An Inauspicious Night for Will Middlebrooks

You may have heard that Game Three of the 2013 World Series had an unusual ending. The kind that nobody could have predicted. Even @CantPredictBaseball had trouble finding the right words to describe the play.


Imagine, if you would, a vast scale of all difficult-to-predict ways a game could end, ranging from unlikely to unbelievable. On the unlikely side of the scale you have something like a 1-2-3 double play. On the unbelievable end is Bud Selig arbitrarily deciding that he’s seen enough (oh wait…). An obstruction call at third base on a play that included a tag out at home plate falls smack dab on the end of the unbelievable side. In case you want to see the play again (h/t @CJZero):


Before anyone rushes down to the comments to argue about the veracity of the obstruction call, here’s some pertinent text from the MLB rule book. Emphasis mine.

OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.

Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.” It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the “act of fielding” the ball. For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.

This text describes the play in question in near perfect detail. Will Middlebrooks stretched out for the throw from Jarrod Saltalamacchia, missing it and falling over in the process. Allen Craig proceeded to trip over Middlebrooks who was no longer “in the act of fielding a ball.” Obstruction was correctly called. You can try to quibble about Craig being out of the three-foot wide lane that forms the basepath, but that seems like a losing argument after viewing the replays.

And if you really want to argue about whether or not the call was valid, Dave Cameron already has a poll on the topic.

As for the topic at hand, Middlebrooks had an unmercifully difficult game. He entered in the seventh inning as a pinch hitter for Stephen Drew, who’s just 4-for-42 this postseason with one walk and 15 strikeouts. Middlebrooks later stayed in to play third base with Xander Bogaerts moving to shortstop.

Middlebrooks’ at bats were uneventful in a bad way  - a one out fly ball to center and a leadoff strikeout in the ninth inning. More noticeably, the defensive change immediately came back to bite the Sox as Matt Holliday doubled in a pair of runs past a diving Middlebrooks in the bottom of the seventh. At the time, participants on Twitter and the FanGraphs Live Blog seemed to think that Bogaerts would have at least fielded the ball. That’s pure speculation, but it did seem as though Middlebrooks reacted slowly.

Of course his night finished with the obstruction call in the ninth. It’s hard to fault Middlebrooks here. Saltalamacchia made a throw that was ill-advised on a number of levels. Just within the scope of that particular play, Saltalamacchia needs to know that his own throwing arm is not first rate. Despite Craig’s hobbled status, it didn’t look like there was any chance to get him out with less than a perfect throw. Holding the ball would have been wise.

Had Saltalamacchia been thinking ahead, he would have realized that Koji Uehara had a very good chance to get out of a first and third situation with two outs. Uehara was set to face Pete Kozma and the Cardinals pitcher if it got that far. The Cards had already used their last pinch hitter of note that inning (Craig). Light-hitting backup catcher Tony Cruz was the only option remaining on the bench.A Kozma hit against Uehara to end the game would have been more predictable than an obstruction call, but it’s still a very unlikely event.

Middlebrooks’ end of the play was seemingly unavoidable. He sold out to catch a bad throw and the timing of the play prevented any attempt for him to get out of the way. Many have commented that he lifted his legs a bit, but it appears that Craig tripped independent of that and it’s very unlikely that the leg movement was a conscious decision. It’s a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dave Cameron, opined that rule itself could stand for amendment. This particular case does seem like the baseball version of football’s “incidental contact” rule. As the sport moves toward using technology to make more accurate calls, it may be time to ask the umpires subjectively evaluate intent. That being said, this type of play happens maybe a couple times a season. The vast majority of obstruction calls are the result of lazy execution during rundowns and you mostly only see that in the lower levels.

It feels both fitting and a shame that such a great game ended this way.

Source: FanGraphs

The game graph looks like the Cardinals controlled this one – and in a sense they did – but it felt like it was anybody’s game from start to finish. It’s too bad we didn’t get a hero.

By the way, Dustin Pedroia made an amazing fielding play and throw.

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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, MLB Trade Rumors, and The Fake Baseball. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

36 Responses to “An Inauspicious Night for Will Middlebrooks”

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  1. Justin Bailey says:

    The obstruction call was 100% correct. But I have a couple questions. First question: Middlebrooks was lying on the ground and Craig tripped over him, so what was he supposed to do to avoid causing obstruction? And I don’t mean that rhetorically. Really, what was the appropriate course of action for Middlebrooks to take there?

    Second question: should Middlebrooks have been able to handle Saltalamacchia’s throw? To me it looked he should have at least been able to prevent it from going by him. But I’m not sure.

