Saturday, March 4, 2023

Is Max Scherzer's Set Position Pitch Clock Strategy Legal?

Mets pitcher Max Scherzer labored into the third inning of New York's Spring Training game against Washington with a peculiar strategy to use the pitch clock to his advantage while throwing batters off their rhythm. But with HP Umpire Jeremy Riggs calling multiple infractions, is Scherzer's gamesmanship legal or a violation of the rules?

One week into Spring Training, Scherzer took the mound with a new approach to pitching to a clock. After surrendering a single to Nationals batter Ildemaro Vargas, Scherzer shifted tactics for ensuing batter Victor Robles, assuming Set Position as soon as possible in an effort to catch Vargas off guard for the ensuing delivery to home plate. HP Umpire Riggs, however, called Scherzer for a balk on his first attempt—the Mets ace had begun his delivery prior to the Nats batter becoming fully set and "alert" in the box.

Official Baseball Rule 6.02(a)(5) states that it is a balk when a pitcher makes an illegal pitch: "A quick pitch is an illegal pitch. Umpires will judge a quick pitch as one delivered before the batter is reasonably set in the batter’s box. With runners on base the penalty is a balk; with no runners on base, it is a ball. The quick pitch is dangerous and should not be permitted."

It is of little dispute that beginning one's delivery prior to the batter looking toward the mound constitutes a quick return pitch. With a runner on, this was called a balk.

As the inning progressed, it appeared Scherzer played more and more clock games, including the come-set-before-the-batter-gets-ready race and the make-the-batter-request-"Time"-and-exhaust-their-limit-of-one-"Time"-per-at-bat. If the batter did manage to assume alertness before Scherzer arrived at Set Position, Scherzer would simply hold the ball and wait until the pitch clock neared expiration prior to starting his delivery (Riggs called Scherzer for a time-expired violation once in the inning).

Insofar as a pitcher coming Set prior to the batter's readiness, the rules (namely 5.07(a)(2) regarding Set Position) do not outlaw the move: the rule simply requires the batter come set before delivering to the batter (we're assuming Set Position and not Windup is used). If there are runners, the pitcher must momentarily stop in Set prior to pitching (penalty: no-stop balk).

But there is no restriction in timing of when a pitch is first allowed to come set. Thus, Scherzer's strategy is legal, although the potential cost of messing with one's own timing and cadence (Scherzer's line was 2.2 IP, 7 R) may out-weight the potential benefits.

Video as follows:

Friday, March 3, 2023

Orioles Runner, Awarded 3rd, Called Out at 2nd on Appeal

Despite Orioles runner Maverick Handley being awarded third base on a ball out of play, Pittsburgh nonetheless retired him at second for an inning-ending Spring Training double play. How can an umpire call a runner out despite a base award? Article:

With one out and one on (R2 Handley), Orioles batter Robert Neustrom hits a fly ball into foul territory, near the first base dugout. Pirates catcher Jason Delay catches the ball before stepping into the dugout (the second step [step below dugout lip] is considered “into the dugout”). HP Umpire Derek Thomas declares Neustrom out on the catch and calls “Time” to award R2 Handley third base on the catch-and-carry into dead ball territory.

This is a legal catch pursuant to Official Baseball Rule 5.09(a)(1) Comment: "A fielder may reach into, but not step into, a dugout to make a catch, and if they hold the ball, the catch shall be allowed. A fielder, in order to make a catch on a foul ball nearing a dugout or other out-of-play area (such as the stands), must have one or both feet on or over the playing surface (including the lip of the dugout) and neither foot on the ground inside the dugout or in any other out-of-play area."

When the ball is put back into play, Pirates pitcher Kyle Nicolas throws to second baseman Nick Gonzalez, who steps on second base to appeal that R2 Handley failed to retouch second base after catcher Delay’s catch. 2B Umpire and Crew Chief Chad Fairchild affirms the appeal and calls Handley out to end the inning.

The Official Baseball Rules state that a runner must fulfill their base running responsibilities—including base touches [and retouches]—even when they are awarded bases and the ball has become dead…otherwise they may be appealed on and declared out for failing to touch a base.

For reference, OBR 5.06(b)(3) states, "Each runner, other than the batter, may without liability to be put out, advance one base when—A fielder, after catching a fly ball, steps or falls into any out-of-play area" while 5.06(b)(3)(C) Comment states, "If a fielder, after having made a legal catch, should step or fall into any out-of-play area, the ball is dead and each runner shall advance one base, without liability to be put out, from their last legally touched base at the time the fielder entered such out-of-play area."

