Saturday, July 16, 2005

On "letting the players play"

Last night's loss, the Nats' fourth straight and seventh in nine games, ended in one of the rarest ways imaginable: a "walk-off balk." *

Chris tells us he's reviewed the play more times than Jim Garrison exhibited delusions of grandeur, and our resident Punisher characterizes it as "sketchy, at best."

Rocket saw something more conclusive and clearly disagreed with first base umpire Paul Schrieber's judgment of newly acquired reliever Mike Stanton's move to first in the bottom of the tenth inning: "bullcrap . . . [a h]orrible, horrible, horrible, horrible call" in which "[t]he Nats got screwed by Schrieber."

There is a split opinion among
the pros, as you might expect, and as Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beatwriter Frank Clines notes:

The ruling was that Stanton stepped toward home when he threw to first. It's no surprise that the Brewers saw it that way and the Nationals didn't.

Brewers' first base coach Davey Nelson said that he could tell Stanton would balk just by watching him warm up; Nelson related this observation to Richie Weeks, the allegedly aggrieved baserunner at first---and, I am presuming, to Schrieber as well.

Stanton, for his part, contended he was just using his "typical move," for which he had drawn a balk call on seven previous occasions in nearly 1,000 career appearances. Brad Wilkerson, the Nats' first baseman until Nick Johnson returns from one of the more dastardly heel injuries in recent memory, noted a long-held assessment that Stanton merely has "a great move."

And Frank Robinson? Well, at the risk of making another Zapruder Film reference, I'll just let Robinson do the talking, as related to, and as evaluated by, Mark Zuckerman of the WaTimes:

"He stepped to home and threw to first -- that was the umpire's explanation," Robinson said. "Now I want you to take a look at this." The Washington Nationals manager pointed to a freeze-framed video shot of reliever Mike Stanton at the moment he was called for a balk, the final and most bizarre moment of his club's 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Milwaukee Brewers last night. Stanton, clearly stepping more toward first base than the plate, was nevertheless called for a game-ending balk . . .

Obviously, you or I will never get an opportunity to view this freeze-framed shot (unless it's been on SportsCenter, and I haven't seen that), so whether it's dispositive or not (to the extent that we, as laypeople, can determine such a thing) is still an open question to us, at least. As for me, the less said about reviewing the play, the better; I saw it twice on replay and threw my hands in the air. I didn't see a good angle of it and must conclude, as
a poster at Baseball Primer (and an Angels' fan, at that!) does that the whole thing is "phenomenally inconclusive."

Curiously, Clines' gamer in the Milwaukee paper does not mention Robinson's invocation of the grand Warner Wolfism; instead, Clines focuses on Robinson's second argument, one which is also noted by the Washington papers and one---to my mind, at least---that weakens Robinson's stance on the incident tremendously:

"This is like a ref in an NBA game, with a tenth of a second on the clock, and he calls a touch foul and sends a guy to the free-throw line to win the ball game. They just don't do it."

I'm not entirely sure what the practice of pro basketball referees has to do with the judgment call of a pro baseball umpire, but Robinson's appeal to the "let the players play" maxim fails for at least two discrete reasons.

First of all, I think Robinson mischaracterizes the surety in which a ref or ump makes an individual call, even a close one. I have refereed basketball games and umpired baseball games (admittedly, not at anything approaching a high level), so I suppose I can speak from experience here: in the bat of an eye, something either is or isn't. Each separate situation yields a quick but definitive evaluation---a "yes" or a "no," not a balancing test of "Golly, it's a close call, but he sort of touched him, and I might be inclined to call a foul here, and hmm, but it's a close game and it's late, and I'm just going to say he didn't touch him enough for it to be a foul---although if it wasn't so darned close and late, well, maybe it could have been."

[Aside: The Milwaukee paper relates a third argument by Robinson, one which furthers a passing reference I made above: apparently, the Brewers complained three innings earlier that Schrieber missed a balk call (with another pitcher on the mound) and the implication is that Schrieber made this one as payback or to even the score. Other than perhaps exposing some "gamesmanship," I'm not sure how far this argument goes. Umpires do miss things---things they should be focusing on, but might not be at the time---and sometimes such appeals sharpen the ump's focus on a particular element of the game.]

