional collisions between runners and fielders, although most of the time these occur at home plate.

To further illustrate "right of way," I'll discuss a hypothetical example not related to the play in question.

Imagine there's a runner on second base and a ground ball is hit to the shortstop, who is attempting to field it directly in the path of the runner. Up to the point the ball reaches the fielder, assuming he's in the act of fielding it, he has the right of way. That is, if the runner collides with him, it's interference on the runner.

But, if the ball passes through the shortstop's legs, for instance, and then the runner makes contact with him, it's obstruction on the fielder. In other words, if he's no longer in the act of fielding the ball, the fielder has no right to be in the runner's path at all.

However, if the shortstop is no longer in the act of fielding the ball because he has it securely in his glove or hand, the runner and fielder now have equal right of way.

This is a little confusing, I realize, but it's important to the Beltre-Holliday example because one point that's been made is Beltre planted his foot in the base path before he caught the throw. So, the question is, does this mean he's guilty of blocking the base without the ball and, therefore, obstruction?

The answer is no, and the explanation for this is that essentially Beltre does so at his own risk. If the throw gets away from him and Holliday makes contact with his body, he's then guilty of obstruction. Whether or not Holliday would be awarded home as a result is left to the umpire's judgment, but I'm not getting into that scenario.

The important point is it's not obstruction until the fielder impedes the runner (in this case, when contact is made), so since the throw was securely in Beltre's glove before Holliday slides into his foot, what Beltre did was perfectly legal.

As well it should be. Another point that was made is the fielder shouldn't be able to do this regardless. But, what we're potentially getting into here is trying to dictate where a fielder is allowed to be when receiving a throw and/or preparing to apply a tag. I don't think the rule book can possibly govern that.

I also don't think intent can be part of the equation. That is, did Beltre put his foot there with the intention of blocking the base? Is it obvious that the answer is yes to that question? I don't think so, but even if you do, is it not entirely possible to envision a scenario where the fielder moves his foot into the same position in the act of fielding the throw? Most importantly, though, do we really want to add a rule that requires the umpire to determine intent? There are a few such rules in the book right now, but it's my opinion these situations should be minimized, and I suspect most people would agree with me on that point.

So, where does this leave us? I think we can draw only one conclusion, and that's to say what Beltre did was completely within the rules, and it should remain that way.

Of course, I'm not trying to claim I'm in any way the final word on this subject. In fact, as I learned back in 2008 when I interviewed former Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School instructor, and operator of, Rick Roder, there are still sections of the rules that are gray enough that they're subject to different interpretations by different umpires. That fact remains a problem Major League Baseball has failed to address, but the obstruction rule does not fall into that category.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Where Have All My Friends Gone?

I first saw The Jayhawks live on the Tomorrow the Green Grass tour back in 1995. It was at a place called Saratoga Winners, in the Albany, New York suburb of Latham. The venue took its name from the fact it's on the drive back down-state from the race track in Saratoga Springs.

That Jayhawks show was one of only two I saw at the now-defunct club, which burned down in 2009 in an incident that resulted in its owner being convicted of insurance fraud, but acquitted of arson. Go figure. Both of my visits to Saratoga Winners were for shows I consider to hold a special place in my personal history. The other was a Wilco/Scud Mountain Boys performance that still stands as the best double-bill I've ever seen, not the least important reason for that distinction being it was my introduction to the brilliant—in my opinion—Joe Pernice.

The Jayhawks show was so important to me because it was the only time I'd seen their classic lineup, including both Gary Louris and Mark Olson. Olson left the band only a year or so following that show, and all the subsequent times I'd seen them live—and there have been many—Louris was the lone front-man. Of course, you can probably guess where this is all leading.

Sorry, I'm not a great photographer.
Last Tuesday night marked the occasion of The Jayhawks reunion tour's return to Boston, and my first time seeing them live, with Olson, in over 15 years. The Jayhawks' visit to the Paradise Rock Club was also KJ's first time seeing them, not to mention it was our future son's first concert ever. Well, sort of. But, it almost didn't happen for us.

You see, KJ is 8+ months pregnant, and as the date of the performance drew closer, we came to the realization there was no way she was going to be able to stand for the duration of a club show. So, I called the Paradise and inquired about their limited reserved seating for persons with mobility issues.

