Tie Goes to the Runner?

It’s surprising how frequently this issue comes up: Tie goes to the runner. I get emails through the web site, or I’m approached by people who know I’m an umpire, and the thing people want to vent about are the close plays at first base: the runner’s foot hits the bag and the ball hits the fielder’s glove in what appears to be the same instant. The umpire calls the runner out and all hell breaks loose.

Once upon a time, we all played by this rule. We played this rule in our youth, on school playgrounds and sandlots. It was the rule and it served us well. There were no umpires on the sandlots, and close plays at first base were (and remain) the cause of most disputes. So when consensus and arguments failed, the rule (that rule) helped settled the arguments. In those days, on those ball fields, ties went to the runner.


Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball

Nope, ties do not go to the runner. Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball. Not where there’s an umpire making the call. Rather, the prevailing interpretation is that the runner must beat the throw; if he doesn’t, he’s out. That’s the right call. And that’s where the arguments begin.

The discrepancy between the sandlot rule and the Big League rule is interesting, because to a certain extent, the discrepancy exists in a vacuum. The fact is, there is no rule in the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) that offers any guidance in cases where both events (runner’s foot touching the base, and the ball reaching the fielder’s glove), when they occur at exactly the same time. The prevailing (but still controversial) interpretation, that the runner must beat the throw, has but shadowy standing in the OBR. Part of the problem is that there’s no rule covering this situation; at the same time, however, there are rules, three of them, that surround the issue, and the three don’t fully agree. Therein lies one of the several shadowy seams whose ambiguous threads wind around the OBR like the stitching on a baseball.


There are three rules

The fact is, three rules apply, but none of them apply directly to the case of a tie, so you end up with a Bermuda Triangle of rules that surround the issue, and between them all is a foggy interpretation that relies more on tradition than rule.

Here are the three rules. I’ve trimmed them to their essentials (click the links for the full text):

Rule 5.09(a)(10)
[formerly 6.05(j)]
A batter is out when … After a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base
Rule 5.09(b)(6)
[formerly 7.08(e)]
A runner is out when … He or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base
Rule 5.06(a)(1)
[formerly 7.01]
A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out

It doesn’t take too close of a reading to see the contradiction. The first two [5.09(a) and 5.09(b)] make it quite clear that a runner is out if he or the base (when a force) are touched before the runner reaches the base. However, the third rule we cited [5.06(a)(1)] is equally clear that a runner is safe so long as he reaches a base before he or the base (when a force) are tagged.

What we have from the rules, then, is this: On one hand, the runner must beat the throw or tag to be safe, while on the other hand the defense must beat the runner to the bag to get the out. It appears that when the two events are simultaneous, the umpire should flip a coin to determine which of the rules to apply. The mind boggles.

In all of the OBR, the only mention of a tie is in connection with handling a tie score, for example, when a game is suspended. There is neither mention nor guidance of the case of simultaneous events (ties), and because of this, there exists a great black hole at the center of the baseball galaxy that we orbit, day after day, game after game, play after play, argument after argument.


There are no ties in baseball

As ingrained as tie-goes-to-the-runner is in sandlot and playground baseball, an equally time-honored expression among baseball insiders (and umpires in particular) is the axiom that there are no ties in baseball. The axiom was likely spawned, at least in part, by the black hole we’ve just discovered.

Clearly, though – if we’re honest with ourselves – it is not true that there are no ties. The fact is, there are ties on the base path not infrequently. Let’s stay with the play at first base for a moment. Among the many perfections of baseball, the length of the base path (90 feet) has proved an enduring testament to man’s ability (every now and then) to get things right. Legendary sports writer Red Smith said it well: “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.” What he means is, the balance between offense and defense is nearly perfectly balanced by those perfect 90 feet.

A batted ball to the infield will almost always produce an out if the defense plays the ball cleanly, without a bobble or an error. Add a bobble to the play and you probably have a close play (bang-bang), and even a small chance that a fast runner will beat the throw and be safe at first. (Ichiro did this in Seattle on a regular basis.) Misplay the ball more severely than a simple bobble, and the runner is safe close to half the time. Misplay the ball entirely and the runner is almost always safe.

The point is, the balance between the defense and the offense on a batted ball to the infield is nearly perfect, so much so that almost all plays at first base are relatively close, and a great many are so close they’re a challenge to call, as well as a good many very close plays (the bang-bang plays).

The upshot, then, is that this perfect balance between offense and defense leads necessarily to a large number of nearly simultaneous events, and some unknown number of truly simultaneous ones. Given all of the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of close plays at first base in a given baseball season, it’s only natural that some number of them result in dead-even ties.  In other words, there are plenty of ties at first. And by the prevailing convention, these ties  normally result in the runner being called out.

What we have, then, is an alternate axiom – one that’s not written, nor spoken, but exists nevertheless: Tie goes to the fielder.


Umpires weigh in

There are two authoritative sources of case law (if you will) and rules interpretations: Jaksa-Roder and Wendelstedt. All umpires with salt know both of these resources. Both are oft-used authorities for untangling thorny rules issues, of which there are no shortage in baseball. Let’s see what they have to say about this black hole.

Nothing. Nada. Niente. Nothing but silence.

Both discuss the rules (the three rules we’ve framed), but neither source addresses the issue of the simultaneous events, the tie at the base. Neither of these honored reference texts even has the word “tie” in their index.

Tim McClelland

Interestingly, on MLB.com, in a section entitled Ask the Umpire, veteran umpire Tim McClelland does address the issue in a Q-and-A. Here’s both question and answer.

I am an umpire for Little League. The coach told me that ties go to the runner. I said the batter has to beat the throw to first because there are no such thing as ties. Who is right?
– L.M.F.

McClelland: That is exactly right. There are no ties and there is no rule that says the tie goes to the runner. But the rule book does say that the runner must beat the ball to first base, and so if he doesn’t beat the ball, then he is out. So you have to make the decision. That’s why umpires are paid the money they are, to make the decision on if he did or if he didn’t. The only thing you can do is go by whether or not he beat the ball. If he did, then he is safe.

