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May 7, 2003

Behind the Mask Q&A

Jim Evans, Part II

by Jason Grady

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Continuing from Part I...

Baseball Prospectus: Where in the rulebook does it say? a) Tie goes to the runner.

Jim Evans: It doesn't. It states that a runner is out IF the defensive team tags him or his base BEFORE he reaches it. The implication is if the tag doesn't occur first (not at the same time or after), the runner would be safe.

BP: b) A check swing is a strike if the batter breaks his wrists.

JE: The wrists are never mentioned in the rulebook. A swinging strike is based solely on the umpire's judgment of whether or not the batter committed to the pitch. Check swings are very difficult calls. Base umpires are often able to make more accurate decisions on check swings because their attention can be focused solely on the bat since they are not obligated to call the pitch.

BP: c) The hands are part of the bat.

JE: This is another misconception. The hands are NOT part of the bat. If a pitched ball hits the hands and the batter did not attempt to swing, it is a hit batsman. If a pitched ball hits the hands as he swings, it is a strike and the ball is dead. Reference: Rule 2.00 Strike (e.)

BP: d) The batter is out if his foot touches the plate.

JE: This is only true if the batter touches the ball with the bat and his foot is entirely outside the lines of the batter's box when the contact occurs. If part of his foot is touching both the line and the plate, he is not out for illegal action. It does not matter where his foot ends up. The umpire must determine where the foot was at the moment of contact. Reference: 6.06 (a.)

BP: e) If a fielder holds a fly ball for two seconds it's a catch.

JE: That's a myth. A fielder might hold the ball for 10 seconds and not make a legal catch. There is no time criterion for defining a catch. The interpretation used in pro ball requires the fielder to hold the ball long enough to prove he has secure possession while his body is under control. On the other hand, he may have the ball only a split second before he voluntarily releases it. This would be considered a legal catch. Like a ball or strike, a catch is a judgment call by the umpire.

BP: Do you give it much thought when you hear commentators, even those who are former players, continually perpetuate such misrepresentations?

JE: Announcers make these kinds of mistakes all the time. It's annoying but goes with the territory. If I hear it or someone has listened to the game and tells me about it, I try to look up the commentator the first chance I have and explain the rule. Most of the conscientious ones appreciate it. Some of the best ones, as a matter of fact, come by the dressing room on their own and ask questions. The most conscientious and most professional announcer I ever knew was Ernie Harwell of the Detroit Tigers. He was the consummate pro and always wanted to get it right.

BP: Speaking of the rules, what is your opinion of the Official MLB Rulebook?

JE: As imperfect as it is, the Official Baseball Rules has withstood the test of time. Much of the wording in today's book is the exact terminology printed in the late 1800s. The main problem with the rulebook today is the rules committee's failure to reconcile the changes that have been made over the past 50-60 years and to keep it current. Consequently, the minor and major leagues have had to produce exhaustive interpretation manuals to elaborate on many of the situations not adequately covered in the Official Rules.

There are two interpretation manuals...one produced by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation (PBUC) and one produced by MLB. They are approximately 80 pages each and provide interpretations for situations not specifically covered in the Official Rules. There is an effort being made to reconcile the differences contained in each. MLB uses their own exclusively.

Another major flaw is the index contained in the rulebook. It is very inadequate. It is almost useless in helping one find a rule in a timely manner. In my rules study and preparation for my teaching, I have identified over 200 mistakes, contradictions, or errors of omission. The last major revision of the book was in 1949. Even though it is not practical to rewrite the rulebook each time a new interpretation is introduced, that's 54 years ago. I personally think that it's time for a major rewrite. This could be accomplished without destroying the integrity of the present book, while more accurately reflecting the interpretations used in today's game. I am dismayed that the Rules Committee has not addressed the issue.

BP: We have already discussed a few misunderstandings of the rulebook. Could you explain in your own words the most important rule, the strike zone, as it is defined in the rulebook? Why is the strike zone not called as it is defined in the book?

JE: Historically, the baseball lords have tried to reach the perfect balance between pitcher and hitter as they have tried to make sure neither gained an unfair advantage and dominated the game. They have changed the distance from the pitcher's rubber to home plate several times. They have outlawed certain pitches and legislated against certain deliveries. They have changed the height of the mound. Since the 1940s, they have tinkered with the strike zone as they have tried to maintain a balance. The upper limit of the zone has changed from: (1) the top of the shoulders to (2) the armpits to (3) the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the pants. The lower limit has changed from (1) the knee to (2) the top of the knee to (3) the hollow beneath the kneecap. The stance criterion has also been changed from the batter's normal stance to his stance as he prepares to swing. During this entire time, the area over the 17-inch plate has been used to establish the horizontal limits.