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    • Shannon says:

      Several courses of action on Middlebrooks’ part would have taken the possibility for obstruction out of play:

      -He could have left the base to corral the throw, rather than try and stay on the base and reach for it. In that even, even if he doesn’t field the throw, he ends up well out of the way (and presumably still standing) so that he is not obstructing Craig’s path to home plate.
      -He could have moved to the back of the base to field the throw (allowing Craig to slide in front of him), so that even if he dives and the throw gets away from him he still is not in between Craig and home plate after the throw gets away.
      -He could have caught the ball. If he catches the ball then it is no longer obstruction since he is in possession of the ball.

      It seems clear to me that he should have simply given up on trying to catch and apply the tag to the runner to make sure the ball doesn’t get away without having to dive for it. The obstruction call is a consequence of two different Red Sox players making the risky play to try and get an out (Salty throwing it in the first place, and Middlebrooks trying to lean out to catch the ball and apply the tag rather than just coming off the base to make sure the ball didn’t get away) and executing poorly.

      With regards to your second question, yea it didn’t seem to me that the throw was nearly bad enough for it to have gotten away. Middlebrooks should have made the play.

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    • JimNYC says:

      Once Middlebrooks missed the throw, he was basically toast. He should have come off the bag to at least block the ball in front of him. Once the ball got past him with him still on the ground, the obstruction call was inevitible.

      The rule on the books is the right one – a runner should never have to change his normal path to avoid a fielder who has no opportunity to tag him. But once Middlebrooks missed the ball, there was nothing else he could do.

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    • JSG says:

      I’ll echo what Shannon and JimNYC have said. Despite the contention of the article, I don’t think it’s hard to fault Middlebrooks at all. In fact, I think he’s at least as responsible for the errant throw as Saltalamacchia is. The throw wasn’t really *that* bad. Middlebrooks has to come off the bad and field the throw cleanly. He tried to make a catch and tag almost simultaneously, and the ball got away from him. The error is his fault.

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  2. isavage30 says:

    I don’t really get why anyone would say that this play indicates the obstruction rule should be amended. It’s not really comparable to “incidental contact” in football, because when that happens in football you’re talking about contact between two players who both have a right to occupy their space and go for the ball. In baseball, a runner has the right to run unimpeded in the base path, the fielder doesn’t have some equivalent right to also occupy that space when he’s not attempting to field anything. Why should intent matter? The only reason anyone’s making the argument is the particular circumstances here where Craig was scrambling up from his slide and didn’t have to advance, but if you’re saying that intent should matter for obstruction, what if a runner’s going from second to third on a force play and the shortstop dives for a ball in the base path, misses it, the guy trips over him, can’t get up in time, and is then thrown out at 3rd? That would be very unfair to the baserunner, right, even if the shortstop didn’t intentionally trip him? It’s equally unfair to Craig if he’s called out when he would’ve almost certainly made it had he not tripped over the 3rd baseman. If Middlebrooks had rolled away from the base path after falling, then we’re not talking about the umpire, but Boston still lost, and people are just talking about the crappy throw by the catcher and that fact that Middlebrooks maybe should have knocked the ball down. Which is probably what should be talked about anyway.

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    • baycommuter says:

      Saltalamacchia’s arm has looked bad the whole series — this could be one of those series decided by one team being much stronger at a single spot than the other, like 2009 with Rivera vs. Lidge.

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  3. PackBob says:

    Another factor against Saltalamacchia’s throw is that without the obstruction Craig would have been safe at home. The obstruction call gets the press but Saltalamacchia’s throw was the root of everything bad (for Boston) that followed.

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  4. BMarkham says:

    The Cardinal’s pitcher was not up, Wong was. A double switch made earlier put Wong in at the pitchers spot and the pitcher’s spot at Freese/Descalso’s old spot, which Craig pinch hit for that inning.

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  5. Richard says:

    Other people have already laid out why the current rule should not be changed.

    Minor quibble: Kolten Wong was up after Kozma. You must be an AL guy.

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  6. Kenny says:

    This is about the fourth consecutive Fangraphs article suggesting or implying that a proper rule should be written where intent matters. Yet no one has yet given a single reason why intent should have mattered. The whole point is: if Craig doesn’t fall over Middlebrooks he scores. This has nothing to do with Middlebrooks’ intent. Why in the world shouldn’t Craig score?

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    • Wobatus says:

      Because he was a bit of a doofus of a runner and could have easily run straight from 3rd base to home without running into Middlebrooks? OK, too harsh, but how about they are both entitled to the spot unless it appears Middlebrooks intentionally stayed in his way?