This is interesting, because McClelland is saying he’s going with 5.06(a)(1) and leaves it at that. His comments about “you have to make the decision” is really just a smokescreen to cover the ambiguity that’s he’s elected to ignore. But he’s in good company; this interpretation (that the runner must beat the throw) is the view that pervades, particularly in the Major Leagues. And umpiring conventions tend to filter down from there.

But that interpretation is not accepted universally. This subject comes up time and again on umpire chat rooms and discussion boards and the debates are intense and passionate. There’s McClelland’s view, that the runner must beat the throw. Then there’s the opposite view, which falls on 7.08(e), arguing that if the ball fails to reach the base before the runner touches it, the runner is safe. In other words, tie goes to the runner.

And then there are the umpires who (stupidly, in my view) try to have it both ways. They claim that on truly bang-bang plays at first they’ll judge by circumstances. If the defense was sloppy, they’ll call a runner safe. Same thing if a slow player shows extraordinary hustle. A runner who dogs it, on the other hand, is getting called out. This is the worst of all possible approaches to resolving the ambiguity.

Interestingly, a great many umpires assert that literal ties (true simultaneous events) are near impossible. One commentator claimed to have umpired for 50 years and in that span had never seen a tie on the bases. Our new world of super slow-mo and instant replay is slowly undermining this view. The fact is, ties happen.

Sadly, there’s no real conclusion to the story. Ties at first are a fact of life, and they’ll continue being called in a manner consistent with the umpire’s religion, so to speak. And it’s not really so big a problem as it may appear. It’s definitely not so big an issue as the variability in the strike zone. But don’t get me started on that can of worms.



The Trucks Family Tree

We start with a rather obscure major league pitcher named Virgil Trucks, whose career ended sixty years ago.

Virgil Oliver “Fire” Trucks, born in 1917, pitched in the major leagues from 1941 through 1958, starting with the Tigers and finishing his career with the Yankees. Twice an all-star, his line is impressive:  177–135 won-loss record with 1,534 strikeouts and a 3.39 ERA in 2,682 innings pitched over a seventeen-year career. He was known as a strikeout pitcher with an overpowering fastball – hence the moniker, Fire Trucks. Ted Williams commented that Trucks was the hardest throwing pitcher he ever faced. Trucks lost two years of his prime to service during WWII and once commented that, had he gotten those extra 20-25 wins, and if he’d played his entire career with the Yankees, he’d likely be in the Hall of Fame.

In 1952, Fire Trucks pitched two no-hitters – one of only five pitchers in MLB history with two no-hitters in a single season (Johnny Vander Meer, Allie Reynolds, Nolan Ryan, and Roy Halladay are the others). That’s pretty heady stuff for a kid who started out playing for company teams like the Stockham Pipe Company in Birmingham, Alabama. Spotted by scouts, Trucks signed with the Detroit organization in 1937 (with a $100 signing bonus) and the following year notched his reputation as a strikeout artist while playing for the Andalusia Bulldogs. It was then that a Birmingham sportswriter coined his nickname, “Fire” Trucks.

I stumbled on Fire Trucks in the oddest (and non-baseball) of ways. I was working my way up the Trucks family tree, starting in the present day. It’s with Virgil’s great grand-nephew that I started – one Derek Trucks.

Trucks (Derek) is front-man and slide guitar virtuoso in my (these days) favorite band, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, in which he partners with wife and front-woman, guitar player and bluesy vocalist extraordinaire, Susan Tedeschi. Their band is a twelve-piece freight train of soaring blues-rock fusion of the Delta-meets-the-Coast variety.

This is an umpire and baseball blog, of course, but sometimes we need to branch out. Keep things interesting. We’re going to loop back to baseball, Fire Trucks, and umpiring soon enough. But first, here’s a nice appetizer – a three-song stand at one of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. And if you like that and would like a bit more, here’s one of several versions (all of them extraordinary, but no two quite the same) of their exquisitely beautiful song, Midnight in Harlem.

Back to the Trucks family, there’s another branch on the family tree. In between Virgil and Derek, Virgil had a nephew named Butch – Butch Trucks. And Butch Trucks is a name that fans of Southern Rock pioneers, the Allman Brothers Band, should recognize. Not only is Butch Trucks Virgil’s nephew and Derek’s uncle, but he’s also (and better known as) the drummer for the Allman Brothers Band.

Virgil threw his last pitch in 1958, but he remained in baseball as pitching coach and scout until he retired to his home in Alabama in 1974. The scion of this star-studded family tree died in 2013 at the age of 95.

I don’t know this for certain, but I think Virgil probably liked the Allman Brothers Band. And I suspect that he knew and loved Derek’s work as well.


I love this band because of their virtuosity, their beautifully written songs and their always exciting arrangements, their big, driving sound, and because of the way their music honors the roots and traditions of blues and rock (with a little Eastern flavor thrown in), but then overlaces the sound with a promiscuous embrace of jazz at one edge, and country rock at the other. They really are magicians of their matter.

But I love this band most of all because they are all about the music, and only the music, and totally the music — not the glitz, not the marketing, and not the showy crap that gets you on the radio. That sets them apart, and it ensures the integrity of their special sound. From Virgil, through nephew Butch, through nephew Derek, the Trucks family tree stands pure.

And now back to baseball, where my home team Seattle Mariners are off to a 1-6 start. Aarrgghh. Will somebody please start the music.



First Base Bites

Yep, first base bites. It really can. First base is like the dog you’ve had for years – old faithful, your best friend – who suddenly goes and bites a neighbor kid and then all hell breaks loose.

First base is like that.  It’s familiar. Cozy. For the umpire working the field (on a two-man crew, or U1 on a three- or four-man crew), first base is where most of the putouts are made. But, of course, almost all of these putouts are easy to handle. Almost all of them. A couple of steps inside the line, then a slow, drawn-out fist to signal the out. Piece of cake.

You have nearly five times the number of plays at first base than at second, and the ratio over putouts at third is over a thousand-to-one. But again, you could easily make almost all of these calls from the cheap seats. That’s your old dog. And the bang-bang play? That’s the neighbor kid. And then, as I said, all hell breaks loose.

