Game 3: In search of an unobstructed view

Some final opinions (oh, sure) about the play that ended Game 3:

We should not judge too harshly Boston’s postgame comments questioning Jim Joyce’s call. But I don’t think any of their points holds water.

  • Jake Peavy: “It’s a joke … it’s just amazing to me that it would end on a call like that that’s not black and white.”


Actually, it is black and white. Isn’t it? The rule on obstruction does not require malicious intent on the part of the fielder. The play fits the rule to a T: Middlebrooks was no longer “in the act of fielding a ball.” He did impede Craig’s progress, in a place where Craig had a right to be. You might not like the rule, but it’s hard to find fault with how it was applied here.

  • David Ortiz: “Will dove for the ball inside of the line and he got up inside of the line, too…. There’s not a rule that I can remember that tells you where you have to dive to and where you have to slide at.”
  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia: “I don’t know the rule in and out but it didn’t look like to me, it was obstruction.”

But it was obstruction. Craig had a right to run where he ran. Nowhere do the rules say that a runner must take a perfectly straight line between bases. A runner getting up from a slide into 3rd base will often take Craig’s path. He was no more than two feet from the bag when he stumbled over Middlebrooks. The rules don’t require him to try to avoid the obstruction, and I see no evidence that Craig tried to take advantage of the obstruction. He just tried to run home, in a natural way at game speed.

  • Middlebrooks: “There was no place for me to go. … I don’t understand it. I have to dive for that ball. I’m not in the baseline. I feel like if he’s in the baseline, he’s at my feet.”

Doesn’t matter. The basepath is wherever the runner happens to be, in a reasonable attempt to advance. Craig got up from his slide and took a stumbling half-step towards second base, just to right himself, then headed straight home. The contact did occur slightly inside third base, but Craig had every right to that path. He made a natural move towards the plate, and Middlebrooks was in his way.

The rule is somewhat harsh on the fielder in that situation — “what am I supposed to do?” — but it’s meant to protect the runner and to avoid judgment calls about the fielder’s intent. The rule might even trace to the 1890s, when deliberate obstruction of baserunners was rampant, and the umpires (one or two, at the time) could not watch every part of the action at once.

If the rule were, instead, neutral between the two parties, requiring an umpire to judge the fielder’s intent, then a fielder in Middlebrooks’s situation would have an incentive to create contact. In the play we saw, Middlebrooks could have more severely impeded the runner without obvious intent — say, by rolling over after the dive, or by springing right up to stand in his way home, or by stumbling into the runner in the process of standing up, all of which could have seemed a natural outflow of trying to catch the throw. And if it were left to the umpire to gauge his intent, and the winning run is likely to score otherwise, wouldn’t we say Middlebrooks should try to delay the runner? Do we want that kind of baseball?

There are many situations where the rules put a fielder or runner into a “what am I supposed to do?” bind. A runner must avoid a fielder who is making a play directly in his path. A fielder may find his throwing angle blocked by a runner. A runner may find a base blocked off by a fielder in the act of receiving a throw. In each case, two players’ legitimate goals are in conflict. The rules aim to settle those conflicts with the least possible resort to umps’ subjective judgment. The result is tough luck for one or the other, but the alternative rules would be worse. If a runner plows over a fielder who is playing a ground ball, or if a GDP relay hits the approaching runner, do we want umps deciding who was at fault, who should have acted differently to avoid that contact?

The rules must establish a default preference for those conflicts, because the alternative is chaos. If the rule for this play didn’t default in Craig’s favor, then Jim Joyce must decide not only whether Middlebrooks intended obstruction, but whether he made a sufficient attempt to get out of Craig’s way. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

It’s a tough pill for the Red Sox to swallow. But if the rule was different, and Craig was called out at home, that would be just as tough for the Cardinals to accept. Fairness is not the rules’ only purpose; they also must make the game playable without endless disputes. And that aim was fulfilled here. There is no legitimate dispute of Jim Joyce’s call. It feels bad to lose on a “no-fault” rule. But I think it feels worse to have a game affected by a bad judgment, such as the “infield fly” call in last year’s NL Wild Card game.