Essentially, on the playing field, the strike zone evolved into a slightly lower limit at the top and a slightly more generous zone on the outside. This became the acceptable definition of the zone for a practical reason. The teams (both players and managers) encouraged it. The rationale was that most pro players would devastate a pitcher who works high in the rulebook zone. Consequently, neither pitchers nor managers of either team wanted to see batters conditioned to swing at the high pitch; thus, the umpires were encouraged to call it a ball. On the other hand, the pitchers' most effective location was around the knee and on the edge or just off the plate. And, by making a minor foot or arm adjustment, a batter could still get the sweet spot of the bat on the ball.

So, the professional zone evolved and was generally accepted by those who played and managed the game as a bit lower at the top and a bit farther outside than stipulated by the rulebook. I am talking inches here. Whereas the rulebook upper limit might be three balls above the top of the pants, most umpires brought it down to two balls above the top of the pants. What you were taking away at the top, you were giving back on the outside. Out there, most professional umpires would give the pitcher the width of one or two baseballs. This consensus among umpires, players, and managers seemed to be in the best interests of the game and served it well for decades. Umpires would not call pitches strikes that were off the plate on the inside for the practical reason that it was not possible for the batter to make a foot or arm adjustment that would enable him to get good wood on that pitch. Controversy began to swirl a few years ago when some of the umpires got way too generous with that outside pitch and drew attention to themselves. Some of the camera angles exacerbated the problem for the viewing public and a couple of exaggerated cases in some post-season games created some rather rare but boisterous negative reactions.

The former concept of the strike zone was much more practical for today's game than the one that conforms to the strict limits defined in the book. In my opinion, the rulebook should be amended to reflect the more practical zone that players, managers, and umpires had grown to approve and accept. If you want to give the pitcher the high strike, that's fine; but don't penalize him by taking away the pitch just off the plate.

There are those who argue that umpires are paid to enforce the rules precisely as written and not to provide their own interpretations. To them I simply say, you need to take a good look at the rulebook and you will discover that there are many examples of rules that are outdated, incomplete, or superceded by interpretations in league-approved manuals. Interpretations generally evolve for a reason. The practical strike zone that was universally accepted prior to the QuesTec experiment evolved for a reason. Umpires did not just go out and make it up on their own.

BP: Now that you mentioned it, what is your stance on QuesTec?

JE: I am for using the most advanced technology available in improving umpiring. The problem with QuesTec is that it has not been scientifically verified and the umpires have not been involved in its development. QuesTec by itself is incomplete. It is a measurement system that is supposed to grade an umpire's accuracy in determining balls and strikes. A measurement system without a training component is futile. I have read that it does not even register certain pitches, and I have heard that the calibration varies from stadium to stadium. Yet umpires are being evaluated on its results. I am a strong proponent for simulated training and I think that a measurement system must be used to identify training needs and effectiveness. However, QuesTec or any other measurement system by itself, is inadequate. The most perfect measurement technology in the world is inadequate if it is not complemented with training technology.

As I have stated many times, I am for the most modern, highly advanced technology we can use to enhance umpire training. However, in the case of this measurement system, I have three concerns: (1) its unproven degree of accuracy, (2) the strict rulebook definition of the strike zone as the measurement standard, and (3) the lack of a training program that utilizes information provided by the measurement system.

BP: Last summer, you were involved in the development of a virtual reality program to train umpires. Can you speak to the virtues of this technology and your involvement in its development?

JE: Virtual reality technology is here to stay. Police departments, airlines, medical staffs, and many other high performance, real-time professions use virtual reality technology to train their employees. Scientists are able to realistically duplicate the situations that require real-time decisions in a simulated environment. I was asked to help authenticate some of those situations that baseball umpires face under actual game conditions. As an educator and trainer, I see simulation as the new frontier for umpire training. Everything from the most routine game situation to the most bizarre can be created through virtual reality. Repetition through drill is the key to refining one's skills. Outside the school environment, umpires do not get a chance to experience drills once they get into pro ball. It will help umpires maintain their peak skills and provide a basis for remedial training when they are struggling with something. It's an exciting technology that is going to revolutionize umpire training just like it did flight instruction.

BP: In recent years, especially in the playoffs, there have been some well-documented missed calls. Why don't umpires ask for help or change such calls?

JE: There are times to ask for help and there are other times when asking for help is not feasible. It is not as simple as it may sound. Asking for help when no other umpire is in a better position to see something that might change the call is futile and sets a bad precedent. I have actually seen situations where an umpire got help and a correct call was reversed to a wrong call. When a partner thinks he has some relevant information that his colleague did not use in making his decision, it is his responsibility to let his partner know. He will generally advance toward the umpire or step into the argument, get his partner's attention, and visit with him one-on-one without the player, coach, or manager present. Of course, the original umpire may ask for help anytime he wants but he will lose credibility fast if he is always asking. As a crew chief, it was my job to see that we got every possible play right. If a strong argument developed that included information that was not considered by the umpire making the call, I would ask him if he wanted to get some help. Often, no other umpire would be in a position to see the play differently. The key to good umpiring is anticipating plays and getting into the proper position. Umpires must read plays and make the proper adjustments. Most major league umpires do a pretty job at that. A lot of amateurs have never been taught how to read plays and adjust. Consequently, they get caught out of position a lot and feel the need to ask more frequently.