We’re going to come back to the bang-bang play in a bit, but first let’s check my claim that first base is where most of the putouts are made. Is it really true that first base is action central for fair batted balls? Common sense, along with familiarity with the game, suggests that it is, but impressions are not facts (except in politics), so let’s ask again, what am I basing my claim on?

We all know that baseball is the most data-centric sport on the planet. It’s an outcome of the nature of the game, wherein every play (except steals and pick-off attempts) begin with a single, discrete action: a pitch. And upon each pitch, a specific outcome occurs – a ball or strike, a foul ball or a fair batted ball; a caught fly ball, a base hit, ground-rule double, putout at first base, double-play, a strike out, base on balls … the list goes on. And each of these events is recorded in its special code on the score sheet – an ancient, humble page with an array of arcane scribbles that grows, over the life of a nine-inning game, into a vast pool of data. And all of those pools from all of those games drain into a gigantic ocean of data. That’s how we know that, while third base may be the hot corner, first base is action central.

Baseball stats are abundant. If you doubt, check out a site like Retrosheet. And while most published baseball stats track player performance (batting average, RBIs, ERA, and all the rest), the immense reservoir of game data is available for other investigations as well. And the data is available to any creative analyst out there. All you have to do is download it.

One such analyst is Chris Ford, the owner and proprietor of a sporting blog called All My Sports Teams Suck. While I was researching this post, Googling for data about where putouts are made, I stumbled on Chris’s blog. It was there that I came across Chris’s fascinating blog post entitled A Look At Every Out Made Since 1952. Wow!

Every single out made in Major League Baseball since 1952. If that doesn’t rev your jets, you’re one of those caught snoring in the bleacher seats. So, from Ford’s analysis, we learn that, over the past 64 years, through the 2015 season, Major League Baseball has recorded 6,377,594 outs. Not only that, but we know exactly where each and every one of these outs was made.

Here’s the first really interesting thing we learn (I was flabbergasted): the data captures over a thousand put-out scenarios. If you’d asked me before this how many different defensive scenarios could lead to an out, I’d have answered something like, oh, a couple hundred. Nope. In fact, over these 64 years, the data tracks 1,228 different put-out scenarios.

That said, roughly 96% of these six-million-plus putouts are captured in just the top twenty putout scenarios. These twenty also represent all putout scenarios whose frequency is greater than or equal to one half of one percent. So, except for oddities like six-throw rundowns, these twenty putout scenarios pretty much have the action covered.

Here’s a table that tabulates these six million (plus) putouts since 1952. Putouts made at first base are highlighted:

Scoring Description Raw count Frequency
K Strike out 1,455,075 22.80%
8 Catch, center fielder 650,819 10.20%
43 4-3 putout (first base) 509,106 8.00%
63 6-3 putout (first base) 502,374 7.90%
9 Catch, right fielder 499,270 7.80%
7 Catch, left fielder 488,288 7.70%
53 5-3 putout (first base) 387,082 6.10%
3 Catch, first baseman 339,636 5.30%
13 1-3 putout (first base) 218,715 3.40%
4 Catch, second baseman 198,778 3.10%
6 Catch, shortstop 195,575 3.10%
5 Catch, third baseman 156,198 2.40%
31 3-1 putout (home plate) 97,566 1.50%
64 6-4 putout (second base) 88,775 1.40%
2 Catch (pop up), catcher 73,045 1.10%
643 6-4-3 double play (first base) 58,058 0.90%
54 5-4 putout (second base) 56,829 0.90%
463 4-6-3 double play (first base) 47,213 0.70%
46 4-6 putout (second base) 43,315 0.70%
543 5-4-3 double play (first base) 32,185 0.50%
 TOTAL 6,097,902 95.6%

Adding up all of the putouts made at first base (1,754,733), we see that these account for 27.5% of all putouts, nearly a third, outpacing the next most frequent, strikeouts, and the third most frequent, catches in center fielder. Putouts at second base represent just under six percent of all putouts. The ratio of putouts at first over putouts at second is nearly 5:1. You have to go all the way to the 38th most frequent play to get a putout at third base (a 1-5 putout, pitcher to third baseman); the frequency of putouts at third base is just two-hundredths of a percent (0.02%). It’s not even close to making the list.

Okay, so it’s abundantly clear: first base is where most of the putouts take place. But again, almost all of these are easy. But let’s not forget about the old dog.

Let’s get back to the bang-bang play

A bang-bang play is a play that is so close, the events so nearly simultaneously, that only the most astute observer, using both eyes and ears, can make a judgment on whether the runner is safe or out. When you make this call, there are three reference points: Ball in glove (securely), the runner’s footfall on first base, and the fielder’s contact with the bag. And you’re using two senses – both vision and hearing (seeing the footfall and hearing the pop of the catch), although crowd noise can complicate hearing the pop.

What you have, then, are intersecting events that are described by the trajectories of both the runner and the ball; and then we have three reference points; and finally, we have sensory inputs from both vision and hearing. And then, on top of that, we have all of these coming rapidly together at a point in time that’s about the width of a water molecule, and then a lot of crowd noise to boot. Who can possibly judge this?

And then there’s this. There is a play at first base even tighter and closer than a bang-bang play; a play where events are in a range (it’s in the hundredths, maybe thousandths of a second) in which (like Schrödinger’s cat) it is impossible to know with certainty whether a runner is safe or out. (You can solve this with super slo-mo cameras, but only the pros have super slo-mo, and we’re not talking to the pros, so just let that drop.)

What we’re talking about here is the play that’s so close, so perfectly simultaneous, that even the term bang-bang doesn’t describe it. What we have, here … wait for it … what we have here is the b-bang play. B-bang!

And that’s the play that bites. This is your old dog biting the mailman in the ass. This is all hell breaking loose on a warm summer day. This is the unwinnable dilemma, where it’s entirely possible (and not that uncommon) for you, the umpire, to see one thing (correctly), and yet for the base coach (again correctly) to see the same event entirely differently. Both are true, and both are correct. And good luck with that!