Long story short, they took care of  us, and I can't express how truly grateful we are for how accommodating they were. Every member of their staff that we dealt with was extremely helpful and polite, and I want to thank them for allowing us to see this show from a pair of chairs set to the right of the stage.

Unfortunately, this also meant we had to split up from the four friends who attended the show with us—including el-squared, who it seems has gone to about a dozen Jayhawks shows with me, although that's probably a slight exaggeration—but that was an understandable price to have to pay.

Although Louris has proven to be a more than capable band leader, nothing beats the version of the Jayhawks that features the lead vocal harmonies of Olson and Louris together. So, while this performance probably fell short of the magic of seeing them for the first time in the mid-'90s, it sure brought back some pleasantly nostalgic memories.

The show also gave me a greater appreciation for their brand new material. Prior to the show, the consensus among my friends was that the new album rates as solid, but falls far short of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. Last week's performance didn't necessarily change that assessment, but that's more an acknowledgment of the brilliance of those two albums than a negative reflection of Mockingbird Time.

Seeing Olson, Louris and company perform this new material live highlighted how truly strong songs such as "Closer to Your Side," "She Walks in So Many Ways," and "Black-eyed Susan" are.

But, of course, the set's real highlights were the old standards, particularly back-to-back renditions of "I'd Run Away" and "Miss Williams' Guitar." The former is one of the many songs that KJ and I consider "ours," and realizing how apt the third verse of that song now is reinforced our feeling of ownership.

One day, I suppose, we'll tell the little boy about the first concert he attended, and how much he seemed to enjoy it, judging by—according to KJ, of course—how much he was moving and shaking during the show. Depending on how old he is at the time, he may roll his eyes at the notion, but we'll know we couldn't have made a better decision.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What if There Was Instant Replay (Part 2)?

I'm really reaching for controversies here, but I guess that's kind of a good thing, right? In Part 1, I discussed the Victor Martinez HBP controversy from game two of the ALCS. In this post, I'm going to discuss a couple of potential controversies that occurred late in the NLCS and early in the World Series.

In the top of the 9th of Wednesday night's game one of the World Series, Adrian Beltre topped a grounder off his left toe. Or, so it seemed. The ball really didn't significantly change direction, and home plate umpire Jerry Layne ruled it a fair ball as Cardinals third baseman Daniel Descalso threw Beltre out at first for the second out of the inning.

Replays weren't exactly conclusive either, but Fox's new infrared view apparently showed the ball had nicked Beltre's toe. So, if the infrared evidence is considered reliable enough, this one could have been overturned.

But, what I also think instant replay proved was that Beltre's reaction was instantaneous. That is, he immediately reacted as if the ball had hit him. Since I don't think there are any major league players—except maybe Derek Jeter—who are that good at acting, and because I know umpires are trained to go on the reactions of players in such situations, I think the replay would have been enough to overturn the call and give Beltre's at bat new life. 

Since there were no runners on base, but more importantly, since the potential reversal would result in a dead ball situation, this would have been an easy change to apply.

That one was easy, but I also want to go back a few days to game six of the NLCS. In the bottom of the 5th, with Carlos Gomez on third and no outs, Ryan Braun hit a slow bouncer to Albert Pujols at first. Pujols fielded the ball cleanly, but had to dive to tag Braun, who attempted a head-first slide into first. The ruling on the field was out, but one particular angle of the replay clearly showed Braun had beat the tag.

Since the runner from third had gone on contact, he had reached the plate by the time the play was made, so a reversal of the call would not have any effect on that outcome. The run would have scored whether Braun was safe or out. However, I'm going to play a little what-if game here.

The runner was Carlos Gomez, one of the fastest men in baseball. So, for the sake of example, let's suppose he was on first base instead of third, and that there were two outs instead of none. With the ball hit so slowly, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that the speedy Gomez would have rounded second and taken 2-3 steps toward third by the time the tag was applied on Braun. With Braun being called out—for the third out—in live action, there would be no reason for Pujols to concern himself with Gomez's attempted advance to third.