BP: Are you for or against the use of instant replay?

JE: That's a very broad question. Personally, I am against the use of unrestricted, instant replay. Basically, that means allowing teams to challenge ball and strike decisions or any close play anytime they want. I do believe, however, that the day is near when replay will be used on a limited basis in post-season play. There is so much riding on each decision that I think that there will be certain types of plays that will be made subject to replay in those games. And this may surprise you, but I don't think the umpires will adamantly oppose it. As a matter of fact, I think you will have more endorse it than oppose it. A missed call in a post-season game is embarrassing all right, but could be mitigated by getting replay assistance. I think that the umpire should be the only one who can ask for help if he has a justified reason. You can't have managers asking you to go to the replay anytime a close play goes against them.

I cannot see instant replay being used during the regular season in the near future. There are lots of logistics involved that many people overlook. To be fair, all teams would have to have the exact same technology, the same number of cameras, a full staff of cameramen and production people in their parks at every game regardless of whether the game was televised or not. That would be a major expense and most clubs claim they are losing money already. There would probably be lots of challenges on close plays and this would just counteract everything MLB is trying to do to speed up the game. The cost factor and game times would not be such a deterrent in post-season. I can tell you from personal experience, however, that there are many times when the image on TV is either indiscernible or misleading. In real life, lots of decisions on close plays are based on sound and the replay has no sound.

BP: For years, MLB has tried to speed up the games. Do you think that the games need to be sped up and if so, how can MLB can accomplish this?

JE: I don't think that the length of games is the problem. The problem, as I see it, is the pace of the game. Long games can be very exciting but slow games are usually boring. Fans can stay interested in a three-hour game if it is an exciting game and doesn't have a lot of dead spots. Pitchers who take too much time between pitches is a major problem. Pitchers who do not challenge hitters and consistently go deep into the count on nearly every hitter is a major problem. Batters who step out of the box after every pitch create problems. I do not see the time allotted TV and radio between innings as a critical issue. They are the lifeblood of the sport and their needs must be met. I believe that team management must take a more active role in solving the problem. From the front office down, they have to constantly encourage their players to hustle and keep the game going and eliminate the dead spots. Umpires are limited in what they can do. Sometimes a baseball umpire is asked to do things that no official in any other sport is asked to do. That is to speed up the game without a clock or a clearly defined rule to enforce.

I believe that slower games are partially the result of expansion and an overall dilution of player talent, especially in the pitching department. Inexperienced pitchers are more likely to go deep in the count or give up more hits, walks, or runs. This increased offense often translates into more defensive changes, a slower pace, and longer games. Naturally, you are going to have longer games in the AL than the NL because of the designated hitter rule. And, historically, due to a difference in ballpark construction and dimensions, American League pitchers have resorted to throwing more breaking balls and off-speed pitches to keep the hitters off balance. This usually translates into going deeper in the count. More pitches mean longer games.

BP: Why were you called as a witness in the trial over who owns Barry Bonds' 73rd home run ball?

JE: I was called as an expert witness to define normal fan behavior in the stands as spectators scramble for souvenir foul balls and home runs. The plaintiff who initially touched Bonds' 73rd home run was alleging that the person who secured the Bonds home run ball physically assaulted and mugged him in pursuit of the ball. The defendant swore that he got pushed to the floor just like several others and found the ball loose on the floor at the bottom of the pile. There were several eyewitnesses who disputed the plaintiff's charges, and the video certainly did not substantiate his claim. I testified that there was nothing in the video that showed any fan behavior that I would consider violent or extraordinary based on my observations over 28 years in the majors. Most scrambles like that are very spirited and good-natured. It was deduced that I had seen over 125,000 instances where fans competed for souvenir balls in the stands and that supposedly qualified me as an expert in defining acceptable fan behavior.

Originally, I was going to testify as a rules expert and define a legal catch. The plaintiff claimed he "caught" the ball and it was stolen from him. By rulebook definition and major league interpretation, it certainly was not a legal catch. The judge, however, would not allow that testimony because baseball rules for the playing field do not apply in the stands. Instead, testimony from law professors all over the country was used to define what "possession and control" was on the street. One professor testified that the ball should be the possession of the first person to control it for a nanosecond. That's one-billionth of a second. I felt that "ballpark common law" should prevail and the guidelines that fans have been using for the past 75 years should be applied.

The interesting thing about the case was that the defendant who had been authorized as owner of the ball by MLB security agents was willing to sell the ball and split the proceeds 50-50 and avoid a long, bitter battle in court. The plaintiff refused his offer and took him to court. Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees later, the judge ruled that the ball had to be sold and the proceeds split 50-50.

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