(And there’s more where this came from … that is, about the mysterious quantum physics of simultaneity in baseball. If you like mysteries like this, you’re going to like my post, The Theory of Umpire General Relativity.)


The Theory of Umpire General Relativity

Only slightly toungue-in-cheek . . .

I worked a game recently in which there was a close play at first base. I was working the plate so I had trailed the runner up the first base line and saw the play clearly. The umpire at first called the runner out (correctly). It was close, but not that close, and there is no question the call was correct.

Behind me, though, from the stands near the batter’s dugout, we heard more than just the typical groans. There are always groans from the fans on a close play, from one side or the other, but this was different. These were loud complaints: “How could he miss a call like that!”  That sort of stuff. Clearly, the umpire at first base (and me, too) saw one thing, but the spectators for the team on offense saw something completely different.

This happens all the time, of course, especially at first base, because that’s where the greatest number of close (bang-bang) plays occur. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more it got me thinking there might be more going on than simple bias for your home team.

So just how do you explain this common phenomenon, where one person sees one thing, and someone else in the same place and at the same time sees something entirely different? How do you explain this?

Well, there are several pieces to an explanation, but let’s start with the easy stuff:

  • First off, those spectators who are complaining are much farther away from the play than is the umpire who made the call. That, on the face of it, helps explain their different views of the play.
  • Then there’s the matter of angle. We all understand that angle is even more important than distance when you’re getting position for a call, and clearly the spectators’ angle was very poor when compared to that of the umpire. His vantage point was perfect.

Okay, so those are the easy and obvious points. And they work okay, up to a point. But I think there’s more to it. There’s a human factor, too. When the stakes are high, we tend to see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear, regardless of what actually happens. That’s human nature.

This is not particularly subtle. All of us know this happens. It’s one of the reasons witness testimony at trials is so unreliable, and why you often have several eye-witnesses give conflicting versions of the same event. We frequently see (and hear) what we want to see (and hear). It happens with memories, too. The more distant the memory, the more closely it morphs into what we really want to remember, whether we know it or not. Time, it seems, is less of a long and winding road than it is a murky pond. But I digress.

But wait; let’s stay with memory for a moment.

Do you remember how, as a kid, you’d calculate dog years. You’d convert a dog’s age to its equivalent human age by multiplying the dog’s age by some number – seven, I think. Supposedly, this helps dog owners appreciate the maturity of their six-year-old mongrel. As though, somehow, 42 human years is a more difficult concept to grasp than six dog years. Go figure.

Well, just as with memory and time and dog years, umpires on the field experience space and time differently than spectators do. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. To see the difference, you have to apply a conversions factor, just like when calculating dog years. But this calculation deals with space, not years. It calculates the difference between spectator views and umpire views of the same event.

The conversion factor is something like six-to-one. In other words, two inches to a spectator is equivalent to about 12 inches for the umpire on the field. So on a bang-bang play at first base, if the separation between the runner’s footfall on the bag and the time of the catch is minuscule, the umpire sees a gap. And sees it pretty clearly.

And that’s why, when there’s a really close play, and the aggrieved team’s fans and coaches and players groan and complain, the umpire is mystified. He’s thinking something like, Why in the world are they complaining? Hell, the ball beat him to the bag by a mile. And he actually means a mile.

There is something mysterious at work, because it appears that for umpires on the field, space can expand, or dilate, and time can contract. It’s been shown that such things actually do happen in nature.

This brings us to Albert Einstein  (yes, that Albert Einstein). In 1915, over a century ago, Einstein introduced the concept of four-dimensional space-time.
He formulated the concept to capture his theory of general relativity. What the concept means is that three-dimensional space, as we know it, is linked with passing time; and then, wrapped together, space and time form a single, four-dimensional space-time. Space-time, according to Einstein, is the fabric of the physical universe on the cosmological scale. Whew!

Well, according  to Einstein, one important effect of this is that events that appear simultaneous to one observer are, in fact, very different for someone else who is observing from a different frame of reference. (That’s relativity in a nutshell.) In other words, the disconnect between the view on the field and the view from the bleachers creates a space-time hiccup (if you will), such that two observers can literally see two different events.

It appears to be true, then (with only a small stretch), that in fact there does exist a special, four-dimensional umpire space-time, a dimension in which space expands and time contracts, such that ordinary events on the field take place one way for some observers, and entirely differently for others. They don’t appear different; they actually are different.

I believe that baseball relativity and umpire space-time are real. The evidence supports it. So groan if you have to, fans. Shout at the umpire if you must. But do not doubt the call of the umpire who is fixed in space and time on the very axis of the events on the field; and then go home, grumbling if you must, and satisfied that, although your view was pure, it was almost certainly wrong.

And all of this we capture in The Theory of Umpire General Relativity.



Here’s a sequence of games that I worked recently. Most of you will recognize the dilemma:

  • Saturday afternoon: 14U Pony game
  • Saturday evening: College summer league game
  • Sunday morning: Adult men’s league game – older division (old farts, like me)

On all three I had the plate (long story why). Saturday’s Pony game went well. No arguments, no problems, only a few groans. That evening, however, I had the plate on a college summer league game. On the very first batter I called a high strike. Not very high, but high for this level. And I sure did hear about it. That’s the thing about calling college ball – the guys know their shit. High strike and everyone (but everyone) sees it. And “comments.”

The thing is, that strike call would have been just fine in my Pony game earlier that day. It was about a ball under the letters, definitely the top of the zone at any level 12-and-over, but acceptable. Except when you get to 17-, 18-year-olds. That’s where the top of the zone goes down to about a ball above the belt (maybe half a ball), although get two umpires together and it’s hard to get agreement on this.

So I called a high strike on the first batter, heard plenty about it, recognized my error (and it was my error), and of course I adjusted. Because that’s what we do. We adjust.

But this kind of adjustment is not always that easy. Let’s stay with pitching for a moment. Saturday evening I had awesome pitching from the college players. Great control, tremendous velocity, wicked movement on the breaking balls. Two of my pitchers that night were hitting upper 80s, low 90s. They popped the catcher’s glove like gunshots. But once I had them dialed in, calling the game was (relatively) easy.