      It was pretty good to make an attempt, since if he let the obstruction keep from even trying it might not have been so crystal clear the obstruction was the difference in the play at the plate. Going made the call easier. Imagine if he hadn’t gone and they just awarded him home what an even bigger controversy that would have caused.

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      • isavage30 says:

        He turned to look where the ball was and took off for home in a straight line, and Middlebrooks happened to be in that line, so it’s not like he had an option to avoid getting tripped. If he’d gone out of his way to get tripped, then it would be different. Why should they both be entitled to the spot? You think a fielder should be entitled to just block part of the base path and force the runner to go around him?

        If Craig hadn’t broken for home, then there would be no obstruction and it wouldn’t have been called.

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        • Wobatus says:

          Shouldn’t he have listened to the 3b coach and not looked over his left shoulder at the ball?

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        • isavage30 says:

          What does it matter? He turned and tripped. The way he came up from his slide, Middlebrooks was in his way, on the base path. The only way the argument you are making would matter would be if the runner didn’t think he could make it, intentionally tripped himself, and was still awarded a base due to obstruction. That was clearly not the case here.

          I don’t get the viewpoint that somehow intent should matter, at all. You said below “He can’t magically get out of the way. Instantaneously.” Again, what does this matter? The base runner wasn’t REWARDED last night due to the obstruction. Had Middlebrooks been able to get out of the way instantaneously, it’s not like Boston would have won, Craig would have scored standing up. Why is anyone asking “what could Middlebrooks have done to get out of the way?” Craig scores easily if Middlebrooks isn’t in the way, so it’s not like Middlebrooks was punished by Joyce or that there was fault to his obstruction. He could have caught the ball, or knocked it down, but at the point it went into the outfield, Craig scores, unless he’s tripped or falls down.

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      • JSG says:

        Whether or not he’s a “doofus” is irrelevant. First of all, the guy has a foot injury, so that explains a lot of why he isn’t the fleetest of foot right now. He was plenty fast enough to score if he wasn’t tripped. And he couldn’t avoid the collision as he was looking to find the ball and was already starting to run when he turned his head back around. He has the expectation that a fielder won’t be lying in front of him because the fielder is now allowed to do that. And if the fielder *is* there, obstruction must be called. Even the slowest base runner in the game would score on that play if he isn’t tripped. This is why intent has to be irrelevant. Otherwise, it rewards a fielder (or in this case, two fielders) for making a bad defensive play and penalizes the runner for not being able to get out of the way of a guy who was illegally in his way.

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        • Wobatus says:

          Yeah, I know he is injured. My point about being entitled to the space is that he went for the ball and he’s now flat out at the same time Craig is in the same spot. He can’t magically get out of the way instantaneously. No intent to impede, it just happened. Probably as written its obstruction but it seems merely incidental he is in his way.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      It seems to me that this is purely a matter of preference, which is why that wasn’t the article’s focus. It’s perfectly reasonable to like the rule the way it is or to desire some kind of escape clause for the rare cases where a fielder ends up occupying the basepath due to a missed fielding play.

      It seems the general consensus is that Middlebrooks could have prevented the play by being a better athlete or Salty could have prevented the play by making a better/no throw.

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      • Sam A says:

        The rule already has an escape clause for the case when the fielder misses the ball and is flat on the ground.

        If the rule is changed you would either have to allow fielders to lay in the basepath at their own discretion/risk or you have to allow for the umpire to decide whether the fielder took to long to get out of the way. IMO, either of these options would be worse than the way the rule is now.

        It sucks that a WS game was decided by this rule and call, but the moment Craig tripped over Middlebrooks a controversy was inevitable. Any rule (or interpretation of a rule) was going to go against one side or the other.

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        • Sam A says:

          My bad. The rule doesn’t have an “escape clause.” (Yes, I do know what that means.) The way this situation is handled under the current rule is better than any alternative.

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    • RC says:

      “The whole point is: if Craig doesn’t fall over Middlebrooks he scores. ”

      If Craig doesn’t intentionally leave the basepath and run Middlebrooks over, he scores too (most likely). Seriously, he ran towards the pitching mound, not home plate.

      The point is, you can’t make “knock down the nearest fielder” a legitimate play.

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      • Jason B says:

        “The point is, you can’t make “knock down the nearest fielder” a legitimate play.”

        It’s a good thing it’s not then.

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  7. Wobatus says:

    It actually looks to me as if Middlebrooks is trying to get his lower legs out of the way of the base path directly to home plate. About the best he could attempt other than teleporting out of the way as Cameron notes in his piece.

