Friday, October 7, 2016

Cal Ripken Was Right, Oddly Enough

Last night's ALDS Game 1 between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox featured a somewhat odd play. Cleveland's Lonnie Chisenhall slid into second base, beat the throw, and was called safe. The Red Sox challenged the play because they thought Chisenhall came off second base while Xander Bogaerts was still applying a tag. The play was overturned on review because the Red Sox were right -- Chisenhall popped off the base for a couple of seconds.

This led Ernie Johnson, TBS play-by-play man who is normally the guy sitting between Kenny Smith and Shaq, to discuss the role of replay in baseball (I can't find the video of this, unfortunately). He said that replay should not be used this situation because, in real time, the umpire could never have made the call that Chisenhall wasn't on the base. Ron Darling, Ernie's booth mate, agreed. But Cal Ripken, who plays the role of weird sideline reporter/color commentator, and says the most boring and obvious things all the time, vehemently disagreed. He said that runners should have to keep contact with the bag the entire way through, and that it was right for Chisenhall to be called out. They went back and forth for a surprising amount of time about this. MLB Network Radio even put out a Twitter poll asking which side people agreed with (Cal's side won 51% of 237 votes -- a tight one!).

There are a lot of things going on in this argument. The weird thing is that I agreed with Cal Ripken, Jr. on every aspect. Unusual.

Ernie's gripe, in the beginning, was mostly about the role of replay. His argument can be stated this way: replay should not be used for plays like this because no umpire could have ever seen the play correctly, and only with super-slow replay cameras at multiple angles could the "correct" call be made. This goes against the spirit of the game.

This argument is somewhat confusing. Isn't a good aspect of replay that it can make normally invisible things visible -- in fact, isn't that the only purpose of replay?

In other words, how is this example different from an umpire who just simply makes the wrong out/safe call at first base because it was so close? In both cases, the actual baseball rule was not applied correctly because an umpire did not see the play correctly.

Let's assume that Ernie is right in that no umpire could have seen the Chisenhall play correctly.* Why is that appreciably different from a close play at first base, when an umpire theoretically could have seen the play correctly? In both cases, the umpire didn't see the play correctly, and that's where replay can help apply the rules of the game. Of course, if you're just against replay because you think it violates the tradition and spirit of the game by simply existing, that's a whole other conversation -- you would be against replay being used on this play and on every other play. Ernie was not saying that.

Cal's counterpoint was related to Ernie's objection, but it was not a direct rebuttal. Cal said that an important part of the game is to keep contact with the base at all times. He buttressed this point of view by saying that he never liked the enforcement of the "neighborhood play" on double plays -- if the fielder covering second comes close to touching the base on a double play, the runner is called out. Ernie dismissed this argument and said that runners should be given some modicum of leeway -- that surely, it's acceptable to break contact with the base for a split second if you were good enough to beat the throw.

Cal did not respond to Ernie's replay argument, but he does make a compelling point. Keeping contact with the base is an absolutely fundamental part of baseball. The sport is predicated on the fact that runners are vulnerable most of the time -- advancing a base is intentionally difficult, and comes with considerable risk. Keeping contact with the base must be taken into account with this risk. It's most of the reason why sliding is a thing -- so you can be sure to stop right at the base. This part of the game is one of the things that truly makes baseball what it is; you couldn't change this part of the game without changing the game entirely.

Ernie makes a point about Chisenhall's skill: he should be given leeway because he beat the ball to the base, which is the most important thing. Speed, the runner's ability to beat the ball to the base, is essentially the skill that is being used in these situations. But on a basic level, the game is not about "speed" -- it's about getting from base to base, and being safe only when you're on the base. So the fact that Chisenhall beat the throw is important, but only part of the equation.

Let's look at the opposite situation: the balls beats the runner to a base, but the runner avoids the tag before hitting the base. Of course, in these situations, the runner should be safe. The "most important" skill being used in these situations is in the throwing -- how quickly and how accurately can you get the ball to the base? But the rest of the play must be executed as well -- the tagger has to tag. In the same way, even if a player has the requisite speed to beat the ball to the base, the player still must maintain contact with the base.

The argument that I'm making might be construed to be similar to a common problem in football -- what's a catch and what isn't? If I believe that a runner must keep contact with a base 100% of the time and in all situations, do I also think that even if the football moves slightly while the receiver hits the ground, it should not be ruled a catch? Am I just a stickler and a killjoy?

These situations are meaningfully different. In football, the "catch" rules are inherently subjective. 99% of the time, you can tell it's a catch by looking at it. That other 1% of the time is difficult to adjudicate. There's wiggle room there -- the NFL could word the "catch" rules in several different ways (and they have) that would be theoretically valid. Does the player have to maintain complete control until his knee hits the ground? Does it matter if he loses control when his elbow but not his shoulder hit the ground? Does this matter if it's in bounds or out of bounds? These are all questions that could be reasonably answered in different ways, and while we might disagree, all would be intellectually valid.

In baseball, this is not the case. You're either on the base or you're not. You either tagged the runner before he made contact with the base, or you didn't. Of course, it may be hard to tell by looking at it (which is why replay is a good thing), but God knows what really happened on each play. There is an objective answer, and the umpires are either objectively right or objectively wrong (Einstein's theory of special relativity notwithstanding). The extent to which we want umpires to expend effort and delay the game in order to get it right is debatable, but that's not the point I'm making -- in real reality, it's binary.

So we're essentially left with two different arguments, and Cal is right on both.

Argument 1: Replay should not be used to review plays that the umpire had no chance of getting right in real time. This, as explained above, makes no sense.

Argument 2: Runners in Chisenhall's position should be given leeway for breaking contact with the base for just a split second. This, as explained above, is also wrong, because it goes against a fundamental aspect of baseball.

Cal Ripken, Jr. often says the most obvious things in his weird role as sideline color commentator. But this time, his very obvious take -- runners have to be on the base to be safe -- is actually very compelling. I don't, however, see him making a good point again for about another 2,632 games.

*This assumption is not compelling to me, by the way. Chisenhall did clearly beat the throw. Why would the Red Sox have challenged if it was impossible for someone to see that Chisenhall broke contact with the base? Someone saw it -- probably Bogaerts or Pedroia, or even people in the dugout -- and thought it was worth burning a challenge over on in the 2nd inning.

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