Koji Uehara’s Game-2 tally of minus-0.375 Win Probability Added is the lowest ever in the Series for a reliever who finished a loss without taking any decision. The other 31 finishing efforts scoring below minus-0.3 all got a loss or a blown save, often both.


Game 3: In search of an unobstructed view — 27 Comments

  1. Imagine a sport where just this sort of question appears to be presented at least somewhat ambiguously many times every single game. Oh, there is one — it’s called “American football”.

  2. Without foul line umpires, it’s not inconceivable that the 3rd base umpire may have turned his head to follow the ball into left field. And, missed the play at 3rd base entirely.

    But, Joyce didn’t do that, and made the right call without hesitation. Good on him.

  3. Can anyone translate Tim McCarver’s remarks, anticipating an offseason review of the obstruction rule, during the top of the 1st inning? I just have no idea what he was trying to say.

    • I was going to type the same thing. Why does the rule need to be changed? Because a game ended on that play? It was the right call.

    • “There’s a lot of that rules that either if applied directly or indirectly that umpire’s decisions, uh, often, or umpire’s judgements often, uh, if an umpire in this particular case thinks obstruction… a guy.. a guy obstructing and [key?] to the guy point to the next base, he can call it, otherwise no call.”

  4. I agree that the call was a valid interpretation of the rule.
    The rules offer too much ambiguity, though.

    Here’s Hirschbeck commenting on what the baseline is:

    “Don’t forget, the runner establishes his own baseline. If he’s on second on a base hit and rounds third wide, that baseline is from where he is, way outside the line, back to third and to home plate, it’s almost a triangle. So the runner establishes his own baseline.”

    Of course, this doesnt include running to first base.
    And it doesnt include having a clear path to home.

    And in way of looking at it, Craig’s ‘own baseline’ involved moving half a stride back towards 2nd before heading home. And yes, that is arguable.

  5. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge the Red Sox comments too harshly, but they were all spouting nonsense. Peavy’s quote seems to suggest an inability to comprehend that the rules should always be followed, even when they go against you in key situations.

    It reminded me of recent comments by outspoken football (soccer) manager Jose Mourinho after losing a tournament final. Mourinho’s team had a player sent off (ejected), changing the course of the game. Mourinho claimed that, whilst the call was correct, any referee who “loves football” should not make that call. Hmmm.

  6. I agree with you 100%about JA. I was (a little) surprised at the nonsense spouted by so-called analysts. But also I wasn’t. The appeal to intent, I knew that was wrong before MLBN put the rule up on the post-game. And the whole “where was I to go” from Middlebrooks, Lowell et al, I found funny too. It’s a *good* rule and altering it would suck.

    Home plate collisions on the other hand, given how frequently they result in injury and our current understanding of the long-term risks of concussions, that potential review in the offseason I can get behind.

    • Part of me thinks “home-plate collisions are part of baseball,” but then think about this – you don’t see guy’s trying to barrel over the second baseman on a tag play, right? Albert Belle excluded? So if you can’t try to slam the ball out of the fielder at 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, why can you do so at home?

      • Because it is the fielder, not the runner, who is causing the collisions. 2nd basemen, shortstops and 1st basemen don’t wear armor so they don’t get in front of runners going full speed. Catchers do, so they do.

  7. It seems to me that the only legitimate angle the Red Sox could take in complaining is that, as Voomo says in #4 above, Craig chose the only baseline where obstruction would apply. If he just got up and ran directly from third base to home, he would have been unhindered and likely safe.

    And there’s the whole point. As soon as Middlebrooks misses that throw from Saltalamacchia, the Cardinals win. Any claim the Red Sox might make that they should have won is basically begging for a bailout. Inwardly, I think the players recognize that this game was lost on bad decisions, by Salty here and by Farrell over the preceding few innings. Outwardly, it’s easier to blame the umpires for making a “bad judgment call” than to blame your colleagues.

    • Craig’s base-running skills are a little awkward here, but to say he should’ve taken a different route to home is unrealistic. So, I think you mis-characterize his choice of baselines as a legitimate angle.

