Thursday, June 03, 2010

Re-Joyce Indians

Disclaimer: This could be might be read by some as an apology for Jim Joyce. It is not intended to be. Also, I am an Indians fan, and obviously I had an interest in my team avoiding the ignominy of being retired in order by Armando Galarraga. My initial reaction was relief. My second reaction was rationalization--"Call me a homer, but he bobbled that ball." Sorry P, but he didn't. Jason Donald should have been called out, and the Indians surprisingly dreadful offense was in deed set down in order by Armando Galarraga.

That being said, I think it is instructive and a little disturbing (if such things were actually disturbing) that the outcry over this call from the general public appears to be greater than it was for some of the equally egregious calls in the 2009 postseason. Baseball fans have an unhealthy obsession with feats, sometimes elevating them above the objective of the game itself, which is to win. Some of the biggest controversies in baseball are not about calls that decide ballgames, but calls that decide interesting, impressive, rare, but ultimately insignificant feats.

This is another point at which this is going to sound like an apology, that I'm saying it's okay to blow a call that ruins a perfect game but not a call that decides a game. That's not what I'm saying. It's not okay for umpires to make terrible calls in the ninth inning of a 15-3 game, in the ninth inning of a perfect game, in the eleventh inning of game seven of the World Series, or in the first inning of a September game between the Pirates and Astros when both are twenty games out of first place. But for a call that affected an individual feat and not a game outcome to be the catalyst is a case of twisted priorities.

Suppose that Jason Donald's "hit" had occurred in a 3-2 game with a runner at third. This play would have stolen a victory right out of the jaws of the Tigers and extended the game. What would the outcry have looked like? It probably would have been pretty tame.

Sure, Baseball Tonight and MLB Tonight would have shown the replay several times, talked about what a bad break the Tigers got. Tiger fans would have vented their frustration in cyberspace and over talk radio, and advocates of expanded replay would have justifiably used it as another case in point. But it would not have dominated the conversation. It would not have come close to knocking Ken Griffey's retirement out of the lead position on the baseball wire.

I realize that I might be in the minority, but I think it is a sad commentary on the general mindset when a call that ultimately has no effect on the outcome of the game is considered a greater injustice than the similarly bad calls that do effect the outcome of games. It is a mindset born out of an unhealthy emphasis on the individual feat.

It may seem incongruous for a sabermetrician to dismiss the importance of the individual feat, when so much of sabermetrics is based on evaluating individual performance. I don't believe that it is, because sabermetrics embraces probability and large sample sizes. Whether the play was called correctly or incorrectly will make no measurable difference in any proper sabermetric evaluation of Armando Galarraga. It is only on the micro-level of the evaluation of the individual game that Galarraga suffers--and other players suffer every day in the majors.

And let's be honest--the call was not the worst call that was or will be made in the majors this year. I heard people say he was "out by a mile". No, he was out by a step or 3/4 of a step. That's a wide enough gap that the call should be made properly, but that's not the way it works in practice. It was unquestionably the wrong call, but it was not a particularly egregious blown call relative to the standards that have been set.

That does not excuse Jim Joyce or excuse MLB for allowing bad calls to persist. Instead, it illustrates the futility of giving this play special treatment, elevating this play to being worthy of breaking an entire game's history of precedent and creating ex post facto rules. Rule 9.02(a) is clear: "Any umpire's decision which involves judgment, such as, but not limited to, whether a batted ball is fair or foul, whether a pitch is a strike or a ball, or whether a runner is safe or out, is final."

Does it have to be this way? No, not necessarily. If this event serves as a catalyst for a reconsideration of instant replay, a renewed scrutiny on the process by which umpires are selected and evaluated, or any related area, then at least something positive will have come of it.

Another sentiment that I heard which I find disturbing is that the umpire should have, if he had any doubts, sided with Detroit because of the magnitude of the situation. I cannot imagine a worse guideline to put in place for umpires. I have no doubts that umpires do sometimes let their emotions cloud their judgment, or let the situation influence their call. This should be discouraged as strongly as possible. The umpire should always make the call to the best of his ability and as free from outside pressure as humanly possible. In some cases, the policy of erring on the side of the extraordinary will produce a better outcome, and tonight was one of them. In the vast majority, it would produce worse outcomes, and outcomes that would make a mockery of fair play.

That's another example of where I doubt the outrage would be far less intense--if the play was a mirror of itself, and Donald was truly safe by the same margin he was out by, but was incorrectly ruled out. This would have gotten a healthy amount of attention, and for the next five years or so it would be remembered as the Perfect Game That Wasn't.

There are actually serious suggestions that the commissioner step in and somehow change the call. I feel like I'm beating a strawman even responding, because I'm dumbfounded at the notion that anyone could think that was a good idea, but against my better judgment I'll list some of the many reasons why that is a terrible idea:

1) It ignores precedent and gives the commissioner ex post facto authority

2) It undermines the authority of the umpires, with their judgment calls now up for outside review (this does not mean I'd be opposed to a rule change that would allow review (i.e. replay))

3) It gives the impression that a call altering an individual feat is more important than one altering the outcome of a game

4) It turns MLB into something akin to the NCAA or the Olympics--a competition in which you can't leave the park with confidence that what you've seen will be recognized as actually happening. Trevor Crowe's plate appearance that followed would be wiped from existence.

Many will think I'm going overboard here, but I can only speak for myself--I take this very seriously. I don't watch any NCAA sporting events except those that involve my alma mater, with a secondary reason being that I don't have any confidence that what I'm watching won't be declared meaningless by an infractions committee someday. (*)

On an unrelated note, I have been extremely impressed with Galarraga's comments. He seems to be a class act. No one should be robbed of a perfect game, but if it had to happen, it's a shame it didn't happen to Dallas Braden instead.

(*) I realize that when games are protested, sometimes they are played over or replayed from a certain point, and what came before is wiped out. But this happens if and only if the umpires error in enforcing the rules, not whenever they make a simple error in judgment. There's a big difference between the two, and it has an enormous impact on the frequency of such rewrites.


  1. "Suppose that Jason Donald's "hit" had occurred in a 3-2 game with a runner at third."

    Suppose it was Ichiro, suppose it was the bottom of the tenth, and suppose a runner came around to score. Then you would have the Twins-Mariners game from last night, which ended on a botched call. No matter though, because the AL Central never comes down to a single game lead.

  2. Right. The Twins call might have changed the outcome of a game, and had an effect on a pennant race. This is much more important than a piece of trivia...except in the eyes of a large number of baseball fans, apparently.

  3. Love the comment thrown in about Dallas Braden. I can not stand that guy. He's a loud-mouthed, completely classless guy that needs to learn his place. Never have I seen a package of so much entitlement and arrogance with so little accomplishment. And after his grandma's 30 seconds of fame, it's obvious where he learned it.


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