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.

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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.

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