      He has the right to get up from the ground wherever his momentum takes him (in this case, since he looks over his left shoulder to see the ball get away, he gets up on that side of the base) and have an unimpeded path to home plate.

      Now, if Craig goes out of his way to get an obstruction call, that’s a different story. The best analogy here is in the case of rundowns. We’ve all seen plenty of times, I’m sure, where a fielder gets rid of the ball in a rundown and doesn’t get out of the way of the runner, and is called for obstruction. We’ve also seen plenty of times where a runner goes directly at a fielder as he’s getting out of the way in a vain attempt to get an obstruction call. If Craig had done something along those lines, it’s not obstruction.

      • I appreciate your point Dan, and I’m not arguing about the call’s correctness. The call was fair and correct. Had the obstruction not been called, though, I think Joyce could have justified it with the basepath issue.

        Maybe it’s not the case, but it appears likely that Craig was on the ground because his bad foot didn’t allow him a clean slide, and that a healthy Craig would have popped up and run down the chalk line. If that’s the case, are we giving him a break for his own clumsiness? Craig put himself in a position to be obstructed. I don’t think he intended to, but does Middlebrooks have a responsibility to get out of the way of all the places Craig’s injured foot might take him?

        • It might be better to think about the question in this particular case not as a matter of of Middlebrooks’ “responsibility”. Rather, think of it as simply measuring Craig’s run down the line toward home as being based on what he would have done with an unobstructed opportunity to run the 90 feet instead of his actual obstructed run. Middlebrooks is not penalized in this particular case for failing to get out of the way; the rule simply pretends the (presumably) inadvertent (and perhaps even unavoidable) obstruction didn’t happen.

          I don’t think anyone would challenge the notion that with a clear path in this case Craig scores. Once the ball is past the fielder, the rule merely gives the runner the assumption of that clear path whether he actually has one or not. The fielder can get out of the way or not get out of the way, but the rule will base the result of the play one way or the other on the time it would have taken to make an unobstructed run (“runners shall advance…to the bases they would have reached, in the umpire’s judgment, if there had been no obstruction”). That seems to me to be a good rule to use in a game that is fundamentally one in which bodily obstructions are not supposed to be a significant part of the sport.

          There is, though, one part of the rule, which did not really come into practical play in this case, that might be appropriately reformed. That’s the sentence that says “The obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction.” That suggests that Craig would have been awarded home safely even if he would not have made it absent the obstruction. That really would be a true penalty for even a completely inadvertent or indeed even an unavoidable obstruction, and might be unfair to the fielder and disproportionately beneficial to the runner. It might even encourage runners to try to get themselves obstructed (a form of the “flopping” familiar to basketball and soccer fans?) I would seriously consider getting rid of that part of the rule, or at least basing that part of the rule on some evidence of intent to obstruct on the fielder’s part.

          • Birtelcom makes a good point here that we shouldn’t look at this as a penalty against Middlebrooks, just a rule that’s intended to rectify something that shouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances.

          • Regarding your last paragraph, birtelcom:

            “The obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction.”

            That’s from 7.06(a) which covers when a play is being made on the obstructed runner. In this case, since no play is being made on Craig at the time he’s obstructed, 7.06(b) applies, which says:

            “The umpire shall…impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction.”

            Hirschbeck even said in the post-game presser that if Craig was thrown out by 20 ft. at home even after the obstruction, he probably wouldn’t have been “protected” to home. In other words, he may have still been called out.

          • bstar @18 — Thanks for that link! Strictly speaking, I’m not sure that’s a “flop” — it looks like Marson’s impetus really did force Mesoraco to fall down.

            But of course, the issue is that Mesoraco sought the contact, and wanted to be knocked down. But I can’t find any rule that Mesoraco violated, as long as he didn’t go 3 feet out of his basepath. Looks like he exploited a loophole, one which MLB seems still not to have closed up.

            I guess I’d be OK letting the umps judge intent on that kind of play. :) But they’d have to use that power very judiciously.

