One of the early controversies of 2010 was umpire Cowboy Joe West calling out the Yankees and Red Sox for their incredibly slow pace of play. As these things tend to do, this evolved into a larger discussion on whether games are going too slowly and what things could be done to speed up pace of play without unduly hurrying pitchers and hitters, and thereby decreasing the quality of the game.
In light of that, it seems untoward to talk about a subject that would inherently slow games and even grind them to a halt. However, with Chris Young’s “drop”turning into a four base error/ home run for Jayson Werth on Sunday and Denard Span’s turning the tideof the Twins–Tigers game just three days later, instant replay is once again a topic of discussion.
The applicable clause in the rulebook’s definition of a catch for both of these plays is: “In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.” Both players felt they had met this criterion, but the umpires didn't agree.
In both cases, the outfielder caught the ball—here I don’t mean the rulebook definition of caught, since only the umpires can decide that for certain; I mean that they stopped the momentum of the batted ball, causing it to rest in their gloves with a velocity of zero—and then as they put their hand in their glove, the ball popped out. In both cases, the umpires ruled that the ball never came to rest and hit the ground as part of a continuous motion. This is relevant, because as soon as the ball comes to rest, the call should be a made catch. Even on the quickest flips and turns, a baseball glove is not a jai alai cesta; the ball comes to rest at some point.
Consider what happens on a similar play in the infield. A ground ball is hit to the left side, the shortstop makes a good stop but a bad throw to second that that the second baseman has trouble handling, and the ball hits the ground. With the second base umpire standing right over the play, he has a good view of whether the second baseman successfully caught the flip and dropped it on the exchange, or whether the throw was simply too poor and the ball was never really caught.
Both of these plays occurred deep in the outfield—Young was in right-center, Span in left-center—well away from the umpire’s standard station.
Third base umpire Paul Emmel was the umpire in question for Span’s play, and while it isn’t clear on the replay, the live broadcast showed he was no more than a few steps out of the infield when Span made his play. Being as generous as one can be and remain objective, Emmel was in no position to see Span squeeze the ball. When it hit the ground, he drew the conclusion that the ball was never caught.
Emmel broke the first rule of being an umpire in his positioning for Span’s play. Rule 9.05, paragraph 10 reads, “Most important rule for umpires is always ‘BE IN POSITION TO SEE EVERY PLAY.’ Even though your decision may be 100-percent right, players still question it if they feel you were not in a spot to see the play clearly and definitely.”
So, establishing that he was in the wrong and that he made a mistake, it would seem that Emmel’s call would have been reversed if it went under review. Surprisingly, I don’t think it would be. He made a mistake on that play, something I’m sure he’d admit in private now if he saw it replayed, but the circumstances of the play leave the umpires’ hands a bit tied.
Austin Jackson was on first base and took off with the pitch. He was rounding second base when Emmel signaled there was no catch, and he ended up on third base. The ball came into the infield and was thrown back to pitcher Scott Baker with no throw made back to first base.
If the correct call is made from the start, my hunch is that Jackson scampers back to first base safely, but on a close play. Span has a good arm and Jackson was a long way from safety. In either case, the ball goes to first base and we have a clear call of Jackson’s position (out or safe, but certainly at first base if he’s safe).
If the play is reviewed and overturned, what becomes of Jackson? He was reliant on Emmel for where to go, is it right that when the play is overturned that he’s called out since the ball certainly would have gone back to first had the play been called correctly? Is it right to call him safe at first because the play would have been close? What if that had been Miguel Cabrera on the bases, who Span likely would have thrown out by a goodly margin? There doesn’t seem to be a good solution here.
In the video clip of Young’s error, you can see second base umpire Dale Scott running toward center field, though he ends up out of frame when Young makes the disputed catch. While his positioning is better than Emmel's, he is still probably too far away to make the call properly.
For Scott, there’s no way to even call a conference without admitting that he was out of position, and while the end of rule 9.05, paragraph nine reads, “Umpire dignity is important but never as important as ‘being right,’” Scott has to be willing to admit that he was neglectful in his positioning, and that’s a lot to ask on what amounts to a judgment call. No other umpire was even close to that play, so overturning the call isn’t going to be a case of someone having a better view; it would be Scott admitting he was wrong. Even if he sees it on replay, my hunch is that he would probably feel that it was close enough to merit a judgment call and that he was right the first time. I don’t mean to demean Scott here, I believe most umpires would feel similarly on this particular call.
This is the paradox of expanded replay. If it’s in effect, both of these games are stopped, but neither call is likely to be reversed, even though both easily could. Few plays in baseball are really clear-cut unless there’s no one on base. While there can be game-critical calls with the bases empty, especially in tight games, the biggest calls will always be those that occur with runners on, and that muddies the waters. Any blanket solution (i.e. all runners return to the bases vacated on the fly ball if a non-catch call is overturned via replay) invariably produces situations where that outcome is patently unfair to one team or the other.
Whenever calls like these two occur, there’s a justifiable outcry for better decision-making amongst umpires. Expansion to other boundary calls would seem to be easier, but the baserunner problem arises once again. The truth is that in both of these cases, it’s unlikely that replay makes the difference that fans seem to hope it would, and it comes at a great cost in terms of pace-of-play and perhaps even fan interest.