Next morning I’m on the plate again, this time for the senior division of an adult baseball league. In this case, “senior” means the old guys – as I say, like me. These games are fun to work because the old guys are out there having fun, making fun of one another, not taking anything but their own mortality very seriously. They’re striving to win, but not that hard. They don’t run fast, they commit a lot of errors, and the pitching is … well, lets call it spotty. For the most part, the pitches are floaters, coming in like a 12-6 curve ball, but they aren’t actual breaking balls. They’re just slow tosses that gravity brings over the plate like falling water.

Judging these pitches is more difficult than calling the vastly more competent college pitchers. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it’s true. The trajectory
of a well-thrown pitch makes tracking the pitch from release point to catcher’s mitt much easier than that of a floater that cuts into the strike zone from … well, from altitude. And making that overnight adjustment from bullets to puff-balls is difficult.

But probably the biggest difference between the play of college kids and that of mere mortals is the speed of the game. Not only do pitchers often have tremendous velocity, but runners are extremely fast (really fast), and defensively the ball moves around the infield like a rocket. Stay focused, Blue, or you’ll lose the ball. And if you lose the ball, you’re screwed. (Been there, done that.)

The speed of the base runners can really test you. This is most noticeable when, with no runners on base, you’re in the “A” position (on the foul line but back of the first baseman). If the first baseman is playing deep, you’re a long way from the bag. And then, on a ball hit to the outfield, you need to break to the infield, pivot to see the base touch, and then stay with the runner if he goes for second. (Take a look at the rotation here.)

The challenging part is the first phase – the foot-race to get inside and pivot before the batter-runner gets to the bag. When the ball is hit you go suddenly into motion. It’s a long run, and a fast one, because you’re effectively racing the batter-runner (a nineteen-year-old college athlete) to get position at first base. And if the hit turns into a triple, get ready to really run.

We do this all the time, don’t we … adjust to what the game brings us. Every game. All of it. The whole wide frickin’ world of it. Adjust, adjust, adjust. Adapt or die.


My First Game, and then some . . .

It was about fifteen years ago that I umpired my first game. I was one of those dads who was pulled out of the stands for my eight-year-old son’s pee-wee game. But then, like some few others who share this same experience, I discovered it wasn’t so bad and I stuck with it. Most don’t, but a few do.

Enzo … in the beginning

A lot of new umpires come up this way – they get started accidentally, they discover that it’s not as bad as they thought it would be, and they end up sticking with it. They discover that it’s an avocation and a commitment, and one that rewards and repays. There’s some money in it, but not very much, so it’s a rare Blue that does it for the money. I can also tell you from experience that there are few things more thrilling than having a hard-breaking slider come screaming right at your face.

In the early days, while still newbies, we learned our first lessons by seeking out advice from more experienced umpires. That helps with picking up the basic mechanics, start learning the convoluted web of baseball rules, and begin, ever so  slowly, to start feeling comfortable on the field.

And if really committed, the newbie starts attending formal training. They attend classes and workshops. Soon, they probably enroll in an extended school – one of the week-long or multi-week sessions. If they’re young and ambitious, after about three or four years of this, they go to the Pro school.  By then they understand (we hope) that the learning never ends. Some experienced umpires talk a lot, but good umpires listen more and talk less.

Not everyone who umpires goes all the way. Most stick with a local league and plateau when they have the basics: they learn the start positions and basic rotations, and learn how to work with a partner; they grasp the difference between interference and obstruction, foul ball and foul tip, and they’re comfortable with fair and foul, safe and out, catch, tag, and the infield fly. But that’s about where they settle.

And that’s not a bad thing. Not at all. Because the younger kids need experienced, competent umpires, too. Far too many umpires get a taste for high-quality ball on the big diamond and forget that there are a lot more games (and a vastly greater need for umpires) on the small diamond for kids 12 and under. It’s a good thing, in my view, for umpires who came to life on the small diamond to later, after graduating to higher levels, give a little back by volunteering some time for the kids.

Federal Field, Bellevue, Washington

So here’s the field on which I umpired my first game. Federal Field in Bellevue, Washington. Bellevue East Little League. I had come to the game to watch my eight-year-old son play his first ever baseball game, but then got pulled in to umpire (kicking and screaming, I might add). I used a balloon protector (it’s what they had in the gear box at the field and that was good enough for me). I wore jeans, and I had my hat on backwards. I had zero instruction, even less confidence, and almost certainly I sucked. But the kids were eight years old, the parents were cool with it, and there were no complaints.

Now, fifteen years on, I have games in the summer college league and work the local semi-pro summer league. That’s a big arc, from eight to twenty-three. Fifteen years in fifteen years. And on fields just 25 miles apart.



Third Out on Appeal – Does the Run Score?

Here’s a really good question that came in this week. The issue is when the third out is made on appeal (a runner failed to tag up, for example, and is called out on appeal for the third out). Let’s add a twist. Let’s say the runner who is called out on appeal was at second base (he’s R2), but there was also a runner at third (R3) who scored on the play. Here’s the full scenario:

  • There is one out and you have runners on second and third (R2, R3).
  • Batter hits a deep fly ball to right field that is caught for the second out.
  • Following the catch, both R2 and R3 tag up and advance one base; R2 is now on third and R3 has scored.
  • However, the defense believes R2 left early (failed to tag up), and executes a proper appeal at second base.
  • The umpire upholds the appeal and calls R2 out. That’s the third out.

Here’s the question:  Does the run scored by R3 on the play count, or does it come off the board?

The run counts

Yep, in this case the run counts. This is effectively a time play, so the run scored by R3 stays on the board. To better understand what’s going on, let’s start with one of baseball’s most basic rules, Rule 5.08 (“How a team scores”). We’re going to look specifically at Rule 5.08(a), including (most importantly) the “Exception”:

5.08(a) One run shall be scored each time a runner legally advances to and touches first, second, third and home base before three men are put out to end the inning.

Exception: A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made (1) by the batter-runner before he touches first base; (2) by any runner being forced out; or (3) by a preceding runner who is declared out because he failed to touch one of the bases.