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  8. beckett19 says:

    I’ve watched this play over and over, and I really don’t think there is a gurantee that Craig scores. Is it closer? Sure, of course, but there would be a play at the plate, and I think it would be almost 50-50 odds. Craig looks absolutely spent running down the line, and Nava made a solid throw. But oh well, I’m sure Jim Joyce made a great call as he checked out the fans in the stands.

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    • John Thacker says:

      Yeah, but baseball generally errs on the side of penalizing the violator of a rule (with yes, room for umpire reasoning.) So even if it’s 50-50, I don’t have a problem with giving him the base. The fielder is the one who committed the offense, so he loses the benefit of the doubt. You can’t give the 50-50 the other way, and reward the violators.

      It’s not football, where you might hold to prevent a sack or interfere with a pass to prevent a TD, and while you hope the play doesn’t get called, you’d rather have the penalty than let the sack or TD happen. Or basketball, with non “intentional” intentional fouling. Or flopping or intentional penalties in soccer, or penalties in hockey.

      The penalties for violating the rules of baseball are pretty harsh. Unlike a lot of other sports, play is expected to be pretty clean, and it’s not supposed to be strategic to break the rules.

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    • isavage30 says:

      He was out by about two feet as it was. He lost a ton of time when he was tripped. He’d have been 3/4 of the way home by the time the ball was fielded if he hadn’t been tripped. I think he’d have been able to go in standing up if Middlebrooks hadn’t been in the way.

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    • JSG says:

      No way it’s remotely close. The guy tripped and fell down. That cost him two seconds (seriously, I went back and looked at the tape–it’s a full two seconds). In the two seconds afterward, he had managed to get two thirds of the way down the line. He was out by less than a foot (remember, it wasn’t a great throw, so the catcher had to reach across to tag him just in front of the plate. If he’s not tripped, he probably scores standing up. And seriously, pay attention. Joyce looked at the throw for less than half a second before looking back at Craig and Middlebrooks right when the collision happened. This is the only call.

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  9. Shauntell says:

    The play was pretty close as it is, and Craig lost at least a second because of Will, so I’m pretty sure he would have been safe. Plus the second time he got up he stumbled a little on the way to the plate, which slowed him down even more which wouldn’t have happened if not for Will. Give Craig one more second and he’s in there fairly easily…

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  10. Jay says:

    I’d say this game had a hero: Allen Craig. With a bad ankle, he comes into the game against one of the best closers in all of baseball and rips a double down the line. Recognizes Pedroia’s throw and makes a heads up base running play to get to third. Then, after apparently reinjuring himself tripping on Middlebrooks, still sprints to the plate convincing Joyce (correctly) that he would have been safe if unimpeded. Craig has had a tough time getting recognition in the playoffs. In the 2011 WS he hit 3 home runs, 2 go-ahead RBI singles and also robbed a home run — all with a cracked kneecap that would require surgery after the series. But that year he was overshadowed by David Freese. Last night he comes in as a pinch hitter against one of the toughest pitchers in baseball and almost single-handdedly wins the game (with a huge assist from Saltalamacchia) and all everyone can talk about is the umpiring.

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  11. If Middlebrooks wasn’t there Craig most likely would have scored. But what if Craig was thrown out by 20 feet – ie. wouldn’t have scored if he didn’t trip over?
    According to the rule he still would have got the run? That seems a problem.

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    • isavage30 says:

      They specifically said if he’d been out by 20 feet they’d have likely called him safe. He wasn’t automatically awarded the base. The play continued after Joyce called obstruction, the home plate umpire deemed him safe at the end due to the obstruction, because he likely would’ve scored if unimpeded.

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  12. beckett19 says:

    I’m actually ok with the rule, and I guess I can accept the call . . . If the umpire is paying attention. I mean come on, the infamous Jim Joyce decides to make this call WITHOUT LOOKING. It just begs controversy, even if the call is right

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  13. james wilson says:

    The last time a base runner going home was obstructed four feet to the second base side of the bag was during the War Between the States, and the field was not all that. Anyway, it’s not Yankees-Red Sox so nobody is going to start a war. May the worst team win.

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  14. NS says:

    Interesting choice of text to emphasize. First of all, the text is explicitly referring to a batted ball, not a thrown one. Second, the most important part of the text might be the words “very likely has obstructed the runner”.

    Why write it this way? Why wouldn’t you just say if all of that, he *has* obstructed the runner? In what situations would that happen and it not be obstruction?

    I don’t know the answers, but that’s the obvious starting point for this conversation.

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