But, with the call being reversed after reviewing instant replay, the question would be, what to do with Gomez? There probably was no chance that Pujols, who had to dive to make the tag on Braun, would have been able to get back up and prevent Gomez from going to third, but the fact remains he was only a few steps past second at that moment. Is this another judgment the use of replay would force the umpires to make? This may not seem like a big issue, but once again, we're entering into dangerous territory here...settling one controversy, while potentially creating another.

I'm certainly not trying to throw a wet blanket over the concept of expanded use of instant replay in Major League Baseball. In fact, I'm 100% in favor of the idea. But, I suspect being able to work out all the potential complications that could be created, and to write these contingencies into the rule book, is a factor in how slow the commissioner's office has been to react.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Leatherheads College Football Poll

I've always had a fascination with college football polls. I'm not really sure why. Obviously, a poll, rather than a playoff, is a less than ideal—to say the least—way of determining a national champion, or which two teams get to play for said championship. But, ever since I was in high school, I've played around with developing my own rankings.

I would usually wait until at least mid-season to get started. It was always my feeling that early season polls were really just predictions of who were going to be the best teams, rather than evaluations of who had earned those distinctions. Sometimes I toyed around with the philosophy that last year's final should be this year's opening rankings. But, I never really followed through with that idea.

Over the years, I've even worked on my own rankings system, complete with points awarded for each victory on a scale which assigns a higher value for beating better teams, then adds bonuses for road wins and "decisive" victories, without going overboard to reward running up the score. Let's just say this system continues to be a work in progress.

So, it was only fitting, when my pal Joe started a football blog called Leatherheads of the Gridiron, and encouraged me to contribute, that my first project would be to spearhead a weekly college football poll.

We put together a group of 13 contributors to the site—including me and Joe—who've been voting regularly for the past four weeks now. If you're interested, you can check out all of the posts related to the poll here.

Our poll is a top 16, rather than a top 20 or 25. Why, you ask? For starters, it's for the sake of time. I don't necessarily think it's really worth the effort to spend a lot of time laboring over picks 17-25, when a top 16 truly comprises college football's elite. But, most importantly, 16 is kind of a magic number for a potential mock playoff system, and we have an intriguing plan for that.

Interestingly enough, our latest rankings are pretty darn close to the AP poll's. In fact, our top ten is exactly identical, while numbers 11 through 16 are the same teams, but in a different order. I'm not necessarily saying that's a good thing, just that I find it interesting.

Of course, I know far less about football than I do about baseball, but somehow I got talked into co-hosting a podcast, which airs this Saturday night at 9pm (EST) on BlogTalkRadio. Tune in if you're so inclined, or feel free to download it after the fact.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What If There Was Instant Replay (Part 1)?

OK, I'm going to come right out and admit it. This is a part one that may not have a part two. What I mean is I've decided to take a look at controversial calls in baseball's postseason and discuss what would have happened in various related scenarios had there been a system of expanded instant replay in place in Major League Baseball.

Or, perhaps there won't be a part two until next year. I guess we'll have to wait and see. 

My first example wasn't really all that controversial in retrospect (it was made a moot point by Ryan Raburn's three-run homer that immediately followed), but it brought a manager out of the dugout, and was the subject of a question at the manager's post-game press conference, so that's enough for me.

In the top of the third inning of game two of the ALCS on Monday, a pitch appeared to hit Detroit's Victor Martinez in the foot. Well, at least by his reaction it did. But, it was initially unclear what the call was by home plate umpire Larry Vanover.

Vanover immediately appealed to first base umpire Jim Wolf to see if Martinez had swung at the pitch in question. My initial reaction was he had ruled Martinez was hit by the pitch, but had to determine if he'd swung or not (he hadn't) in order to decide if he should be awarded first base.

In hindsight, though, Vanover apparently did not rule it a hit by pitch. Amidst some confusion, Detroit's Miguel Cabrera came around to score from second as the ball got away from Texas catcher Mike Napoli.

The umpiring crew conferred and the play was ruled a hit by pitch, so Martinez was awarded first base and Cabrera had to return to second. Detroit manager Jim Leyland subsequently argued, and my initial reaction was he had no argument. His player—Martinez—by his body language had indicated the pitch hit him, and that was the ruling on the field. To me, at the time, Leyland was arguing because he decided a different outcome was more favorable to his team.