Everything you need to know to rule correctly on this and similar cases is in this rule and its exception. Of course, the rule notwithstanding, you’re almost always going to get an argument, because the rule is poorly understood, by coaches in particular, but also by some umpires. In most cases the argument you’ll hear from a coach is that this was a “force play” (which it isn’t), and that you can’t score runs when the third out is made on a force play. But the coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

So when does the run NOT count on a third out appeal?

The discussion so far begs the question: Under what circumstances does a run not count when a third out is made on appeal? It’s a good question because these are the situations cause the confusion that drives all of the arguments.

To get our answer, we have to read carefully each of the three exceptions that are listed in Rule 5.08(a)(Exception). All three of these exceptions look familiar because, except for (3), they’re really common cases in nearly every baseball game you see. The trick is applying these exceptions to an appeal play. Don’t let that throw you off.

  • Exception (1): This is one of the most common events in baseball. The batter-runner makes the third out before safely reaching first. This is your basic batted ball to the infield, 6-3, for example, or straight-up double play (6-4-3). Everyone knows that no run scores on this play.

I can think of only two appealable infraction on the batter-runner on a play like this that can result in his being called out at first base on appeal – (a) failing to touch first base while advancing (as if on a double), and (b) failing to return directly to first base after overrunning the bag [Rule 5.09(b)(4)]. In both of these cases, if the umpire upholds a proper appeal on the runner at first, and if that out is the third out, then no run can score on the play.

  • Exception (2): If the third out is made on appeal of a runner who is forced to the base where the infraction is appealed, no run scores on that play. For example, let’s say you have bases loaded with two outs and the batter hits a three-run double. Three runs score and the batter-runner is standing on second. But then the defense executes a proper appeal at second base maintaining that the runner from first (R1) failed to touch second base. If the umpire upholds the appeal at second (to which R1 was forced), and if that was the third out, then no runs score and the half-inning is over.

You can change up this scenario in a lot of ways and get the same result. The point is, if the third-out appeal is at a base to which a runner was forced, then no runs score. You can think of this as basically Exception (1), but as a fielder’s choice.

  • Exception (3): This one is a bit less common, but can still cause arguments. We saw in discussing Exception (1) that a base runner called out on appeal does not affect the scoring status of a preceding runner who has already scored on the play. However, when the situation is reversed and the third-out appeal succeeds on a player who scores, and where following runners also score, then none of the runs will count. The runner on whom the appeal was made does not score, of course, because he’s been called out on appeal. And since he was the third out, anyone following him obviously also doesn’t score.

Sometimes having the decision tree as a graphic helps understand the process of ruling on situations like this. Sometimes not. I’ll let you be the judge. Note, however, that the decision tree doesn’t cover all possible scenarios. It represents the basics – the starting point for ruling on third-out appeal scoring.


MLB’s “Chase Utley” Slide Rule & Demise of the “Neighborhood” Play

I used a lot of quotation marks in the title of this post, and that’s telling. Much in baseball (in all sports, I’m sure, but especially in baseball) lives on the periphery of the rules. This is especially true at the professional level. Amateur associations (NCAA, high school, most select and travel leagues, and most definitely Little League) long ago inserted safety rules to protect defenders from malicious acts on the part of base runners. Only recently is Major League Baseball following suit. And not everyone agrees this is a good idea.

Let’s start with Buster Posey

Buster Posey following take-out by Cousins

MLB began in earnest to own up to malicious actions during the 2011 season, when Giants’ catcher Buster Posey had his clock cleaned (and the ligaments in his ankle torn to shreds) by Scott Cousins, who scored from third after tagging up on a shallow fly ball to right field. He took Posey out at a dead run with a lowered shoulder. It was the game-winning score in the 12th inning. Posey was on the ground, writhing in pain, and was finally helped off the field. And he was out for the season. Have a look at that incident, HERE.

At all other levels of baseball, Cousins’ deliberate action (lowering the shoulder and plowing into the catcher) would be deemed “malicious contact” (also known by other names in various rule books). The runner would be automatically ejected from the game. If the action took place before the runner touched home, he’d be called out and the run would not count. If the contact occurred after touching home, the run would count, but he’d still be ejected from the game. As I say, at every level of the game, except for the pros.

The Posey incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Catchers are extremely vulnerable on plays at the plate, so a lot of catchers have endured season-ending (if not career ending) injuries inflicted by 210-pound base runners head-hunting at a dead run, shoulder first. Bigger, stronger, faster players in the modern era can do a lot of damage to a catcher on his knees at the plate.

The outcome of the Posey incident came in the 2014 with the implementation of the infamous “Posey Rule” – otherwise known as Rule 6.01(i). The rule was controversial, as you’ll recall, and was not applied consistently. The rule wasn’t very well written. On top of that, hard-liners argued that 6.01(i) has turned baseball into a game for wimps. Most who argued that are Trump supporters, I suspect, because he said as much about modern football: that he laments the “good old days” when defensive ends could take the quarterback’s head off once he broke out of the pocket. It appears to some that taking actions to forestall grave injuries is somehow unmanly. I thought we’d gotten past that, but evidently not.

What about middle infielders?

If catchers are the most vulnerable, then the next most vulnerable defensive player is the middle-infielder (the shortstop and second baseman) while in the act of turning a double-play and with the runner from first bearing down at full speed, intent on breaking up the double play. This is the position Ruben Tejada was in when Chase Utley took him out. It was a brutal take-out slide in which Utley slides so far wide of the bag, and with such obvious disregard for reaching the base, that it’s a virtual felony assault. We’ve got photos.

At every level of baseball (except the pros), what Utley did to Tejada is an egregious infraction that gets a runner thrown out of the game. It’s a special case of interference in which two outs are called – one out on the runner at second for interference (if not already out on the play), and another out on the batter-runner because his teammate interfered with the opportunity to complete the double play.