(Think, for instance, about a home run hit out of the playing field. This is technically a four-base award, but the batter and any runners must touch all bases in order before scoring, even though the ball has become dead and they have been awarded bases.)

A Look at Crew Chief Replay Review Statistics

Here at Closecallsports, replay guru TMAC has watched every single replay, charting each one since the inception of expanded video review. Besides needing a hobby, over the next few weeks TMAC will share that data with you in three parts. The first analysis was of all the MiLB Call-up umpires.  For that data look here:

We now turn our attention to MLB crew chiefs. SPOILER ALERT: There may be some newly promoted names in the following list! We will formally announce the new chiefs at a later date.

In 2022 there were 670 calls overturned (OT) by the replay system, or one in every 3.63 games.  Remember there are four umpires assigned to regular season affairs so that comes to one OT, every 14.5 games as the average for each umpire.  If 14.5 is the barometer, you will notice some better and some not quite up to the MLB average.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Two Runners, One Base - Rules & Situation Handling Review

Two Duluth baserunners found themselves standing on the same base during a Northwoods League game at Rochester when the catcher tagged both players. The third base umpire declared one of them out, but rather than call the other out as well when he stepped off the base, incorrectly believing he was out, the play was declared dead. What happened?

With runners on second and third base and one out, the batter hits an infield ground ball, resulting in a rundown as lead/preceding baserunner R3 becomes stuck between home and third base. The defense runs R3 back to third base, where R2, having advanced, is now standing. The catcher tags both R2 and R3 while both runners are in contact with third base. As the umpire declares R2 out, R3 steps off the base (incorrectly believing he was out), resulting in yet another tag by the catcher.

Although the umpire initially called "Time" instead of calling R3 out for being tagged while off of a base, the crew convened to discuss the play, correctly opting to reverse the erroneous "Time" call and declare R3 out, resulting in an inning-ending double play.

Tmac takes us through the game management sequence that follows, including discussing the outcome of the play with the aggrieved manager. The relevant rule is Official Baseball Rule 5.06(a)(2): "Two runners may not occupy a base, but if, while the ball is alive, two runners are touching a base, the following runner shall be out when tagged and the preceding runner is entitled to the base, unless Rule 5.06(b)(2) applies" (OBR 5.06(b)(2) simply states that if there is a FORCE PLAY wherein the trailing runner [R2 in this scenario] is forced to advanced by the virtue of the batter becoming a runner, then the TRAILING RUNNER [R2] would be entitled to the base and R3 would be out of if tagged while in simultaneous contact with the bag while R2 was standing on it).

Video as follows:

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Pirates & Orioles Play Without Umpires in 9th Inning

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles played a half inning without MLB umpires present after the officiating crew left the field in the middle of the 9th inning. Why did the umpires leave before the teams called it a day? It all has to do with the Official Baseball Rules.

Pittsburgh held a 7-4 lead over Baltimore in the top of the 9th inning when a groundout resulted in the third out and thus conclusion of the inning's top half.

Under normal circumstances, the third out of the top of the 9th inning when the home team is leading results in the end of the game: "The game ends when the visiting team completes its half of the ninth inning if the home team is ahead" (OBR 7.01(g)(1)). However, Pittsburgh and Baltimore wanted to play out the bottom of the 9th inning to get more field time in during Spring Training. Surely the umpires could have stayed to officiate three more outs, right?

Wrong. Umpires are tasked with enforcing the rules as written, and the rules state the game is over pursuant to OBR 7.01(g)(1)—three outs in the top of the 9th inning when the home team is ahead.

OBR 8.01(a) makes this responsibility clear: "The umpires shall be responsible for the conduct of the game in accordance with these official rules and for maintaining discipline and order on the playing field during the game."

By rule, the game ended after the third out in the top of the 9th inning, meaning the umpires' in-game duties—such as calling balls and strikes, safes and outs, and fairs and fouls—had ended.

More a concern at lower levels of play, the concept of officials' liability thus takes center stage. In general, a sports official such as a referee or umpire enjoys certain organizational protections—whether afforded by the league, conference, association, and/or insurance network—throughout the scope of their ordinary duties, which includes adhering to the rules as written.

