Thursday, October 26, 2017

Leaping Laz - Pickoff Throw at Second Base Hits Umpire

After Astros pitcher Chris Devenski's errant pickoff throw struck 2B Umpire Laz Diaz, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts fielded a reporter's question concerning the incident during his postgame press conference, conceding that, "Laz was in the right position," before graciously concluding with a smile, "that's baseball, things like that happen."

Houston skipper AJ Hinch quipped, "Laz was perfectly positioned, right where we wanted him."

Was Diaz properly positioned for the pickoff play at second? Let's review the sequence.

2B Umpire Laz Diaz jumps as a ball hits him.
The Play: With two out and the Dodgers having freshly tied the ballgame in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, Astros pitcher Devenski attempted to pickoff baserunner R2 and potential winning run Kiké Hernández at second base. Devenski's throw to second baseman Jose Altuve was off the mark and to the left side of second base, where it hit 2B Umpire Diaz, who was moving into position to rule on the potential tag play at second base. After hitting Diaz, the ball bounced on the infield dirt, where it was retrieved by Altuve before any advancement by the runner. The Dodgers failed to score and the Astros ultimately won the contest, 7-5, in 11 innings.

Ruling Out Interference: Perhaps at this point it is just a formality, but we nonetheless should quickly address the issue of umpire interference, so as to rule it out. Official Baseball Rule 6.01(f) discusses two, and only two, scenarios when umpire interference may occur:
(1) when a plate umpire hinders, impedes or prevents a catcher’s throw attempting to prevent a stolen base or retire a runner on a pick-off play, or 
(2) when a fair ball touches an umpire on fair territory before passing a fielder. Umpire interference may also occur when an umpire interferes with a catcher returning the ball to the pitcher.
OBR also further discusses the first case in 5.06(c)(2): "The plate umpire interferes with the catcher’s throw attempting to prevent a stolen base or retire a runner on a pick-off play; runners may not advance. NOTE: The interference shall be disregarded if the catcher’s throw retires the runner."
Related PostRules 2.00 & 6.01(f): Umpire Interference (7/5/12).

Diagram of middle infield positions, B & C.
Positioning Analysis: With umpire interference ruled out, it follows that an umpire hit by a thrown ball is part of the playing field—the ball is live ("A pitched or thrown ball touches an umpire...the ball is alive and in play")—but this doesn't necessarily indicate Wednesday night's contact was unavoidable.

For plays with a runner on second base only, the MLB Umpire Manual recommends the second base umpire position himself inside the fielders, though umpires are not necessarily restricted to inside positioning if they are more comfortable outside.

This isn't the first deviation from MLBUM...
This is consistent with MLBUM's general principle that second base umpires are always in with runners on base (except a runner on third only OR an infield-in situation). Is there a two-out exemption? Not for a runner on second, though if the fielders aren't all that deep, that will dictate how deep a second base umpire will be, as an umpire should be out with a drawn-in infield.

Still, the issue isn't so much whether Diaz is in or out here, since, presumably, a drawn-in Diaz on the shortstop side would have simply had even less time to react to the wayward pickoff attempt. Again, it's probably more comfortable to be outside for this play (assuming a left side lock)—it might even help one stay away from a potential umpire interference situation on a batted ball up the middle—and that's quite alright.
Related Post: Much About Second Base & Stolen Pickoff Positioning (4/8/17).

Pick a Side: The question has to do with that great alphabetical divide, to B or not to B (to C)?

Which angle would be more helpful here?
Diaz takes this play positioned on the shortstop side of second base and outside, which gives him the advantage of not having to contend with second baseman Altuve running in toward the pickoff throw. We'll call this position "C-out."

However, taking the play from the left side also opens Diaz up to exactly what happened here—getting nailed by a poor pickoff throw. Taking the play from the right side, on the other hand, greatly weakens this possibility and can be beneficial toward getting an angle on the tag vs runner back into the bag.

Diagram of ordinary umpire positioning.
Refer to the "C Left / B Right" diagram, and imagine, if you will, the various angles that a second base umpire may have for a potential pickoff throw with the second baseman covering. The best angle is probably coming from deep B, inside of second base ("B-in"), while the worst may very well be a similarly right-side position, but well outside of second base.

The key is getting into position to see the leading, third-base-facing edge of second base—where percentages dictate the tag attempt most likely will occur. Recall from 2016 our discussion of the keyhole angle and our projected action area wherein an umpire reads the play and predicts where the imminent tag will occur before it actually happens.
Related Post: Tmac's Teachable Moments - Steal Plays at 3rd Base (7/21/16).

Find the keyhole to increase call accuracy.
The reverse angle of B-in is C-out (which is where Diaz approximately was), which should logically mean that C-out is second-best to B-in, right? If B is about halfway between first and second base, and deep B is further up the baseline/closer to second, then isn't C-out just a logical extension of the B-line akin to the first- or third-baseline extended position for a plate umpire (e.g., "really really deep B")?

Again, the issue isn't solely about positioning, it's about positioning in context of a projected play: If the throw is proper, does Diaz's position afford him the best opportunity to observe the keyhole angle?
Related Post: Tmac's Teachable Moments - Pickoff Tag at First Base (5/15/16).

Tie Breaker: With a tag attempt likely going toward B-in and away from C-out (swipe directionally will go from left-center to the right foul line), B-in is the better position: in general, a tag coming toward an umpire's vision makes the play easier to call and a tag going away is harmful (though a tag running perpendicular to the umpire's stance is ideal, as long as one can count on clearing the fielder or runner so as to actually see the play). Because the tag in this situation likely will be on the left side of the runner's body (the outfield side), viewing from the second base side is beneficial. However, if the throw and tag were to go right-left, C-side would likely fare better than B-side.

In Short: It's about umpire comfort and playing the percentages. Predicting a left-to-right swipe would be an argument in favor of B-in, while a right-to-left could swing things C-ward. For this particular play, assuming a proper throw, we have a pitcher who in all likelihood is throwing to the left/C-side of second base, a tag being made to the C-left side, and a left-to-right attempt (again, to clarify, left-to-right refers to the field... because Altuve is facing the reverse direction, the tag will run from the right side of his body to the left side of his body, or, conversely, left-to-right on Hernandez's body). Removing this assumption of accuracy from our arsenal, we're left with a poor throw to deep C, which means one thing: advantage B.

Video as follows:
Alternate Link: 'Stros P Devenski misfires and nails Diaz, effectively holding Hernandez at second (FOX)


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