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October 13, 2005

Prospectus Today

The Call

by Joe Sheehan

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White Sox/Angels

Both of these statements are true:

  • Mark Buehrle and Joe Crede deserve credit for what they did to help the White Sox win last night.

  • The Angels got screwed.

Let's make this very, very clear: Home-plate umpire Doug Eddings called A.J. Pierzynski out. Out. Out.

Out.

Why he then recanted on it, largely because Pierzynski ran to first on a hunch or an instinct or because of some change in Eddings' delivery of the out call, is a mystery. The decision--not a call, he'd already made that--was wrong in any number of ways. Paul caught the ball cleanly, and not only did it not hit the dirt, no dirt was even kicked up in the act of catching the pitch. The after-the-fact criticism of Paul for not tagging Pierzynski largely ignored the fact that he had no reason whatsoever to think there was an issue. Catchers tag strikeout victims in all kinds of situations where a third strike might be called a drop; this simply wasn't one of them. Blaming Paul for this sequence of events, rather than Eddings, is just wrong.

The analysis of Eddings' strikeout calls in other situations ("right, and to his body"), and in particular his call on Bengie Molina's ninth-inning whiff, all points to him using a two-action strikeout call. Hand out to indicate the strike, fist pump to indicate the out. There seems to be a consensus that he should have a third motion, making it strike/strikeout/out, but he clearly doesn't do that on Molina's at-bat, which is the closest parallel to this situation.

Eddings' post-game press conference was unconvincing, both in style and in substance. He and umpire supervisor Rich Reiker insist that the ball could have hit the ground, and I'm comfortable in saying that they're full of it. Eddings says that he was watching Paul and Pierzynski while making "his mechanic," but apparently had not concluded that there was an out, despite making the first-pump motion that had indicated out a dozen times that night.

This exchange is particularly damning. From a transcript of the press conference at ESPN.com:

Rich Reiker: He's not claiming that he dropped the ball. We're claiming that the ball hit the ground and went into the glove.

Q: It hit the ground first and then went into his glove?

Rich Reiker: Yes.

Not in this or any other reality, guys.

So here's what I think happened. Eddings made the right call, strike three and out three, but when Pierzynski ran to first, took that as evidence that he'd missed something. What I don't understand is why Pierzynski's action of running to first, which would indicate the ball touched the ground, was necessarily more convincing than Paul's action of rolling the ball to the mound and heading for the dugout. Eddings just chose to "believe" Pierzynski and not Paul or his own eyes, changing his mind based on Pierzynski running.

There is something of a resistance to calling this what it is. I think people want to blame Paul, or the Angels, or credit Pierzynski for a heads-up play. No one really wants to say that Doug Eddings made one of the worst big-stage decisions in baseball history, changing the course of a critical game and perhaps the seasons of two teams.

That's what happened, though. Doug Eddings was absolutely wrong, the White Sox got a baserunner they had no business getting, and they won the game in regulation because of it. It's a shame, because Buerhle does deserve credit and Crede did get a big hit and those things matter. It's just that they didn't matter as much as the call did.

Baseball deserves better than that.

  • I really need to take a day this winter and just run e-mails that mostly White Sox fans sent to me after my preseason AL Central preview. Not necessarily because the team won 99 games, but because the readers were so right and I so wrong about one player: Mark Buehrle. I labeled him an innings guy, and was inundated with claims that he was actually one of the AL's best starters. At least in 2005--and certainly last night--they were right and I was wrong.

    The great thing about Buerhle is how quickly he works. I absolutely love pitchers like this, guys who get the ball, throw a strike, get it back and throw the next one. I don't think there's a ton of objective evidence that fast working makes for better defense behind a pitcher. I do think that working quickly is one way a pitcher can get better himself, because it seems to me that it would help with rhythm, with repeating mechanics and with focus. This is largely speculation, I'll admit, but I think encouraging a healthy pace on the mound is one thing that teams could do to get a little extra from their staffs.