It wasn't until his post-game press conference that we learned what Leyland was complaining about. His beef, albeit a weak one, was he had never seen umpires confer to determine a hit by pitch. In the past, home plate umpires had always told him they couldn't get help on such a play, that other members of the crew would make the ruling immediately if they saw it.

But, back to the instant replay what-if scenarios. Assuming the initial ruling on the field was the ball had not hit Martinez and, most importantly, the play had not been ruled dead, the outcomes are pretty simple. If replay determines the ruling on the field was correct (i.e. no HBP), then all subsequent action is allowed. Martinez remains at the plate and Cabrera scores from second. If the replay ruling is it was an HBP, then the ruling is exactly what happened in the actual game: Martinez to first, Cabrera remains on second.

Things get complicated if the initial ruling on the field is that the pitch hit the batter. In that case, the play is ruled dead, and this makes it more difficult to correct if it is, in fact, an incorrect ruling. Obviously, if replay subsequently confirms the HBP call, Martinez gets first and Cabrera stays at second. But, if the replay determines the batter wasn't hit by the pitch, the question is what to do with Cabrera.

Assuming the play was ruled dead on the field, Cabrera's advance from second can't be allowed, no matter what the replay determination is. After all, the defense's efforts would have stopped when the ruling on the field was to call the play dead, so there is really no way to decide what would have happened otherwise.

This would be analogous to the fumble/no fumble ruling in football. In the NFL, if the whistle blows the play dead, there is no changing the call.

In our baseball example, however, the call would be changed from a hit by pitch to simply a ball, but the runner would have to stay on second. There's no way around that, in my opinion. I suppose the runner could be awarded a one-base advance in the umpire's judgment, assuming the ball legitimately got away from the catcher, but I think this would open up another can of worms. That is, using instant replay to get one call right, while creating another potentially debatable judgment call for the umpire to make.

While this is not the best example of such a play, it does point to the potential complications created by calls on the field resulting in the play being ruled dead. A foul ball that should have been ruled fair and a home run that shouldn't have been are a couple other examples.

Scenarios created by such situations will have to be worked out in order to make expanded use of instant replay in Major League Baseball an effective solution. I think it can be done, but it's just a little more difficult than most people think.

On a related note, one thing I would like to see is more explanation from the umpiring crew regarding calls requiring interpretations of rules that aren't common knowledge to fans. It's something they do in the NFL and, although I follow football much less than I do baseball, it seems to me NFL officials receive much less criticism than MLB umpires do.

Maybe a better understanding of some of the more controversial calls would help. I'm not suggesting this be done during the games, as in football, but perhaps requiring crew chiefs to explain such calls in post-game press conferences would be beneficial.

Friday, October 07, 2011

World Series or Bust?

This is a (slight) re-write of something I posted last year at about this time. Unfortunately, it's just as apt now as it was then.

Last year at around this time, I got to thinking about what constitutes a successful season for a sports franchise. Not from the perspective of players, coaches and front office personnel of the team, but from the point of view of the fans.

As spectators, what is our primary motivation for watching our favorite sports? I'm sure the answer varies a little from person to person, but I think the common denominator is entertainment. That is, we watch the games because they are enjoyable to us. Does it get any simpler than that?

Taking this a step further, why do we choose to follow a particular team, rather than just let ourselves be entertained by individual games in which we're less personally invested in the outcomes? I would assume the answers to that question vary a little more than the first, but, I think ultimately it boils down to increased entertainment level.

So, my point here is really to ask the question, is the only entertainment value associated with rooting for a specific team to witness them win a championship? If the answer is yes, then it's a pretty said state of affairs, because that means we spend 5-6 months a year worrying about an outcome that most likely will never happen.

I contend the answer, in fact, is no. We root for a specific team because it provides us with added entertainment value, and that value is measured on a spectrum, rather than being an absolute either/or proposition. That is, the more successful our team's season, the more entertainment value they've provided us with. If they kept us believing they had a chance to win a championship for over six months—and survived only a few weeks less than the most successful teams in the league—then they did a very good job of entertaining us.

Don't get me wrong, here. I'm not saying I'll ever take consolation in a season that simply exceeds expectations, especially when it comes to the Yankees. In fact, it could be argued that, since the Yankees can never truly exceed expectations—although this year might be the exception—that a little entertainment value is foregone just being a fan of theirs. But, that's a discussion for another day.

