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.
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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