Any playing action that occurs after the game is considered ended/over pursuant to the rules is thus considered unofficial—a scrimmage, a forfeit, etc. Due to liability—risk of injury, risk of controversy, risk of other damages—sports officials are generally not covered during unsanctioned gameplay, which is what Pittsburgh-Baltimore's bottom of the 9th ultimately was. And for that reason, Chief Chad Fairchild called in his crew and they dutifully left the playing field at the conclusion of the game, as delineated by the rules.

You might also notice that the official scorer likewise recorded this game as final following the top of the ninth inning.

Box: Baltimore Orioles vs Pittsburgh Pirates (Spring Training), 2/28/23 | Video as follows:

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Pitcher Pitch Clock Violations & Balks Join Spring

Not to be outdone by batter violations of MLB's pitch clock rule, a smattering of pitcher violations for failing to begin delivery prior to the expiration of time, exceeding step-offs, and no-stop balks to try and beat the timer joined Spring Training, giving umpires even more pace of play calls to make due to baseball's new timing and procedure rules.

As previously discussed, batter pitch clock violations occur when the 30- (between batters), 20- (between pitches with runners on base), or 15-second (between pitches with the bases empty) pitch clock reaches the eight-second mark while the batter isn't yet ready and alert to the pitcher—namely, looking in the pitcher's direction while standing in the batter's box and in a hitting stance or a position that can immediately transform into a hitting stance. A batter's violation of the pitch clock rule results in an automatic strike added to the count.

Pitchers can also violate the rule by allowing the clock to reach zero seconds without starting their delivery to the batter or stepping off/disengaging the rubber. The pitcher is allowed up to two 'free' step-offs per at-bat with runners on base, provided that the pitcher may technically throw over a third time but if they fail to pickoff or otherwise retire the runner on that third time, the umpire shall call a balk. The disengagement limit "resets" to two in the event a runner advances (e.g., due to a stolen base or balk).

A pitcher's violation of the pitch clock rule results in an automatic ball. This video highlights a defensive pitch clock violation by the White Sox, a non-reset of the clock when Guardians pitcher James Karinchak wanted a new baseball (was this call correct? we break down the rule!), and a three-disengagement violation with the Red Sox.

Finally, umpires should also be aware of the potential for pitchers to more frequently commit pre-existing old-fashioned balk infractions, namely violations of the "stop" requirement with runners on base. For instance, a pitcher with runners on base and sensing a pitch clock is about to expire might rush through Set Position without stopping, as is required, which would result in a balk. This is what occurred when Seattle pitcher Logan Rinehart tried beating the clock and rushed through delivery, resulting in a no-stop balk.

Video as follows:

Sunday, February 26, 2023

MLB Game Ends on Critical Pitch Clock Violation's Auto-K3

Atlanta's 9th inning rally fell short Saturday when the Braves' three-run comeback bid abruptly ended on a two-out, 3-2 count, bases loaded...automatic strike call due to batter Cal Conley not being in the box and alert to Red Sox pitcher Robert Kwiatkowski prior to the eight-second mark of the pitch clock's 20-second (with runners on base) countdown.

Atlanta had scored three runs turning a 6-3 deficit into a tied game when Conley threatened to win the game for the Braves, what with baserunner Eli White representing the winning run at third base. Instead, HP Umpire John Libka called "Time" and imposed an automatic strike upon batter Conley due to the pitch clock violation, resulting in the at-bat's third strike, inning's third out, and—because of Spring Training—the game's conclusion with a 6-6 tie.

This the second consecutive day since Spring Training began that a pitch clock violation resulted in an automatic strike, albeit the first time that a pitch clock violation effectively ended a ballgame at the major league level. On Friday, HP Umpire Ryan Blakney called Padres batter Manny Machado for an auto-strike due to the batter failing to be ready and alert at the eight-second mark of the countdown clock.

To review, a batter must be ready to go (in the box and alert to the pitcher) at the eight-second mark while the pitcher must be ready to go (the pitching motion must begin) prior to the zero-second mark of the countdown clock. A batter's violation results in an automatic strike while a pitcher's violation results in an auto-ball.

The countdown timer is 30 seconds between batters, 20 seconds between pitches with runners on base (clock starts when pitcher receives return ball), and 15 seconds between pitches with the bases empty.

Video as follows: