A Gentle Plea for Less Selective Rule Enforcement

The other day, Marty Foster got himself in the headlines when he made a controversial call to end a close game between the Rays and the Rangers. “Controversial” is a more charitable way of saying “bad”. On that night, Foster’s judgment helped the Rangers win. On Wednesday afternoon, Foster’s judgment helped the Rays win instead, but this hasn’t generated nearly the headlines, because it’s hardly controversial. Allow me to briefly set the scene, with Foster umpiring at second base.

The Rays were leading the Rangers 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth, but the Rangers had the bases loaded with only one out. Mitch Moreland subsequently grounded to Kelly Johnson, and Johnson threw to Yunel Escobar at second in an effort to start a double play. Escobar double-pumped while throwing to first, though, and Moreland beat the throw, allowing a run to score. Yet the run was immediately erased and a double play was awarded. The Rangers wound up losing by that same 2-0 score. Foster awarded the double play, and Foster was not wrong to do so.

Jeff Baker is a baseball player I always forget about, and he was the guy running from first to second when Moreland knocked his grounder. Here’s what Foster watched Baker do, albeit in much slower motion:


The screenshot treatment might be even more telling. Here’s Escobar on the bag:


And then:



Foster signaled interference, determining that Baker went out of his normal path, which he very clearly did. As a consequence of the ruling, Baker was out, the batter was out, and the inning was over, with no run having scored. Had Foster decided otherwise, the final score at least would have been different. And the whole outcome might have been different.

What struck me first was that Foster made the call. What struck me second is how infrequently we see this call get made, despite the abundance of attempted take-out slides. I got to thinking about rules that are seldom enforced, if they’re ever enforced, and three of them immediately came to mind. Actually, four of them immediately came to mind, but I kind of understand the neighborhood play, specifically because of the take-out slides. I’m fine with a neighborhood play being allowed if an infielder is in physical danger, because rules ought to protect the players. Just so long as infielders don’t make a mockery of it. It’s a judgment call, and it should remain as such.

But as for the others, we’re dealing with take-out slides, hit-by-pitches, and pitcher pace. Let’s tackle these one at a time, taking care to blockquote the official rules. We’ll begin with the sliding.

Here is what’s officially written:

Any runner is out when —
(b) He intentionally interferes with a thrown ball; or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball;
Rule 7.08(b) Comment: A runner who is adjudged to have hindered a fielder who is attempting to make a play on a batted ball is out whether it was intentional or not.
If, however, the runner has contact with a legally occupied base when he hinders the fielder, he shall not be called out unless, in the umpire?s judgment, such hindrance, whether it occurs on fair or foul territory, is intentional. If the umpire declares the hindrance intentional, the following penalty shall apply: With less than two out, the umpire shall declare both the runner and batter out. With two out, the umpire shall declare the batter out.

You’ll recognize this as a rule that is selectively enforced. The Foster/Baker call is one of the exceptions, which is why both Baker and Ron Washington elected to argue. By the letter of the law, there can be take-out slides, but they can’t really be unusual slides; there can’t be a deliberate attempt to interfere with the defender in any way. Generally the way this is ruled now is that the runner can do pretty much whatever he wants so long as he can touch the base. Sometimes he doesn’t even have to be able to touch the base. Baker changed course, all but avoided the bag, and stuck his arm out. Baker was very clearly in the wrong, but many times this is permitted.

Again, rules should protect players, and protective rules should be enforced. The neighborhood play came to be because runners were going after infielders, and so infielders were allowed more space. Now runners have started intruding into that space. We don’t need infielders sustaining nasty leg injuries because a runner desperately wants to prevent a would-be double play. This isn’t the greatest example, but here’s Jean Segura getting hurt a few days back:


Gerardo Parra didn’t get called for interference, even though it looks like he deliberately took Segura out with his legs. Segura was hurt and soon thereafter he was removed from the game. This is a trickier call than the Baker call above, since Parra mostly went to the base, but if anything we should be enforcing things such that runners try to avoid infielders. As with home-plate collisions, the argument comes down to: baseball isn’t a contact sport. Take-out slides should be penalized. A rule is already in place; it just needs to be enforced more regularly.

Now we move on to hit-by-pitches. You probably all know where this is going. One of the official rules:

The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when —
(b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;
If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.

It’s the no-attempt-to-avoid rule, and it’s a real rule, and it’s almost never called. What ought to happen is that the pitch is ruled a ball. This is infrequent, and because of its infrequency, there’s always an argument when it’s actually enforced. Here’s an example of this rule not being enforced:


Obviously, it’s a judgment call. Obviously, it’s hard to spot a real attempt to avoid, especially when you’re standing behind the batter. But batters sometimes get hit on purpose, and batters sometimes go out of their way to get hit on purpose. Above, this would’ve been an easy pitch for Fielder to avoid. He’d just have to raise his arms up. Instead he dropped his elbow and got a free base out of it. There’s no reason for this to be allowed, not with the rules as written. I think I might rather see this rule enforced too often than not enough. What would be the downside? More actual plate appearances between hitters and pitchers? Pitchers coming inside more often? Any subjective rule will always have the occasional lousy interpretation, but getting this call right some of the time would be a step up from getting this call right practically none of the time.

And finally, pitcher pace. Here’s a rule that’s frequently misunderstood:

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call ?Ball.? The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

People have honed in on the “12 seconds” part. What this rule doesn’t say is that pitchers can’t have a pace of longer than 12 seconds. It says that, with the bases empty, the pitcher can’t hold the ball for more than 12 seconds so long as the batter is in the box. The idea is to keep the game moving, and here’s an example of the game not being kept moving. Here are 12 seconds of Jonathan Papelbon holding the baseball, and not getting called for a ball by any of the umpires:

Gattis never left the box, and by the 12-second point Papelbon was still looking in for some reason. He hadn’t even yet been given a sign, from the looks of things. What should have happened, according to the rules, is that Papelbon should’ve been charged with an automatic ball. What actually happened was nothing, except for the subsequent pitch, delivered several seconds later. This is a part of Papelbon’s game, and he’s not the only one.

We’re talking only about a matter of seconds, but seconds add up to be minutes, and baseball has an interest in reducing game length. These sorts of delays are unnecessary, and while you might argue that it wouldn’t be fair to rush guys like Papelbon and Rafael Betancourt, they’re the ones who are violating the rules in the first place. They could probably manage, and given the penalty of an automatic ball, they’d adjust in a damn hurry. No one should need more than 12 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty. One should be penalized for slowing things down, but it simply never happens. I’ll grant that umpires have an awful lot they need to be paying attention to, so it’s not as easy as just counting down from 12, but a rule’s a rule and if it’s not going to be enforced, it should just be eliminated so we don’t have to complain like this.

If you’re at all familiar with my writing, you probably know that I’m not real good with strong opinions. I don’t have many of them, not about sports, because I don’t think strong opinions are often warranted or well thought out. Among my strongest baseball opinions would be that the rules should be enforced as they’re written. I’m not going to abandon the game or anything if Papelbon still keeps taking forever and runners still keep taking out middle infielders, because those are small parts of the baseball experience, but defenders ought to be protected, pitches ought to be reasonably avoided, and the game ought to be kept moving forward. These rules should be enforced either all of the time, as much as possible, or none of the time. Nobody likes umpires inconsistency, least of all the players. Kudos to Marty Foster for getting the call right on Jeff Baker. If baseball’s going to have rules, it should follow the rules. What’s the sense of a rule that’s frequently treated as if it isn’t a rule at all? Do better. This is my plea.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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