Within the context of the game, is there a such a thing---from the ref's perspective---as a "touch foul"? I don't think so; sometimes, a ref or ump, upon seeing the replay afterwards, will admit an error on a call. Such an admission, however, does not rebut the official's confidence in the call at the time. Just read Schrieber's quotes on the balk call last night. Even accounting for the fact that MLB umpires tend to be brazen jerks, it's still clear that he didn't consider it a close call.

Schrieber saw what he saw. It wasn't a close call to him. If he's wrong, that's another story---it means he was wrong. But it doesn't mean that Schrieber called a "touch foul."

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the notion that the "time of game" should influence a call. This balk call was literally the last call of the game; thus, the Nats lost because of Schrieber's balk call, right? Well, not really. They lost because of many reasons, and they could have won because of many reasons. Schrieber's call was one of the reasons, sure (and if it was a bad call, then it constituted a phenomenally bad reason), but I think the sports world ascribes too much importance to "last events"---usually, I will add, because they are dramatic. Schrieber's call might have ended the game at an inequitable and incorrect time, but to pin the loss on this call is folly.

Furthermore, to do so is to negate the official's responsibility to call the game fairly. (This responsibility is distinct from an umpire's responsibility to call the game accurately, which Schrieber may have breached at the end.) To call the game fairly, the official must be blind of the specific situation. In college basketball, if there's eleven minutes left and a team's "big guy" has three fouls, the referee cannot willfully hold back on calling that all-important fourth foul just because the foul call would cripple that big guy's team. That's not fair; if there's a foul committed, it must be called. The same is true with a balk call in the first inning, the seventh inning, or the tenth inning (even with a runner at third, I might add). If Schrieber sees a balk, he must call it---no matter the consequences. As the arbiter, he must focus on the process, not the result.

At any rate, I'm glad to see that, in general, there's not much sentiment in Nats Nation for the situation to trump the substance here. If the substance of the call was wrong, then it was wrong---and, consequently, the Nats were wronged. But the situation, to my mind, is fairly immaterial.

Finally, I'll note that there might be the inclination to think that the Nats "lost on a technicality"---in the sense that a balk call is a technicality---because they didn't do anything to lose the game. After all, let the players play, right? The problem is, a balk is a judgment call evaluated based on the action of a player (namely, the pitcher) in no different manner than a ball and a strike is a judgment call based on the action of a player (namely, the pitcher---and sometimes the hitter, too). That in the former instance an ump focuses on the beginning of a pitcher's delivery whereas in the latter instance an ump focuses on the flight of the baseball makes no difference; a balk is no more a "technicality" than a walk. Similarly, a called fourth ball, forcing in the winning run, is no less a "technicality" than the play last night.

Ultimately, I'll come back to the two bloggers I cited way up at the top of this post. As for substance, if it was the wrong call, then I'm with Rocket and I'm mad; as for situation, if Schrieber's sure of the call, I've got no problem with him making it here or in the first inning, like Chris (if a balk is what the ump saw, especially in a pick-off scenario, "I have ZERO problem with the umpire making the call in that situation"). If the Nats got a raw deal, it's that the call was a raw deal, not that when it was made constituted the raw deal.

By focusing on both considerations, Frank weakened his argument concerning the more important of the two, the substance of the call---so much so that (assuming the Milwaukee writer actually saw the presentation) his best argument never made it in the Milwaukee paper.

Thanks to the research of a poster at Baseball Primer, we're able to note that walk-off balks aren't unheard of; in fact, it just happened last year. In addition, Chris found others; see his post for more.

I didn't care for Robinson's comments, so I'm glad that you seemed to disagree as well.

That said, I'm really not a fan of the balk in general. I'd like to see more attention paid to the part of the rule which requires that the pitcher intend to deceive the runner (although you're always trying to deceive the runner) which help make balks less about mechanics and more about keeping the game fair for the base runners. It seems that balk calls result in the highest percentage of disputed calls and, since the runner advances a base, it's one of the umpire decisions which can have the largest effect on the game. It especially sucks when they incorrectly overrule a successful pickoff.

The Orioles have something like eight balks on the year, although at least two were “phantom” balks. The next highest team is at four. I pretty much flinch whenever there's a pickoff attempt or step off in a crucial situation.
Interesting point. I think you could argue that this clearly was one of those situations, though it's debatable as to whether Stanton actually balked.

Maybe---given it's a judgment call---the penalty is too great?
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