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Baseball’s Got A Rule For That

Hunter Renfroe kicks a ball over the wall at Fenway.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I do not want to talk about whether baseball’s rulebook makes sense. I won’t do it! That’s not what this blog is about! I will not allow you, neither as individuals nor as a collective voice, to hijack my blog and divert it toward an argument about whether the rules are good. No! Never!

Instead, I would like to talk about how satisfying it can be, in our topsy-turvy world, when sports rules (even bad ones! I’m not getting into this!) are written clearly and coherently, and when they are enforced by the letter. Fans may be disappointed with outcomes—Rays and Astros fans may be feeling acutely disappointed this afternoon—but when the rules are clear and officials enforce them as written, only the most deranged fans could claim with a straight face that the results are illegitimate. A sport is just a set of arbitrary rules, producing an outcome. If the proper enforcement of the established rules produces a bogus outcome, simply change the rules. Anyway goddammit I am not getting into this!

In the 13th inning of Sunday’s Game 3 between the Rays and Red Sox, Kevin Kiermaier took a mighty rip at an 88-mph 3–2 slider from Nick Pivetta and crushed the ball to deep right-center, where it smashed off the low outfield wall. Already this was a suboptimal outcome for the Rays: Plus or minus a couple degrees of launch angle, or aided by even the gentlest breeze, a 105-mph big fly might clear that stupid little wall and count as a by-God dinger. But Kiermaier can really hoof it, and with the ball squirting around in the deep outfield, 420 feet from home, this was going to be a two-out run-scoring triple to put the Rays ahead.

But the ball did not squirt around in the outfield. It instead bounced into the leg of Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe, and then back over that stupid outfield wall. Kiermaier was rounding second; Yandy Díaz, ahead of Kiermaier on the bases after a one-out single, was headed home, but with the ball out of play the umpires called a ground-rule double and stuck the runners at second and third.

In the moment this might’ve looked like half-assed improvisation by the umpires, or home team bias, or baseball preferring outcomes that benefit the dreaded Boston Red Sox. Not so! As explained by umpire crew chief Sam Holbrook after the game, baseball’s rulebook describes how this exact scenario, however rare, is to be handled by umpires. Not only do they have a rule for this, they have a perfectly clear and unambiguous one. Maybe it’s a bad rule. I don’t care! Leave me alone! What matters is that it’s clear and straightforward, and that the umpires knew it and called it correctly, and then sat at the lectern in the aftermath and explained how it went down.

What are the umpires to do? What, after all, is the job of an umpire, if not enforcing the rules of the game? This rule doesn’t leave any wiggle room. It says that once a ball has landed in play, if it is accidentally knocked out of play by a fielder, it is considered a ground rule double, and the players are to advance two bases from the time of the pitch. That’s second base for Kiermaier and third for Díaz. That is the game of baseball, as described by the rulebook of baseball, which ultimately is all that the game of baseball is. Take it up with the rules! But do not even think about taking it up with the rules in the comments under this blog, or so help me God I will notify your employer that you are spending your workday doing harassments online.

The big moment of controversy in Chicago wasn’t quite so clear. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Yasmani Grandal chopped a grounder toward first. Houston’s Yuli Gurriel fielded it cleanly and fired to catcher Martín Maldonado, hoping to throw out Luis Robert, charging home from third. Gurriel’s throw skipped off Grandal’s shoulder and missed Maldonado’s glove; Robert slid home and wiped out crew chief Tom Hallion, who’d positioned himself with home plate directly between him and first base, and therefore in the path of Robert’s wide slide. Robert was safe at home, Grandal was safe at first, José Abreu was safe at third, and the White Sox had a two-run cushion.

Dusty Baker and the Astros objected, and umpires conferenced in order to reach a consensus. This is where rules that are burdened by judgment are a real pain in the ass. Hallion was standing in position to get upended by Robert’s slide because the home plate umpire’s job on a grounder on the infield is to stare down the line and apply something called a 45-foot rule in order to determine whether a baserunner’s route to first is within bounds and allows fielders a fair chance of completing a throw. The 45-foot rule—aided by a helpful line drawn three feet into foul territory, parallel to the baseline—gives runners half the distance to first to establish their route, recognizing that batters coming out of the box often start out at weird, indirect angles. Remember Trea Turner’s controversial out at first in Game 6 of the 2019 World Series? He’d used up his 45 feet (and then some), and was still inside the line, and therefore was ruled to have interfered with a throw to first from the direction of home plate.

Here’s where this all gets tricky. For one thing, Grandal was still well within that 45-foot grace area, where he is considered to be fairly establishing his route. But, irritatingly, because the throw was from first to home and not home to first, the 45-foot rule doesn’t actually apply, which means technically umpires have the discretion to determine whether Grandal’s route was designed to interfere with Gurriel’s throw. Did he veer widely in either direction? Did he stick out an arm? Was Grandal establishing his path, or was he swerving all over the place like a crazy person?

“We decided that there was no interference because on that play the ball was hit to the infield, and then coming back to the plate,” Hallion said. “That 45-foot lane does not even come into play. It’s the batter establishing his basepath. When he came out of the box and started running he didn’t veer off, he didn’t throw up his shoulder. He did nothing intentional to get hit with that ball. So, we all agreed, and that’s why we came out to Dusty and told him that it’s not interference.”

MLB.com

Here you will inevitably run into some mild fan derangement. When a White Sox fan looks at that play—and, more importantly, when umpires looked at it—they see Grandal running in a straight line and tucking his left shoulder in order to avoid being struck by a baseball. When Astros fans look at the play, with vision possibly clouded by whatever brain disease causes an otherwise normal person to root for the Houston Astros, they see Grandal doing the Electric Slide and flaring his shoulder in order to be struck by a hard-thrown baseball. I will admit that viewing angle makes a big difference. When I look at the replay above everything seems above board and fine. When I see the reverse angle, well:

Grandal deadpanned after the game that it was “just good baserunning, so we will leave it at that,” and in his version of events he was too focused on chugging up the line as fast as possible to think about tailoring his exact route for maximum interference. Maldonado, a fellow catcher, felt it was at least unusual for Grandal to start his route from the box so far away from the baseline, even if by doing so he established a valid path and put the onus on the Astros to throw around it. Baker felt it was clear interference; Tony La Russa agreed with umpires that “you can make your own lane” and therefore “they called the rule correctly.”

This was less clear cut than Kiermaier’s double, but ultimately the rulebook describes just enough of what is and is not allowed on the base paths for umpires to reach a reasonable conclusion. The rules are the rules. Sunday the umpires of the two games knew the rules, applied them fairly, and then stuck around afterward to explain their reasoning. That’s good! Maybe the applicable rules should be changed. Not my problem! Not the purview of the umpires on the field! Not the concern of this blog! Not suggested as comment fodder among people who value my friendship!

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