Thursday, October 18, 2018

West's Upheld Fan Interference Call is Growth Opportunity

MLB's problem Wednesday night was not that RF Umpire Joe West ruled Astros batter Jose Altuve out for spectator interference against Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, it's that replay couldn't produce ample video evidence with which to review the call with any meaningful level of conclusiveness. West's call stood, and, right or not, it speaks to a technological shortcoming to one extreme puts all of baseball's video engineers on notice, while, to the other extreme, begs the question, "why even have replay at all?"

Did a fan interfere with Betts in Houston?
The Play: With one out and one on (R1), Astros batter Altuve hit a 2-1 fastball from Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello to deep right field, where Boston' Betts jumped at the wall in an attempt to catch Altuve's fly ball, and, in doing so, made contact with fans similarly attempting to catch the batted ball.

The Call: RF Umpire West ruled the play not simply spectator interference, but specifically interference with a fielder whose opportunity to catch a batted ball was prevented. Accordingly, West enforced the prescribed penalty of nullifying the act by declaring Altuve out and placing baserunner Springer back at first base. Upon Replay Review, West's call stood; instead of a potential two-run home run, Houston did not score a single run during the inning. Naturally, Houston lost the game by two runs.

SIDEBAR: This isn't West's first fan interference out rodeo. On September 4, 2011, West ejected Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel for arguing an instant replay ruling that resulted in a fan interference out call in right field when Florida fans similarly interfered with the fielder's ability to catch a live ball.
Related VideoWest ejects Manuel for arguing fan interference on Pence's fly ball (9/4/11).

The Rule: By now, we all know that "spectator interference occurs when a spectator (or an object thrown by the spectator) hinders a player’s attempt to make a play on a live ball, by going onto the playing field, or reaching out of the stands and over the playing field" (and 6.01(e)'s approved ruling, "If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out").

Diagram depicting where a fan may legally be.
Precedent: And from our repository of fan interference discussions, we know that the playing field area is considered everything from the base of the padding on the outfield wall extended vertically upward. If the fan remains on the spectator side of this plane, there is no interference. if the fan breaches this plane—even by a fingernail—and subsequently hinder's a player's attempt to make a play on a live ball, then this illegal act qualifies as interference.

Now, I'd like to point out one key piece of information, regardless of West's call. Notice the annotated interference diagram, taken from a Padres-Rockies game earlier this season. Notice anything interesting, as compared to what we saw in Houston Wednesday night?

Is this really a useful angle for this play?
All About The Angle: In Colorado, during the regular season, we were treated to a camera angle fairly perpendicular to the relative boundary plane for this play. We're essentially looking "down the line" so to speak such that we can better determine whether the fan was on the legal (right) or illegal (left) side of the boundary plane.

In Houston, during the penultimate round of the postseason, we had absolutely no broadcast footage of a camera along the fence-line. Instead, we're treated to competing views taken from across the playing field such that judging depth becomes a most improbable task.

In comparing Wednesday's Houston play to 2011's Florida play, the biggest help to West in 2011 was that the fans reached below the height of the wall. Had the fans remained above the height of the wall, a similar angle confoundment may have occurred.

How far is this fan reaching past the wall?
Physically and visually, the higher atop the wall the fans reach, the more difficult it is to discern whether or not their arms or hands have broken the boundary plane. It goes without saying that the plane extends vertically upward an infinite distance; if a stadium was so designed, a fan sitting in the front row of the second deck could potentially commit spectator interference. And speaking of stadium design...why even have fans in a position to interfere at all? But that's another topic for another day.

For an example of this version of parallax, consider this August 2017 play from AT&T Park where a fan reached to catch a batted ball.

The fan's arm overhangs the green roof.
Ground rules aside (in San Francisco, the rule is "home run" if the ball lands on any fair part of the green metal roof, making right field at AT&T Park one of the easiest situations to officiate as fan interference is highly unlikely to occur except as it relates to fair/foul), the spectator is clearly reaching above the green metal roof, and by at least a half-arm's length. It's difficult to tell, and not at all clear nor convincing from the first angle taken from what looks to be foul territory behind home plate or first base.

The only predictable part about this play, given the replays provided, was that it resulted in a "call stands" outcome. There is absolutely no way that Replay Official James Hoye could realistically, conclusively, or convincingly find enough evidence to confirm or overturn West's on-field ruling based on the poor angles given.

In the postseason, if baseball wants replay to work, the sport has to do better. Otherwise, get rid of it.

SIDEBAR: Houston last fell prey to a spectator interference air out after Replay Review on July 25, 2018, at Coors Field.
Related PostFact Check - Bregman's Fan Interference Out (7/26/18).

Video as follows:
Alternate Link: Altuve is ruled out on upheld fan interference call during Houston's Game 4 loss (TBS)


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