          • JA: it’s a minor point, but watch Mesoraco again and again. You’ll see he doesn’t break inside toward the pitcher’s mound until the catcher moves that way also. So he’s basically throwing himself into the fielder on purpose.

            I’ll agree the weight of the contact did force him down; the “floppy” part was raising his hands in the air. Bravo.

        • I know what you’re getting at, but it really has nothing to do with cutting Craig some slack for his own clumsiness and/or his choice of basepaths.

          Running out of the baseline only comes into play when avoiding a tag. Therefore, the only possible issue with the path he chose would’ve been if he intentionally tried to run into Middlebrooks in order to get an obstruction call. That’s pretty obviously not the case here.

          With regard to Middlebrooks’ responsibility, quite simply, he has no right to be anywhere that Craig wants to be at that point. Two players got in each other’s way. One of them had the right to be there. The other didn’t.

  8. Ultimately I’d have more sympathy for the “what was I supposed to do” comment from Middlebrooks if it were a batted ball. I think the answer to his question, on some level, has to be that he should be teammates with a catcher who can throw the ball to 3rd base without putting him in that position.

    I’m hopeful that MLB is looking at this rule over the winter more as a courtesy and as a standard practice when a high visibility event takes place, rather than with actual intention of changing it. Perhaps there are some clarifications or modifications that can be made, but, as Bryan pointed out, any changes that result in the the runner not advancing on a play like this would be foolish.

    Perhaps they will clarify differences between batted and thrown balls. It is exceedingly rare for a diving fielder to be directly in the path of a runner on a batted ball because the runner usually takes his lead such that there isn’t a fielder directly between him and the next base. On a line drive the fielder won’t have had the time to get into the runner’s path and on a ground ball that the fielder runs and dives for the runner won’t be heading for that fielder lest he cause interference.

  9. Here’s kind of a silly tangent: Does anyone care that the only error on the obstruction play was charged to Middlebrooks, none to Saltalamacchia?

    Rule 10.12(c) says, “When an umpire awards the batter or any runner or runners one or more bases because of interference or obstruction, the official scorer shall charge the fielder who committed the interference or obstruction with [an] error….”

    OK, if you charge an error on Middlebrooks, you can’t also have one on Saltalamacchia — two errors for the same one-base advance, no good.

    But the comment to that rule says, “The official scorer shall not charge an error if obstruction does not change the play, in the opinion of the scorer.”

    Taken literally, those seem inconsistent. If the base is AWARDED for obstruction, then of course obstruction changed the play. Thus the comment could never apply.

    But they took the trouble to add the comment, so it must mean something. And my guess is that it means, if the result of the obstruction call was only to award the runner a base that he would have gotten without the obstruction, then the obstruction should not be charged as an error.

    Without the obstruction, Craig scores on Salty’s overthrow. Shouldn’t it be E-2?

    (Or maybe I should quit chewing these bones….)

    • Even if it’s technically an error on Middlebrooks, it’s what I call a “mental error” on Salty’s part. If Salty doesn’t throw, Pete Kozma, hitless in the WS and batting .152 (.243 OBP) this postseason, comes up with two outs with a runner on first.. strikeout, ground ball, or easy fly ball and the game goes into extras.

    • This is confusing. The way it is written seems to suggest that the error should only occur on 7.06(a) obstruction where play is stopped and bases are awarded (and then only in some of those situations). In 7.06(b) obstruction where the awarded bases are only an attempt to nullify the obstruction there probably shouldn’t be an error.

      It’s possible that the play was scored wrong, but more likely that the official scorer has access to and knowledge of interpretations that we don’t have.

    • “The official scorer shall not charge an error if obstruction does not change the play, in the opinion of the scorer.”

      I suppose this comment would have been relevant if the umpire called obstruction but Craig was still called safe at home on the play.

      • But he techincally did score on the throwing error (or maybe Middlebrooks should just catch the ball, I personally think the error is more his anyways because the throw was fine even if it was dumb).

        The obstruction was what stopped him from scoring on the throwing error. So once the obstruction is called, shouldn’t the error be to the thrower (if the throw is what deserves the error, not the missed catch).

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