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October 2, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Men in Black Attack

by Joe Sheehan

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I've been anticipating that bad umpiring would become a big story in the 2007 postseason, given the degradation in performance and decorum we've seen over the past couple of years. What I didn't expect was that the umpires wouldn't wait until the postseason to make themselves the story.

The crew assigned to last night's playoff game between the Rockies and Padres made one clear mistake and one apparent one, changing the course of the game with their missed calls. The umpiring overshadowed a game that was a microcosm of National League baseball, circa 2007: exciting, competitive, and hopelessly sloppy. In the end the "right" team won-the one that might have won had all the calls been made correctly-but that didn't wash away the acrid taste left behind by the umpiring mistakes.

In the seventh inning, with the Rockies up 6-5, Garrett Atkins roped a ball into the left/center field gap. The ball made contact with something and rebounded to the right and onto the field, where Brady Clark played it back to the infield. The umpires concluded that the ball hit the fence, or specifically, a yellow cushion atop the fence, and rebounded into play, making it a live ball. Given how the ball bounced-ricocheted, really-there's no way that it could have hit the top of the fence. The most likely scenario is that it cleared the fence, hit something hard-there's a wheelchair seating area back there-and bounced back on to the field. It looked to me like a home run, and my best evidence for this is the bounce. The umpires did not get this call right, and Atkins would eventually be stranded. Had his ball been ruled a home run, the Rockies may have won in regulation time.

Of course, that play was nearly forgotten two hours later, when another close play ended the game and again called the umpiring into question. Having rallied to score two runs off of Trevor Hoffman, the Rockies had first and third with nobody out. Jamey Carroll lined to Brian Giles in short right field, and Matt Holliday tagged from third. Giles' high, arcing throw-the word you're thinking of is "lollipop"-arrived at the plate just as Holliday did. Michael Barrett, blocking the plate with his left leg, wasn't able to catch the ball, and tag Holliday, but it certainly appeared that he kept Holliday from tagging the plate. As a dazed Holliday sprawled a foot behind home, and umpire Tim McClelland paused, Barrett scrambled for the ball and reached to tag the runner. Just as he did, McClelland signaled "safe," ending the game.

In real time, and in replays, it certainly didn't appear that Holliday was able to touch the bag. McClelland's slow "safe" call and Holliday's reaction-he seemed to be anticipating an "out" call and was surprised by McClelland-support that idea. There are alternate explanations for both of these; McClelland may have been verifying that Barrett dropped the ball, and Holliday was clearly shaken up on the play. However, my best judgment is that Holliday missed the plate, McClelland blew the call, and the two teams are tied 8-8 with two outs in the bottom of the 13th.

The Padres didn't play good baseball last night. Their ace had location problems and allowed six runs, and their stopgap center fielder basically handed over a run. Maybe they would have lost anyway, and if the Atkins home run had been ruled correctly, they probably lose in regulation. They shoudn't, however, have lost on the play that they did. They got the out, and they should have gotten the chance to get out of the inning.

Once again, I'm writing about umpiring mistakes as opposed to baseball plays, and if that's a tired topic for some of you, well, I'm not thrilled about it, either. We continue to see sloppy, indifferent umpiring. In addition to the plays described above, McClelland had a wildly inconsistent strike zone that shrank considerably as the game wore on. He affected the course of the game with his inabiity to call strikes strikes and balls balls.

Incompetent umpiring isn't "the human element," it's just incompetence. As fans, we commit our time, energy, and money to watching baseball players decide games, and we're cheated when we're left with a sense that the game was decided by anyone else. The Rockies and Padres deserved better last night, and as happy as the 50,000 or so in attendance were last night with the end result, they deserved better, too. Baseball deserves better, and until it demands just that by starting over with its crew of umpires, we're going to see the kinds of controversies that have cropped up with increasing frequency over the past few months.

--

  • What shouldn't be lost in the controversy is that the better team is advancing to the playoffs. The Padres, at full strength, are probably better than the Rockies. Short a fully operable Mike Cameron and Milton Bradley altogether, and with Chris Young not at his best, the Padres are clearly an inferior club to where they were earlier in the season. On display for the Rockies last night were two of the NL's top young players, and if neither is quite award-worthy, both walked off the field as heroes.