NCAA force-play slide rule. © NCAA

This type of interference is supported by what is generally known as the “force-play slide rule.” Every level of baseball (except the pros) has a version of force-play slide rule. In the NCAA rule book it’s Rule 8-4. In the FED (high school) rule book it’s Rule 1-32-1, 2. In Little League (all levels) it’s Rule 7.09(e, f). And every amateur league that I know of (and all, I suspect) that use the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) have a force-play slide rule in the supplementary league rules.

The NCAA has the most comprehensive rule, and they even give you a diagram to illustrate. But almost all force-play slide rules follow the same or a similar pattern. In short, a runner can slide directly into a base, or slide within arms-length to either side of the base, but not on the side of the base that a defender is on. Nor can the runner, after sliding, do a pop-up move to affect the throw, or hook a defender’s leg, or in any other way impede the defender’s opportunity to retire the batter-runner at first. In fact, in the high school rule book, simply sliding beyond the bag at second can get you called out.

So now, starting with the 2016 baseball season, professional baseball has its own force-play slide rule – Rule 6.01(j). And from this week forward, it will forever be known as the “Chase Utley Rule,” forever joined at the hip to the play in last year’s Dodger’s-Mets NLDS game in which Utley’s rolling block on Ruben Tejada broke the latter’s leg, ending his season and impairing the Mets’ chances of making it to the World Series.

Utley is well outside a line to the base and, worse, beyond the bag when he slides

Again, some consider this to be just part of the game. But have a look. Utley’s take-out of Tejada was a brutal move. I felt at the time (and still do) that the second-base umpire in that game erred in not calling interference, for even without a force-play slide rule the Official Rules on interference cover such blatant behavior.

Tejada upended and out of control, falling to the ground with a broken let

It takes only these two photos of the incident to make the point. In the first, Utley is well outside the direct line to the bag, and clearly intent upon taking Tejada out. But worse, look where he begins his slide: he’s beyond the bag and he’s not even trying to touch the base. In the second photo you see the result. Tejada is upended, completely out of control, at the mercy of gravity and luck. And it certainly wasn’t his lucky day.

Okay, so what’s the price? What’s the trade-off?

It’s a big one. It’s a trade-off that upsets a generations-old tradition in baseball: the neighborhood play, in which the middle-infielder is given the benefit of the doubt on whether he actually touched the bag, or if he touched it, did he have the ball at that instant, while hustling to turn the double play. The neighborhood play is another of those cases where umpires willfully turn a blind eye to the letter of the law in deference to a tradition of the law (if you will), so that infielders can defend himself from the type of vicious take-out that Utley delivered.

MLB took something away from the offense with the new force-play slide rule. In an attempt to re-balance the playing field, they have decided to eradicate the neighborhood play by making it reviewable. It hasn’t been, prior to this. Jayson Stark, in his piece on ESPN.com, puts it well: “There goes the neighborhood.”

It’s going to be interesting seeing how the elimination of the neighborhood play works out. After all, it’s a hallowed part of the culture of the game. Sometimes, killing off one thing in an ecosystem has unexpected side effects, and this is likely no exception. It will just need to play out. The force-play slide rule and the demise of the neighborhood play are now bonded atoms in a complex molecule. Not much of a metaphor, I’ll admit.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of commentary on this new move by MLB. Reactions run everywhere from your basic “sky is falling” hysteria, to reasoned (but cautious) support. Do a little Googling if you’re curious. But ultimately, the answer will play out on the field.


Training Day

Late winter of the new year means a few things. It means football is finished and March Madness is on the horizon. It means golf is in Hawaii and that the NBA is at full throttle, and it means that pitchers and catchers have reported. And it means the start of the 2016 baseball umpire season, as all across the country umpire training days get underway.

February marks the unofficial official start of the new umpiring season. While in more southerly states, this may mean actually working baseball games, for most of us who are still under the blanket of winter, it means training days in classrooms, gyms, auditoriums, and anywhere else we can spread out for drills. Pivot drill. First-to-third. Take the runner to second. Going out. Covering home. Rotating up. Cage work. Scrimmages. Seeing balks. Rules, rules, rules. Weird situation. Game management. Handling hostility. On and on and on. If you’re lucky.

“If you’re lucky” because, let’s face it, while it’s true that many umpire associations offer quality training to new and journeyman umpires, on the whole, training for umpires is pretty weak. And sometimes completely nonexistent. And umpire training tends to be worst where it’s needed most – in small leagues hosting lower-level youth baseball. We’re talking about Little League primarily, but not exclusively.

There aren’t many truths in life, but here’s one of the real ones: There is always a shortage of competent umpires for amateur baseball. If it’s not true where you live, then you’re very lucky. Truth is, youth leagues tend to accept just about any warm body. This is sometimes a dad or mom out of the stands, or its other well-meaning adults in the league, or it’s kids in a junior umpire program. These are umpires by accident, and far too often they have little or nothing in the way of training and support. And that’s a problem.

Why is this a problem? And why is the problem important? Because this is where most of the journeyman umpires come from. From well-meaning adults who get dragged kicking and screaming onto a field to help umpire their eight-year-old’s Little League game. But then (with some support and training) they learn that umpiring baseball is not half bad; and then, with even more support and training, they actually begin to enjoy the experience. That was my path.

For the argument’s sake, let’s say that over the course of a season you get ten dads (or moms) out of the stands to umpire a handful of games. Well, roughly one of those ten is going to surprise themselves and discover it’s not so bad. And of that ten percent who actually take to the experience, about ten percent of those will start to pick it up and get involved – IF, that is, there’s a way to harness their early interest. That is, if there’s leadership, support, and training.

What’s wrong with a lot of umpire training?

On the other side of the coin, there’s the issue of the quality of the training. On this front, too, meaning well doesn’t always translate into doing well.

What’s wrong with a lot of umpire training? PowerPoint, that’s what. The umpire education slide deck. I’ve sat through several of these sessions. I’ve even presented at umpire training sessions using the same stupid slide decks that others used on me. Dozens and dozens of slide on the rules, mechanics, rotations, reverse rotations, game management – all that crap and a lot more of it rolled up into a 100-plus slide-deck of death. Ghastly. The training session lasts three, maybe four hours. And of those 100-plus slides, the student umpires retain (actually learn) … what? The substance of maybe three or four slides? What a colossal waste of time.

