Monday, October 28, 2013

The Case Against Obstruction

2013 World Series, Game 3

The Boston Red Sox vs. the St. Louis Cardinals

Tie game, 4-4.

Ninth inning.

One out.

Runners on second and third.

By now, we all know the setup.

We all know the play.

We all know the outcome.

Was it the right call? The rule book is behind it. Let me play the devil's advocate and try to make a case for how it might have gone the other way.

First, lets lay out what we know, then we can argue the rules.

Dustin Pedroia made a great diving stop on a bouncer to second, threw the ball home to Jarrod Saltalamacchia who tagged Yadier Molina in front of home plate. He then whipped the ball towards third and a waiting Will Middlebrooks to try to get the final out of the inning and force extras by tagging Allen Craig.

Then things went wrong. The ball skipped past an outstretched Middlebrooks, careened off Craig's arm, and rolled off towards the stands. Craig gets up from his slide, trips over Middlebrooks and stumbles down the baseline to run home, where the throw from left comes in for an apparent out, as Saltalamacchia tags him in front of the plate.

Home plate ump Dana DeMuth calls Craig safe, indicating towards third base, and confirming an "Obstruction" call made by third base ump, Jim Joyce. Craig is injured on the slide and never tags home plate, as his bench clears in celebration of the victory, teammates dancing around home, team doctors helping Craig off the field.

Now, the play is done. Now the call is made. Now the game is over. Now, can we debate.

Obstruction is the call, so lets start there. MLB defines it this way:
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.
"Not in the act of fielding the ball"? The rule book has an answer for that one as well. (emphasis added)

MLB Rulebook, Rule 7.06
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 judgement 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: If 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. 
OK, well that seems fairly straight forward, especially in this particular situation. But lets not stop there, the MLB rule book is large, and includes a lot of "up to the judgement of the umpire."

What is the penalty/reward for an obstruction call?
... the ball is dead and all runners shall advance, without liability to be put out, to the bases they would have reached, in the umpires judgment, if there had been no obstruction.
So, if Obstruction stands, and he's awarded the base, end of story, right? Not necessarily.

MLB Rulebook, Rule 7.08

Any runner is out when -- (a) Any runner after reaching first base who leaves the baseline heading for his dugout or his position believing that there is no further play, may be declared out if the umpire judges the act of the runner to be considered abandoning his efforts to run the basesThis rule also covers the following and similar plays: Less than two out, score tied last of ninth inning, runner on first, batter hits a ball out of park for winning run, the runner on first passes second and thinking the home run automatically wins the game, cuts across diamond toward his bench as batter-runner circles bases. In this case, the base runner would be called out for abandoning his effort to touch the next base and batter-runner permitted to continue around bases to make his home run valid. If there are two out, home run would not count (see Rule 7.12).PLAY. Runner believing he is called out on a tag at first or third base starts for the dugout and progresses a reasonable distance still indicating by his actions that he is out, shall be declared out for abandoning the bases.

OK, so we've now established that even after awarding a player a base, he can be called out for abandoning the basepath. At this point, it would be up to the Red Sox to tag home plate, and appeal to the umpire for the out in a reasonable time.

But maybe we don't go that far. Perhaps it doesn't come to that. Lets relook at the play at third.

The ball comes in late, as Craig would have been safe, even if Middlebrooks had caught the ball. After that, third base ump Jim Joyce turns his head to follow the ball towards left field as Craig gets up. Craig takes a small step to his left and turns to watch the ball go past, pushing Middlebrooks down as he is trying to get up from his stomach. Joyce now looks back, sees the two tied up a few feet inside the chalk. He sees Craig trip over Middlebrooks, even with the grass of the infield. Joyce then "immediately and instinctually" called obstruction. The play continues, the rest we know.

What Joyce did not see was the initial contact. As Middlebrooks attempted to get up, moving towards second base, and out of the third base baseline, Craig stands up, clear of the fielder, turns into him and pushes him down. Only then did Craig try to step over Middlebrooks and trip. There was no opportunity for Middlebrooks to move any more from the established basepath towards home than what he did.

The rule states that once a ball is past a fielder, he can no longer be considered to be fielding the ball, and that it is up to the umpires judgement whether a fielder is still in the act of fielding a ball. What constitutes "continuing to lay on the ground to delay the progress of the runner"? Due to the pace of the play, the contact initiated by the runner, and the position of the fielder, it was up to Joyce's judgement to call obstruction. Another umpire, having kept his eyes on the runner, could have judged Middlebrooks to be completing his play on the ball and clearing the basepath for the runner and even ruled interference on the runner through the act of pushing the fielder down.

MLB Rulebook Rule 7.09 (f) and (i)

It is interference by a batter or a runner when -- 
(f) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a batter-runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball, with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead; the umpire shall call the batter-runner out for interference and shall also call out the runner who had advanced closest to the home plate regardless where the double play might have been possible. In no event shall bases be run because of such interference. 
(i) He fails to avoid a fielder who is attempting to field a batted ball, or intentionally interferes with a thrown ball, provided that ... the runner comes in contact with one or more of them, the umpire shall determine which fielder is entitled to the benefit of this rule, and shall not declare the runner out for coming in contact with a fielder other than the one the umpire determines to be entitled to field such a ball; Comment: Obstruction by a fielder attempting to field a ball should be called only in very flagrant and violent cases because the rules give him the right of way, but of course such right of way is not a license to, for example, intentionally trip a runner even though fielding the ball.

That last comment from rule 7.09 (i) states Obstruction should be call only in flagrant and violent cases because a fielder has rights to the field as well. If that fielder is allowed reasonable space and time to make a play on a ball, and can be considered interfered with if a runner willfully comes in contact with him, then you can make a different call. Did Middlebrooks "intentionally trip the runner" by kicking his feet up, perhaps, but Joyce himself said the feet in the air played no role in his call.

A closer eye on Craig could have yielded an interference call.

The penalty for interference? The runner is out, and the ball is dead.

In this case? The inning is over, the 10th inning begins. Twitter erupts with angry Cardinals fans, and I write a post titled: "The Case for Obstruction".

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