  • Not to pick a fight, but it's things like the Eddings call that give life to the notion that the playoffs are a crapshoot. In 162 games, bad calls wash out, and you have plenty of time to recover. In a best-of series, turning one win into one loss is devastating. One win can turn into one loss on a bad call, or a bad bounce, or a bad day by someone who might have five bad days in a year.

    If the Angels lose this series, it will be impossible to separate their abilities and their performance, relative to the White Sox, from the game where they should have been tied going into extra innings.

  • Saying that the Angels still could have gotten the third out, that the White Sox didn't win just because of the Eddings call, misses the point. However, there's a lot of truth there. With Joe Crede up against a tough right-hander with a runner on first and two outs, there are a lot of paths to the tenth inning. None of them involve hanging a splitter on 0-2. Escobar deserves to take the heat for a horrible pitch in that situation.

  • Honestly, if I'm the Angels, I run to first on every strikeout the rest of this series. Every one. OK, maybe that's petty, How about doing it once, on the first strikeout in Game Three, just to make a point?

  • The ninth-inning fun let Joey Cora off the hook. That's right: Joey Cora. It was Cora who sent Aaron Rowand home in the second inning, when a throw from right field got away from Robb Quinlan at third base, only to see Rowand gunned down at home with no one out.

    I could not believe that the coverage of the play placed blame on Rowand. In that situation, having dived head-first into third base, your entire world is the bag and the third-base coach. If the latter starts yelling at you to run home, you go. (If the former starts yelling at you to run home, you have bigger problems.) I'm certain that Rowand didn't know where the ball was, how far away it had bounced. He just heard Cora yelling at him to run, so he ran. It was Cora who blew that play, not Rowand, and he shouldn't get off that easily.

  • I loved Mike Scioscia's decision to go with Scot Shields in the sixth inning. He knew he could get just one inning from him, and rather than do what would be the more typical decision--use a two-inning reliever at that point, and save Shields for a later spot--he brought in his better pitcher to face the heart of the White Sox lineup. It is, to a certain extent, an example of the thought process I wish more teams used in the eighth and ninth innings, where often the set-up guy gets the middle of the order and the closer comes in to wipe up the bottom of the lineup in the ninth.

  • It didn't matter in the end, but Garret Anderson badly misjudged Crede's seventh-inning double. He ran a crossing route and Crede hit a post pattern. Note that if Anderson had caught up to the ball, it would have been hailed as a great defensive play.

  • There have been a lot of awful plate appearances by both teams, throwaways, really. I understand that some people find this style of baseball aesthetically pleasing, but I have no idea why. All I'm seeing is guys swinging wildly, hitting the ball weakly, and treating their outs as an endless resource instead of a limited one. It's not impressive at all.

Cardinals/Astros

Is it me, or do the Cardinals play a lot of games that look like this: they get a middling lead early, a good start, tack on some runs later, maybe give up a couple, and win 5-3 or 6-2 or something like that?

The sense I had watching last night's game was déjà vu. The Astros were simply playing the role of the Padres, giving up some runs, hitting into double plays when needed, and staying close enough to make you think they could win, but never really following through on that promise. Even in the ninth inning, when they got the tying run to the plate, there was no sense of imminent danger, largely because it was Brad Ausmus with a bat in his hands. (No, Sunday's homer doesn't mean he's a threat now.)

The key for the Cardinals, the difference between this team and the one last year, and the one we saw in September, is Chris Carpenter. He gives them a shutdown #1 starter, and that's how he pitched last night, throwing eight excellent innings in which he got 17 groundball outs against four in the air.

Tonight's game is critical for the Astros, who will have the starting-pitching edge in Games Two and Three. If they can steal tonight's game in St. Louis against Mark Mulder, they have a real chance to be up 2-1 going into Sunday's Game Four. Mulder is coming off an 11-baserunner, one-run start in the Division Series, one in which he was able to get coax four double plays out of the Padres. He'll be looking to do the same tonight against an Astros team that is just as prone to twin killings.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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