Wednesday, October 30, 2019

World Series Interference - Blame the Rule, not the Umpire

Nationals batter Trea Turner's runner's lane interference, Manager Dave Martinez's argument, and umpire Sam Holbrook's #WorldSeries ejection: here's a comprehensive analysis of the play, the history of baseball's RLI rule, and what Turner could have done differently to avoid this call.

Summary: We have a runner on first with none out. Turner hits a ground ball to Astros pitcher Brad Peacock, who throws toward first baseman Yuli Gurriel as Turner arrives at first base. Gurriel's glove collides with Turner's leg and the baseball winds up hitting Turner's thigh, resulting in HP Umpire Holbrook's call of interference. Martinez is furious and after the half-inning ends, he works himself into a tizzy and is ejected.
Related PostMLB Ejection P1 - Sam Holbrook (3; Dave Martinez) (10/29/19).

An example of RLI during the 2019 season.
Reaction: MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre says Holbrook got the call right, the media largely says otherwise, and here we are...trying to explain a controversial call to readers who probably have their own strong opinions on the matter and aren't looking to be swayed one way or the other.

Precedent: is full of prior runner's lane interference plays. For instance, Bill Miller ejected Joe Maddon in August 2018 over a properly officiated interference call.
Related PostMLB Ejection 116 - Bill Miller (1; Joe Maddon) (8/10/18).

The Rule: It always helps to start with the rule. So many people fail right out of the box because they never cite the rule, so here it is, Official Baseball Rule 5.09(a)(11): "A batter is out when—In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead."

Sidebar: OBR 5.09(a)(11) Comment states, "The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base." Be advised that a runner must be within the lane in order to exit it. It is physically impossible to exit something that one has never been in.

Turner would be safe had he run legally.
You'll notice there's nothing about a "direct route" to the base (Joe Buck), or "center of the base" (John Smoltz), "grass" (Buck), or even "allowed to be inside the line for his last step" (Tom Verducci), etc. When talking about a rule, it's generally helpful to cite the rule, so that's what we have done here. Verducci was the closest to getting the rule right, but he forgot one key aspect: a runner is not protected if said runner ran the entire length to first base to the left of (or the right of) the runner's lane.

Translation: This means that Turner could have avoided being called out for interference by doing just one thing: running within the lane at some point during his journey to first base. Replays conclusively indicate he failed to run within the lane at any point, which subjects him to an interference call if the second criterion of the rule is met: "interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base."

In the mid-1880s, the lane prevented collisions.
Brief History: The three-foot-wide runner's lane at the 45' mark was added to baseball fields in 1882 (National League) and 1884 (American Association), and its purpose was to prevent collisions between batter-runners and first basemen (sound familiar?). This is because in the 19th century, first base was located half in fair territory and half in foul territory. The prevailing logic was that the lane would guide the runner to the foul territory half of the bag, while the fielder would tag the fair territory side, thus preventing injury.

In 1887, first base moved, but the lane stayed.
In 1887, however, the NL and AA agreed to move first and third base 7.5 inches toward second base, so as to place both bases entirely within fair ground—which would make adjudicating fair/foul near the corner bases a whole lot easier.

Yet the runner's lane remained in its foul territory location, and a rule was subsequently adopted to give the batter-runner permission to exit the lane in the vicinity of first base in order to touch the base, which was now entirely in fair territory—to cross over, so to speak.

1B collisions in the present era are rare.
Fast forward to today, collisions between runners and first basemen are exceedingly rare (unless you're Manny Machado), yet the lane and interference rules remain. As former umpire Jim Evans once opined, "Going to first you have the runner's lane, which the runner is supposed to stay in, which I think is really antiquated. The runner's lane violation was to prevent the collisions at first base, not interference with the throw."

Sidebar: Softball solves this problem by having two bases sitting next to each other: one for the fielder and one for the runner.

Interference Analysis: The intriguing part about Turner's interaction with Gurriel is that a minor collision, of sorts, actually did occur in that Gurriel's hand/wrist/glove made contact with Turner in fair territory.

This video analysis is extremely detailed.
Yes, Turner had reason to be in fair territory in the immediate vicinity of first base (to touch it), but he got there illegally—by running to the left of the lane the entire way down the baseline.