What I am saying is I'm not going to let myself get sucked into that 29-losers-and-only-one-winner mentality. I enjoyed my team's success for much of the season, despite being disappointed in its final outcome. In the end, though, it provided me with a great deal of entertainment, and—with all due respect—that's probably more than the fans of about 18 of Major League Baseball's 30 teams can say.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

BBA Awards: Part 1

The Baseball Bloggers Alliance has their own set of year-end awards that its members vote on, and are asked to do so in a blog post. Each of these awards is appropriately named after one of baseball's all-time greats. This being my first year in the organization, it will be my first time casting votes for the following awards:
  • Connie Mack Award (Manager of the Year)
  • Willie Mays Award (Rookie of the Year)
  • Goose Gossage Award (Reliever of the Year)

Connie Mack Award - AL
  1. Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays
  2. Joe Girardi, New York Yankees
  3. Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers
I'll start with the Connie Mack Award because, to me, this one is fairly easy, at least to the extent that I view such an award. When thinking about this honor, I tend to favor the managers whose teams outperformed expectations. That's really all we have to go on, in my opinion, and the two teams that most exceeded expectations were the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks.

It's not that no one predicted the Rays to make the playoffs, but not many people gave them a chance this year, especially after losing Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano and Carlos Peña to free agency. But, what was even more impressive was how they did it, by erasing a huge wild card deficit and overtaking the Boston Red Sox on the last day of the season. To me, there's no question that Joe Maddon is the American League's top manager this year.

Connie Mack Award - NL
  1. Kirk Gibson, Arizona Diamondbacks
  2. Ron Roenicke, Milwaukee Brewers
  3. Tony LaRussa, St. Louis Cardinals
It may actually be true that no one picked the Diamondbacks to reach the playoffs, and for that reason, Kirk Gibson is the clear choice for best National League skipper.

Other worthy candidates include the New York Yankees' Joe Girardi, for guiding a team considered to have highly suspect starting pitching to the best record in the American League; the Detroit Tigers' Jim Leyland, for managing a team that few expected would win 95 games; the Milwaukee Brewers' Ron Roenicke, for leading the brew crew to their first playoff appearance in almost 30 years; and Tony LaRussa, because his team pulled off almost as impressive a comeback as the Rays, and they did it without the ace of their pitching staff, Adam Wainwright.

Willie Mays Award - AL
  1. Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers
  2. Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners
  3. Ivan Nova, New York Yankees
There were a lot of solid rookie performers in the American League this year, but no one who really stood out. I'm surprised that very little has been said about Ogando's chances, but he gets my vote over a couple other young starting pitchers.

Willie Mays Award - NL
  1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
  2. Vance Worley, Philadelphia Phillies
  3. Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals
Everyone loves to downplay the importance of relief pitchers, but a rookie taking over a pretty high pressure situation, and handling it as well as Kimbrel did, is fairly impressive to me. He was one of the best in the National League at his role, so he gets my vote as the top first-year player in the league.

Goose Gossage Award - AL
  1. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
  2. Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
  3. David Robertson, New York Yankees
If saves are an over-rated statistic, then blown saves are even more so. Valverde was 49-for-49 in save opportunities, but he also lost four games. His four losses were all tie games in which he failed to pitch the one scoreless inning he was asked to. This is basically the equivalent of blowing a one-run lead, so Valverde's lack of blown saves is at least a little misleading. So, let's face it, Mariano Rivera may have blown five saves, and lost two, but he was clearly better this year. I'm favoring closers for this award, but rounding out the top three is Yankees setup man David Robertson, who deserves some recognition for the fantastic year he had.

Goose Gossage Award - NL
  1. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
  2. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Although I downplayed the blown save statistic in explaining my pick for the AL's best reliever—but, seriously, that was to argue Mariano Rivera over Jose Valverde—I'm going to use it to help me decide between three excellent National League closers. All else being fairly equal, Axford converted 46-of-48, Hanrahan 40-of-44, and Kimbrel 46-of-54.

      What Have You Done For Me Lately (Part 2)?

      I don't have much more to say today than this.

      Well, I want to, at least.