    Troy Tulowitzki roped four hits, including two doubles and a triple, and scored the tying run after doubling off of Trevor Hoffman in the 13th. He also made four or five terrific defensive plays, showing off good range and an excellent arm. Matt Holliday had a roller-coaster of a night, tying the game in the fifth with a single, playing a Giles fly ball into a game-tying double in the eighth, then tripling in the tying run in the 13th. The misplay in the outfield was notable because his defensive statistics are exceptional this year, and from a stathead perspective, his defensive value-on the order of two wins to the good-is a big part of his MVP case. That misjudged fly ball, of course, is already being forgotten.

  • Speaking of outfield miscues, the Padres were killed by their center fielder. Brady Clark made three plays in the sixth inning, leading to a tiebreaking run. He couldn't get to Seth Smith's deep fly with one out, and Smith went all the way to third on the play. He then made a lousy throw on Kaz Matsui's medium-depth fly to center that allowed Smith to score. The next batter, Tulowitzki, hit another deep fly ball that Clark took an awkward route to, reached, and misplayed into another triple. It's clear that Cameron would have made the second play, possible that he would have made the first, and likely that he would have made a better throw on the sac fly.

    I can't be too hard on Clark here. Despite a decent brief peak with the pre-good Brewers, he's a replacement-level outfielder, and at 34, no longer a center fielder by any definition. He's out there because the Padres lost two center fielders on consecutive days with a week to go in the season. He's being asked to do more than he's capable of doing, and his flaws cropped up at a bad time for the Padres.

  • For the second time in three days, the Padres had a lead with three outs to go in a game in which they could clinch a playoff spot, and Trevor Hoffman gave up that lead. This isn't a failing of anything other than pitching for Hoffman, who is going to the Hall of Fame not long after his playing days end. He didn't pitch well last night, and while he was better than that on Saturday in Milwaukee, the result there was much the same.

    Hoffman's struggles give us another opportunity to poke holes in the closer myth. After all, if being a closer-getting three outs with a small lead 40 times a year-is about will and desire and perseverance, shouldn't Hoffman have been able to end one of those two games in a dogpile? I can't imagine someone not having the desire to win a game that would clinch a postseason berth. If non-physical skills are so critical to being a closer, and Hoffman is one of the exemplars of that role, then why aren't the Padres playing any more baseball this year?

    The fact is, closers are just relief pitchers with a narrowly-defined role, and the way to become a closer, to be branded one, is to pitch well the first four or five times you're put in that role. It's baseball's version of witch-dunking. There's no special skill involved beyond the ones that make you a good relief pitcher-two good pitches, an ability to warm up quickly, and above-average strikeout, walk, and home-run rates. The mythology that surrounds the role is a joke, and a detriment to the game as a whole. Trevor Hoffman didn't fail as a man last night; he failed as a pitcher.

    Here's something to think about. Hoffman apparently warmed up at least three times last night, and given his usual careful handling, I have to assume that's unusual for him. It's possible that throwing more pitches than he's used to throwing in the bullpen affected his stuff when he finally entered the game. That's speculation, but it was clear that Hoffman wasn't locating well at all; he was missing away with the changeup and high with the fastball.

  • Clint Hurdle made the only obvious managerial error of the night, letting Josh Fogg bat with one out and no one on in the fourth with the Rockies down 5-4. I might have let it go, but Hurdle then removed Fogg after one batter in the fifth. If you're going to have your pitcher on that short a leash, just hit for him. I look forward to more of these in the NLDS.

  • An underrated good move was Bud Black's decision to let Scott Hairston swing away in the 13th against a struggling Jorge Julio. Too often, a leadoff baserunner in extra innings is followed by a knee-jerk sacrifice bunt unless an Approved Power Hitter is at the plate. I think I watched the Cubs and Astros lay down six sacrifices in an extra-inning game earlier this season, generating no runs along the way. You don't actually have to play small ball to win in the postseason, and it was refreshing to see Black get away from that at a key moment.

  • Looking for a random good player to watch? How about Brian Fuentes? Fuentes lost his closer role in a span of five outings in June, as his ERA more than doubled in a hail of rockets. He almost had to be pitching through an injury, because from that stretch through Sunday, he had a 1.14 ERA in 23 2/3 innings, with 26 strikeouts, 12 walks, and no home runs allowed. He's back to being the All-Star he was in 2005 and 2006. As the Rockies gear up to face the Phillies, perhaps no pitcher in their bullpen is more important than Fuentes, who may make appearances in every game to take on Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Division Series games start up tomorrow, I'm on MLB Radio at noon ET today, and Playoff Prospectuses will be going up throughout the day on the site today. Thanks again to those of you who stopped by for last night's chat!

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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