To review, here's the first professional rules interpretation from Wendelstedt (Evans agrees, as do all codes): "A runner that is running the entire distance outside of the running lane will not be protected if he interferes with a play at first base, even if it is in his last stride or step to the base. In order to be protected, this last step must be when he first exits the running lane" (recall that in order to exit, one must first be within).

For illustration's sake, here's Evans: "A runner who has advanced the entire distance from home plate to first in fair territory making no effort to run within the lane is not extended the same leniency as the runner who runs in the lane as required and then cuts into fair territory near the base to touch it."

The second concerns the throw: "The determination is not whether the throw is true, but whether it could still reasonably retire the runner."

This throw could have retired the runner.
Because of the contact between Gurriel and Turner, which occurred a fraction of a second prior to the ball arriving at the point of contact, it is ultimately unclear whether the throw would have retired Turner. As such, it can be said that the throw could have reasonably retired him...not that it would have for it might not have, but it could have, and in this situation, the rulebook gives the benefit of the doubt to the fielder because of the runner's violation of the lane rule.

The throw may not have been great, but that isn't the rule...we're not looking for a "true" throw...we're just looking for whether it could have reasonably retired the runner.

In July, a similar play resulted in RLI.
While Gurriel's left arm stretched for the tailing throw, his glove ran into Turner's hip before the ball arrived at the plane even with Gurriel's glove at the point of contact with Turner, which means we'll never know if Gurriel would have caught the ball...but he could have, and that's what breaks the tie.

Similar RLI Call: Here's an example. In July 2019, Chris Segal ejected Jeff Banister for arguing a correctly officiated runner's lane interference call against Rangers batter Carlos Tocci. It was a similar circumstance: the runner advanced the entire distance from home plate to first base in fair territory and not within the lane, the throw was sailing into foul territory, the fielder at first base stretching to receive it, and the ball hit the runner. "Time. That's interference."
Related PostMLB Ejection 090 - Chris Segal (3; Jeff Banister) (7/8/18).

We'll never know if it would have been caught.
Possible Rules Absurdity: Had the exact same interaction between Turner and Gurriel occurred at first base, but instead, Turner had been running legally in the runner's lane the entire time, then Turner would not have been out for interference. In other words, the only difference between being safe and out here is not simply the interference that occurred that occurred at first base, but Turner failing to run in the lane AND also interfering with Gurriel at first base.

Finally, bear in mind that the fact that the runner may have beaten the ball to the base is irrelevant: we're looking for the fielder to catch the ball in front of the base, not waiting for the ball to get to the base itself. The image above illustrates the ball arriving at the point where the fielder's glove ended up while the batter's foot had not yet touched first base.

Whether the rule itself is fine or needs work is a legitimate debate, but this analysis pertains solely to Holbrook's enforcement of the rule and whether this was RLI. Blame the rule, not the umpire, for the umpire is tasked with calling the rule.

Verdict: This is runner's lane interference, Sam Holbrook's call was correct.

One more note: Crew Chief Gary Cederstrom and Holbrook put on the replay headsets to speak with Alan Porter and the MLBAM replay room in New York not for the purposes of reviewing the play (it's not reviewable), but in order to conduct a rules check to ensure the rule was properly enforced. Washington's attempted protest was rejected because a judgment call cannot be protested (the RLI rule clearly states "in the umpire's judgment" while OBR 7.04 states in part, "No protest shall ever be permitted on judgment decisions by the umpire").

Further Reading: For a more comprehensive overview of runner's lane interference and examples of similar plays, refer to the following play from the 2018 World Series in Los Angeles. For reference, both tmac and I had RLI on the 2018 Steve Pearce-Cody Bellinger play linked below and, to be consistent, it would follow that we have RLI here as well. Again, the key is that the runner was illegal the entire time to first base by virtue of failing to run within the runner's lane.
Related PostRunner's Lane Interference - 2018 World Series Edition (10/28/18).

Video as follows:

Alternate Link: Analysis of Ump Holbrook's RLI Call That Got Davey Dumped (CCS)


Post a Comment