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A Mini-Scalia Almost Ruined the World Series

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It would be way too off-brand not to cover this, so it’s worth pointing out that while fortunately it ended up not mattering Sam Holbrook’s interference call in Game 6 was a hugely impactful and transparently erroneous call and I’m amazed anyone could defend it:

Gurriel lost his glove, the ball squirted away, and by the time the dust had settled, Gomes was on third and Turner on second. But only briefly, because plate umpire Sam Holbrook called Turner out for interference. The white line that runs parallel to the first-base line is supposed to create a runner’s lane, and Turner was technically outside that area. Under rule 5.09(a)(11), which MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre read aloud from the rule book at a postgame press conference, a batter is out when he runs outside that lane and interferes with the first baseman taking a throw.

But Turner was running a straight line from the right-handed batter’s box to the bag, which is entirely within fair territory, and more important than the way the rules are written is how the rules are enforced by umpires, and how their implementation is understood by players. Precedent of enforcement isn’t as binding in baseball as common law in the real world, but it informs players’ actions just the same.

Which is to say, this almost literally never gets called. Certainly not in the seventh inning of Game 6 of the World Series, on a play that, according to the FanGraphs WPA Inquirer, reduced the Nationals’ win probability by 14.2 percentage points. The controversial call had more impact on win probability than all but two actual plays in the game, and because the game in question was Game 6 of the World Series, it could quite easily have decided the championship. The Nationals immediately lodged an official protest, which was rejected on the grounds that a judgment call can’t be protested.

As Marty Lederman explains at the “literally never” link, as with so many strict constructionist textual arguments. even on their own terms defenses of Holbrook are bad, “MOOPS!”-level stuff, isolating clauses from the broader context of the rules to produce an obviously unworkable result. But the more important point here, as Baumann says, is that norms matter. You don’t suddenly declare out of the blue that the way every right-handed batter runs to first base on every ground ball is illegal in Game 6 of the World Series, end of story. And this isn’t even the first time Holbrook has pulled this shit; he was also responsible for the ridiculous infield fly rule call in the 2012 NL Wild Card Game, which some pedants also tried to defend according to the strict letter of the law while ignoring the fact that the rule is never called on plays like that for very good reason. Even the best officials will make bad calls but ones who want the game to be about them and come up with non-normative galaxy-brained rule interpretations at crucial moments are the worst. Anyway, Rod Manfed owes Anthony Rendon a new Bentley.

Baumann also has a good piece about the splendid Game 7, which among other things was a second-guesser’s delight. I actually agree that 1)all of Hinch’s pitching moves starting with lifting Greinke are at least defensible although it’s ultimately pretty hard to justify losing with Cole never getting into the game and 2)it’s actually harder to defend Martinez leaving Scherzer, who had nothing, in the game for five torturous innings, although since Kendrick hit a nasty down-and-in pitch off the foul pole and the Astros hit a couple of balls really hard right at people off Scherzer Hinch is the only one who will get hard scrutiny. What was fascinating about that game is that it turned on a dime; after 5 innings Grienke was pitching so well and the Astros were squaring up so many balls that 2-0 felt like 10-0 if you weren’t cheering for Houston, and then the lead evaporated in a blink of an eye. I’ll leave further analysis to Elizabeth, but for those of us with only a contingent rooting interest it was nice to have two compelling games after 3 straight dreary blowouts above all.

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