Stop me if you've heard this before.
With Ryan Braun batting against Cubs reliever Kevin Gregg (don't ask) in the eighth inning on Friday night, Brewers shortstop Jean Segura was on first. Segura seemed anxious to steal second all night (he tried to steal in the first, and might have gotten away with it, too, if Braun hadn't homered off Jeff Samardzija). On a 2-2 pitch, Segura ran on a pitch low and outside and just barely beat the throw from Welington Castillo. With the count full, Gregg refused to challenge Braun and let him take the open base at first, throwing a pitch so far in the dirt even Jeff Francoeur wouldn't swing at it.*
Cubs skipper Dale Sveum had already been kicked out of the game in the sixth after umpire Chris Guccione stared down Samardzija and Sveum exited the dugout to, ahem, protest. So the game was in the hands of acting manager Jamie Quirk, who had decided to pull Gregg and put in Shawn Camp. (You can see why you'd rather have a righty like Camp rather than a righty like Gregg to face… you know what, I got nothing.) So now the situation was Rickie Weeks at the plate, Segura at second, Braun at first. And this is where things went off the rails.
Segura took off for third, and the throw beat him there. Braun, trying to ensure that at least one runner ended up in scoring position, took off for second as Segura headed back for second. At that point, both runners were at second. Braun was tagged and called out on account of it's Segura's base and only one runner can be there. Segura came off the bag thinking he was out and was tagged as he came off the bag, so he should have been out, but halfway back to the dugout he realized that nobody had in fact called him out. So he assessed the situation, and with the ball and fielders over by second and nobody covering first, he decided to make the best of a bad situation and try to safely get to a base. So he advanced to first. If, er, you can call that advancing. Brewers first base coach Garth Iorg, in a heads-up move if I have ever seen one, gave Segura the sign to hold up at first and stop whatever the hell it was he was doing out there. You can watch the play for yourself, although sadly MLB.com has not added Yakity Sax to it:
According to rule 7.08(i), "Any runner is out when — after he has acquired legal possession of a base, he runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call 'Time' and declare the runner out." But the umpires determined that Segura wasn't trying to confuse the defense. As far as I can tell, the person who was confused on that play was Segura himself, so the umps seem to have been correct there. Now in terms of making a travesty of the game, well, your humble correspondent disagrees with the umpires, and if you don't agree with me you obviously don't have to score a baseball game, because Segura has turned every scorecard and box score of this game into a travesty. (At any rate, Segura should have been out because of a tag the umpires missed.)
Rickie Weeks proceeded to strike out, and the inning ended because Segura (who obviously had no idea when to give up) was thrown out trying to steal second for a second time. I'm kind of surprised that Ron Roenicke didn't try to hobble Segura or something at that point.
So the day after, we at Baseball Prospectus were left with the question of how to deal with these baserunning misadventures. Like so many others, internally we utilize the scoring system developed by Project Scoresheet and Retrosheet. An early-morning e-mail to the official Retrosheet mailing list prompted Mike Emeigh to respond, "I'm not sure that there IS a right way to score this." And as of this evening, it appears that there still isn't.
So on Saturday morning, we went with the path of least resistance, and in our event records we marked Braun as out attempting to steal second, and Segura as out trying to steal third. Most of our statistics were unimpacted by this coding, with the exception of some of our stolen base breakdowns and our RBI opportunity breakdowns. (And seasonal lines are never affected by event file discrepancies, as we pull those from official totals instead.)
The invaluable Ted Turocy of the Chadwick Baseball Bureau has provided an unofficial patch to the Chadwick utility that we (and many others in the baseball community) use to accommodated runners going backwards on the bases, and we've incorporated his patch and suggested event coding for the time being. This is a temporary fix; several (including Turocy and Emeigh) have suggested the incorporation of a runner adjustment record type to accommodate… well, this single play, since there really isn't another like it. (This has some precedent, as Retrosheet has a ladj record type to record when a batter hits out of lineup order.) But for right now, it's all we have (and Sean Forman from Baseball-Reference tells me he is working to incorporate the Turocy fix for the time being as well, so at the very least we'll be consistent in how we describe the play).
At its heart, baseball is a straightforward game that almost anyone can understand. But baseball also has lungs, a digestive system, eyes, ears, arms, legs, a pancreas, lymph nodes and much else besides. I have learned many strange and baffling things about the minutiae of baseball rules over the years, examining event records and writing programs to analyze them. I've learned about how you can have a run that's unearned to the team but counts as earned for the pitcher. I've learned that what we call a "ground into double play" has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it's a grounder and everything to do with whether or not there's a force or a (I am not making this up) reverse force out. I've even read and understood the entire save rule (although it took more than a few times). But I've never seen anything like this before, and I don't think I ever will again. In its own way, that is one of the many charms of baseball—no matter how much time you spend with it and how many games you see, there's always the possibility of something new.
Having said that, someone needs to teach Segura how to run the bases, because freaking seriously.
*I'm of course kidding, Jeff Francoeur has been known to swing at pickoff throws to first.