Here’s what I’m talking about. On the right you see an example of a typical umpire training slide. This is your basic first-to-third rotation. There’s a runner on first (R1), so at the time of the pitch the base umpire (U1) is in the B position. Now there’s a fair batted ball to the outfield – line drive to the gap, let’s say – so U1 is responsible for the catch/no-catch as well as touches, tags and plays at first and second. At the same time, the plate umpire (PU) is moving up the third base line so that, IF R1 tries for third base, the PU can easily step into position and take the call at third.

Basic stuff, not complicated. And one of the most common umpiring scenarios there is. The slide takes, at most, two minutes to cover (remember, we have 100 more slides to cover). But wait. Can you, reader, close your eyes, now, and read back the rotation we just covered? If you can it’s because you’ve done the first-to-third rotation before, so it’s second nature. If you’re a beginner, however, once they’ve moved on to the next slide, you’ve probably completely forgotten most of the details, and ten slides after that it’s completely gone.

It’s a waste of time, and it’s boring. And if you’re small league that’s struggling to find, seduce, and train (and then retain) umpires, the last thing you want to do is lock your prospects in a room and boor them to death for four hours with a forgettable PowerPoint presentation. And get almost nothing out of it.

Some elements of umpire training lend themselves to classroom treatment. But these are discrete subjects like recognizing and calling balks, interference, obstruction, and a few other discrete subjects. But even these classroom sessions can’t rely on a slide deck, unless the deck is stocked with photos or videos that demonstrate the actions you’re talking about. These are one-off clinics, really, and they don’t need to last more than one hour, and usually less. In short, the classroom is your enemy.

So where does the training take place? It takes place on the field. When I (once upon a time) ran a junior umpire program and took responsibility for training, I started out the way I’d been taught — with those stupid slide decks. But I learned very quickly that I could accomplish a great deal more in 30 minutes on the field, hands-on, than I could in four hours in a darkened room. And out on the field, no one snores.


MLB Explores Changing the Strike Zone

Proposed new strike zone (image courtesy of SBNation.com)

There’s a lot of noise in the sports press this week and last about a recent announcement from Major League Baseball (MLB) that they are exploring a significant change to the definition of the strike zone. The change would redefine the bottom of the strike zone and move it up, from the hollow at the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the kneecap. If that doesn’t sound like much, then … well …

If you’ve never pitched to good hitters, or hit against good pitching, or called balls and strikes for both, then it may be difficult to appreciate just how
big of a change this would be. In real-world physical distance it’s a change of roughly three inches; in baseball space-time, on the other hand, it’s roughly half a mile.

For the record, the bottom of the strike zone was formerly defined at the top, not the bottom of the kneecap. This changed in 1995 when MLB was concerned about an overbalance of offense in the game and lowered the bottom of the zone to below the knee. The effect was dramatic.

The situation is reversed, now, and recent concerns about declining offense seem to be driving the discussion. Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun goes a bit further by suggesting that the decline in offense over the past few years results, at least in part, from MLB going “to war against performance-enhancing drugs.” The inference is that all this talk about redefining the strike zone is connected to fixing the effects of taking PEDs out of the game.

Of course, another step in the inference chain could suggest that player’s gravitating to PEDs in the 1990s may have been caused, at least in part, by the lowering of the zone in 1995. Whether the two trends were coincident or causal is pure speculation, of course, but maybe subject for another post. Another point to note is that such a change will require buy-in from the Player’s Association and syncing up the change with their bargaining agreement. So even if this idea gets traction, nothing can happen this upcoming season (2016).

But let’s get back to the point. Tweaking the rules of the game to drive a desired effect is tricky. The Game is like an ecosystem. You let one species go extinct and all of a sudden you have a cascade of side effects that you didn’t expect and don’t know what to do about. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying, think about it.

There’s an expression about pitching – “Live low, die high.” There’s a lot of baseball in that phrase. A lot of practice and execution. A lot of coaching. A lot of missed spots and high fastballs tattooed over the wall. Millions of ’em. And a lot on the other side, too. Good hitting has learned, patiently, to handle the low pitch – how to dig it out or just lay off. So those low breakers aren’t always a strikeout pitch. Far from it. So there’s no question that raising the bottom of the strike zone a half mile (or whatever) will have plenty of effects, both direct and indirect, and on both pitchers and hitters.

For one thing, it’s going to nudge the curve of pitching competency away from the low-pitch, ground-ball specialist, and toward the power pitcher (as though we needed more of that). In fact, SBNation.com, for one, has explored the implications of this effect and on Friday (1/29/16) published an good piece written by Jason Cohen entitled “CC Sabathia wouldn’t survive a raised strike zone.”

The piece is an interesting read and includes heat maps and pitch graphics that tell us a lot about a pitcher who works down in the zone; that, and about sliders and sinkers and other pitches whose effect is most manifest at the bottom of the zone. Then again, leave it to SBNation.com to include a companion piece entitled “MLB is talking about raising the strike zone, and that’s good for Tigers’ pitchers,” this one written by Christopher Yheulon (1/28/16). The point snaps shut and it maybe makes you chuckle at how far you can take this.

Whatever the outcome, it won’t come easily. A move like this won’t likely raise the passions so much as the other hot off-season “thinking about” issue started by the new MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred (that the National League would adopt the DH), but it’s going to generate some. It’s conceivable that a change like this will hurt the careers of some pitchers, maybe even end it for others; on the other hand, others will have the value of their native skills enhanced. And ultimately, the nature and culture of the Game will adapt.

Postscript: The image of the strike zone that we use at the start of this article does a good job representing the proposed change to the bottom of the strike zone. The image’s representation of the top of the zone, however, while it appears to represent the rule-book definition of the top of the zone (Definitions of terms: “strike zone”), instead represents the single most glaring example of the culture of the game outstripping the rule of the game; because few players over the age of twelve are going to get a strike called where that graphic says they will. What I’m saying is, it’s the only one of the Official Baseball Rules that is willfully overridden by the cultural definition (if that’s what to call it) of the top of the strike zone. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.