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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Baseball rules, again

One year after benefiting from a bizarre and controversial (although I believe correct) Infield Fly call in the NL WIld Card, the St. Louis Cardinals won Game 3 of the World Series on an obstruction call on the Red Sox third baseman. Although early reaction (at least outside the Red Sox clubhouse) seems to approve of the call, this one will remain a point of contention, both because it occurred in the World Series and because it allowed the game-winning run to score (officially, it was scored an error on the third baseman who obstructed).

 

Rule 2.00 of the Official Baseball Rules defines "Obstruction" as "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." A Comment to the rule provides that a fielder can occupy space when "in the act of fielding a ball," but once he has attempted to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the act. Thus, if a player dives at a ball and continues to lie on the ground after it is passed him and delays the runner's progress, "he very likely has obstructed the runner." The rule has no intent requirement; impeding the runner, even unintentionally, constitutes obstruction. Under R. 7.06(b), the umpire can "impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction;" typically, that is awarding base the player would have been entitled to without the obstruction, in this case, home.

And here is the umpires' post-game press conference, which can best be described as an opinion issued orally from the bench, explaining the court's judgment.

 

A couple of themes emerge that, I think, support the call. First, intent does not matter, only the result. Even if (as here) it is almost unfair because the play happened too quickly for the fielder to do anything to get out of the way. Second, while the internet is talking about the Sox third baseman's legs going up in the air, the umpires insisted that it was not the legs, but the fielder's body that created the obstruction. Third, it did not matter that the runner was inside the foul line when he tripped over the fielder (one ump said he was right on the chalk, the video suggests he was inside the line), a point the Red Sox players kept repeating in interviews; a runner can "make his own baseline" by picking the most direct path to the next base.

As expected, some players (Sox starter Jake Peavy was one) complained about the game ending on the umpire's call and the umpire "deciding" the game, a reflection of what Mitch Berman has called "temporal variance" in enforcement of sports rules. That argument seems especially incoherent in this context. After all, the Cardinals could just as easily argue that the play was important precisely because the Cardinals had a chance to score the game-winning run and the Sox were preventing him from doing so in a way not allowed under the rules.

Anyway, obstruction now will be the word of the rest of this Series.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 27, 2013 at 08:51 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink

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Comments

OK, I am a diehard Red Sox fan. I sat on the couch last night wearing my "I might live in Colorado, but I keep my Sox in Boston" shirt, weeping out loud at this call.

But that's not the reason for this comment.

Point #3 is what bugs me. Middlebrooks dove for the ball. It all went so fast that he couldn't get up. Craig had a bum ankle and couldn't move as fast (not Middlebrooks's fault). And Middlebrooks WAS NOT IN THE BASEPATH!!!! So, essentially, this interpretation of the rule would keep a fielder from being ANYWHERE near the bag, even inadvertently, even when diving for a ball (which is sort of his job), in case that's the way the baserunner wants to go. I'm sorry, but plain reading of the rule is just wrong here. Umps are gonna defend themselves, but no way, dudes.

Howard, did you notice that the ump who made the call was the SAME ONE who made the bad call on Galarraga?

Posted by: Lisa McElroy | Oct 27, 2013 10:40:43 AM

It also seems that a fast-thinking base runner could use the rule to his advantage. Dude, you fell down while trying to field the ball? I'll try to run over you instead of down the basepath, then call obstruction.

And, um, these guys are sort of trained to be fast thinking, no?

Posted by: Lisa McElroy | Oct 27, 2013 10:44:42 AM

Lisa:

There is no "basepath" under the rules. The runner chooses any direct line he wants to follow from one base to another and he gets to follow that line unobstructed. (And it may not be a line; at the press conference, the crew chief referred to the parabolas that many runners follows around third). I suppose if the runner changed direction and went completely out of any reasonable line to the next base looking to run into someone (say he ran towards the pitcher's mound), it wouldn't be called. But that isn't what happened here. Craig stood up and started running straight toward home. The point of the obstruction rule is that he shouldn't have to deviate from that straight line by jumping or taking two steps to the side to avoid the prone fielder.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 27, 2013 1:44:27 PM

Isn't it obvious that Craig would have easily scored if Middlebrooks wasn't in the way? I know that "but for" analysis isn't relevant to the construction of the rule, but it should be relevant to our hearts. And there's really no point in arguing this point. Boston sports fans will complain about anything and everything.

Posted by: andy | Oct 27, 2013 3:04:25 PM

No, not obvious at all. Craig couldn't run. He had a bum ankle. Totally possible that Middlebrooks or someone else would have gotten that bal and tossed it back to Salty for the out.

But it is also not obvious that he had to take the path he took. Look at the photo. He could have gone to his right and had a free path. So why try to go over Middlebrooks?

Posted by: Lisa McElroy | Oct 27, 2013 6:08:37 PM

Well, he was hobbled, but he obviously made it to home plate, getting beaten by a few steps. Getting tripped up surely cost him more than a few steps. And even if I thought it was a close question, without a doubt I would resolve in favor of the guy whose path was obstructed.

Posted by: andy | Oct 27, 2013 6:51:46 PM

Also, the runner has no obligation to run around a fielder who is lying around on the basepaths. The fielder can get in the way to catch the ball or to attempt the catch. That's it.

I suppose Craig also could have backtracked 10 feet, set his position, and then charged forward and did a flying cartwheel over Middlebrooks. But he was under no obligation to do so.

Posted by: andy | Oct 27, 2013 6:53:50 PM

What Andy said. The question is where we put the burden--on the runner to find a clear path or on the fielder to get out of the path the runner chooses. The rules pick the latter, which makes sense. The fielder would otherwise have an incentive to stay right around the runner's path, then always argue that the runner could have taken one little step to the right. That negative incentive is stronger than the incentive for the runner to go out of his way to crash into a fielder.

And the rules do balance this somewhat, by excluding from the definition of obstruction the situation in which the fielder is trying to field or catch a ball.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 27, 2013 7:06:37 PM

But not what Andy said, that Boston fans will always find something to whine about. Right, Howard?

Posted by: Lisa McElroy | Oct 27, 2013 7:14:16 PM

Lisa, are you whining about the fact that Howard didn't specifically discredit my statement about Boston Sports Fans? ;).

Posted by: andy | Oct 28, 2013 3:07:28 AM

Andy, no whining here.

Posted by: Lisa McElroy | Oct 30, 2013 11:31:19 PM

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