Monday, 8 October 2012

....and It Falls In! But Wait!

I Got It!  No, You Take It!

The controversy and debate continue to rage.  A crucial moment and one of the contestants just stands there and lets the ball fall in.  And one side of the argument screams that those chosen to moderate the contest made the wrong call. Passions are inflamed.  The argument goes on and on about just what the proper role for judgment by the referees of the contest ought to be - when should they let the two sides just go, and when should they intervene?

Of course, I'm talking about the Friday National League "wild card" playoff game between Atlanta and St. Louis, a topic that is far more interesting than just how 'wrong' Clint Eastwood's now almost prescient observation about empty chairs was...

The situation for those not following professional baseball, is as follows.

The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals faced off Friday evening in a winner-take-all contest in Atlanta.  The Braves, over the first handful of innings had kicked and thrown the ball around to the point that they trailed the Cardinals 6-3 late in the game.

Entering the bottom of the eighth inning, a little life.  A walk.  A fielder's choice, and a single placed runners at first and second with only one out.  The Braves had been pretty ineffective until then with runners on the bases, and that futility appeared to continue when shortstop Andrelton Simmons popped a lazy fly ball into shallow left field, perhaps 75 feet over the head of St. Louis SS Pete Kozma, but in front of left fielder Matt Holliday.

Now, this is a play that 99 out of 100 times, one or the other will "call for" the ball and make an easy catch.

It's that one of 100 - where, because of poor communication, or the noise of the stadium, where one or both of the players will simply stop, and the ball will fall, unmolested, to the turf for a gift single.  Which of course is exactly what happened, as Kozma, who at first signalled for the catch and then at the last second, peeled off.  Holliday had stopped running in, and the ball landed to the joy of the Atlanta fans.

The celebration was short-lived, as left field umpire Sam Holbrook called Simmons 'out,' despite the non-catch.

The reason for the call: Holbrook invoked the rule that is the subject of discussion in the first days of every little league practice in the US, and I suspect, many other countries: The Infield Fly Rule.

Without getting into too many details, the rule basically was put into place decades ago to prevent the defenders intentionally allowing an easy pop-up on the infield to fall, then quickly picking the ball up for an easy double play.  The situation requires:

  1. There are runners on first or second, or first second, and third (thus setting up TWO force outs on the bases)
  2. There are zero or one outs (thus setting the possibility of getting TWO or THREE outs on the play)
  3. That the ball is one that one of the infielders can catch WITH ROUTINE effort (as judged by one of the umpiring crew)
  4. That ultimately, the ball must land in FAIR territory.

There are other details, of course, but the point is, a fielder cannot gain advantage by intentionally not making a play through chicanery.

What is in dispute in all of the above is item three - just how "routine" the ball was (and it was, to be fair, an easy catch), and did the umpire make the right judgment call?

Much of the debate I've heard has focused on things such as the nullity of the call because a base umpire did not make it (irrelevant - there is nothing in the rules stipulating which umpire must make the call - and there are only outfield umpires in the playoffs and All-Star Game), to the fact that the left fielder called for the ball (which is a false argument, because the rule specifically says that an infielder need not make the call, and does, in fact, state that the rule is in effect even if an outfielder ultimately makes the catch), to the fact that Holbrook waited until the point that the ball was past its apogee and was near the ground (which strikes me as a reasonable point).

As I see it, the call is plainly the wrong one because of three factors.

First, looking at the intent of the rule - does anyone believe that Holliday and Kozma meant to let the ball fall?  Was there an attempt to gain a dubious advantage by allowing it to land without being caught?  I don't think so.

Second, was there a real expectation, or even a chance, that in not catching the ball, a double play was possible?  Not a chance.  At best, after the ball landed, the Cardinals might have been able to force Dan Uggla out at third.  In fact, they did not even succeed at that.

Third, and most important - as I see it, the empirical measure of whether a call is right or wrong is this: Suppose the call had gone the other way.  That the infield fly rule were not invoked.  Would the other team have argued the call so angrily?  Would they have argued it at all?

I suggest that, had the infield fly rule not been called, the St. Louis Cardinals would not even have complained about it, and indeed, their players and fans would have focused their anger on why two professional players failed to catch a routine popout in shallow left field.

All the other comments I'm hearing are just noise.  The infield fly rule is not complicated.  It's not difficult to understand.  One need not be a former major leaguer to grasp it.  It's a simple rule, and the problem here is entirely about whether a human being used the right situational judgment around whether to invoke it or not.

The bottom line is this: Pete Kozma should have just caught the ball.

And the Atlanta Braves should not have made three errors.

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