The score was still within a manageable two runs when Hunter Pence “settled” into the box with the bases loaded in the third inning of last nights’ game seven win for the Giants. Joe Kelly, just in the game for Kyle Lohse, threw him a 94.5 mph two-seamer that bored in on the bat handle — just your typical bat-breaking, weak-ground-ball inducing heat in on the hands. Of course, you might have seen the slow-motion replay of what happened:
Thanks to SBNation for the GIF.
Yup, that’s a baseball hit twice — or three times even. And that’s a baseball that found center field grass and plated three Giants and blew the ball game open. But should it have been a hit? Was it illegal? And even if the rule concerning it as a hit was nigh-unenforceable in the moment, did the third hit fake out Pete Kozma at short? Did Pence, as some Cardinals are complaining, get an unfair boost from the extreme physics of the situation?
One at a time.
Should it have been a hit? Rule six of the official Major League Baseball rulebook has a rule that is relevant here:
A batter is out when –
(h) After hitting or bunting a fair ball, his bat hits the ball a second time in fair territory. The ball is dead and no runners may advance. If the batter-runner drops his bat and the ball rolls against the bat in fair territory and, in the umpire?s judgment, there was no intention to interfere with the course of the ball, the ball is alive and in play;
Rule 6.05(h) Comment: If a bat breaks and part of it is in fair territory and is hit by a batted ball or part of it hits a runner or fielder, play shall continue and no interference be called. If batted ball hits part of broken bat in foul territory, it is a foul ball.
Completely clear. Except of course what constitutes a broken bat. Is Pence’s bat broken the minute the handle spits out a splinter? Then yes, the hit should be legal. It was just a part of the broken bat touching the ball in fair territory (probably). But if Pence’s bat was still judged to be ‘whole,’ then it was an illegal hit and he should have been out.
In this particular case, there’s no way to heap on this umpire for making a bad call. After all, you’re asking him to make a philosophical decision — when is a bat truly ‘broken’ — after a play that only became clear once the slow-mo camera was applied.
But did the triple hit fake out Kozma? He can clearly be seen breaking the wrong way on the pitch before scrambling to his left after the bounding ball. But it seems impossible that Kozma was reacting to the first hit, which was milliseconds before the second and third hits. Baseball physicist Alan Nathan broke it down to me as nobody can:
I have a hard time believing that Kozma could actually see the initial trajectory after the first impact. It happened too fast. However, what Kozma did see is that the ball hit off the middle of the bat, which usually leads to a ball that is pulled. Hence his initial reaction moving to his right. Notice that the ball is barely moving after the first impact. Under normal conditions, this would have been a dribbler to the infield. The actual trajectory was different, as the final impact occurred at the end of the bat. The final impact was rather solid. Not only did that change the initial velocity vector, with the ball now moving to the left of Kozma, but it had a large amount of sidespin in it, causing it to slice away from Kozma and just out of his reach.
So another ‘yes and no’ answer. Yes, it’s possible that the double-hit faked Kozma out. But it wasn’t that he was reacting to the actual vector of the ball — he was just reading the fact that a righty had put barrel on a ball on the inside part of the plate. Little did he know that the righty would also put the end of the bat on the same ball.
Did that constitute an unfair advantage to Pence? Hard to say what’s unfair. It seems sort of like a rarer version of the ball hitting the bag and flying over the defender — stuff happens. So really this was just your typical broken-bat hit. After all, as Nathan says, it’s “not so unusual to get a well-hit ball from a broken bat” because often the “fracture does not even occur until after the ball leaves the bat,” or the break happens “in the handle, far from the impact location, so that the barrel end of the bat is not affected by the break until after the ball has left the bat.”
Since broken-bat hits happen, is there a chance this particular version of the broken-bat hit happens more than we expect? Nathan has seen it before, in a classic double-tap hit from Troy Tulowitzki, and wonders if there have been others out there — “we might never have seen this without the high-speed video, which is not often set up.”
Maybe there have been other triple-hits out there then. And maybe they, too, have thrown off defenders. They probably also flew right through the middle of the gray area in that rule. But none have done so on such a great stage, pulled off by one of the most awkward players in baseball, at such a crucial time. So, Hunter Pence, we thank you for what might end up being your signature moment.