Less than 24 hours after the controversial invocation of the Infield Fly Rule in MLB’s first ever Wild Card Game, I went to a book signing in Alameda, CA. The author (or co-author in this case)? None other than former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. As he signed books for me, I asked him for his take on the Infield Fly call (his new book is largely about the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series run, but who can focus on the past when the present (or recent past, as it were) is so damn interesting?). He said that it was the right call, referencing the “ordinary effort” language from the rule. I asked him, even assuming ordinary effort, wasn’t the timing of the call an issue? Left field umpire Sam Holbrook’s arm went up less than a second before the ball hit the ground, seeming to offer little (of the intended) benefit to the runners in considering whether to advance at their own risk. La Russa’s counter was that the lateness of the call corresponded to the location of the play. To his thinking, the Infield Fly Rule typically comes into play within the confines of the infield diamond and therefore a determination can be made more quickly. Given how far the ball traveled in this instance, the umpire had to wait longer to make the call. I thanked Don Tony for his insight and 16 fine seasons managing the Cardinals, then went on with my day. The baseball world hadn’t heard the last of the Infield Fly Rule yet, though.
In Game 1 of the NLDS between the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants Saturday night, the umpiring crew made not one, but two Infield Fly Rule calls, in the bottom of the 9th no less. Neither was controversial. Watching those plays, the first “conventional” Infield Flies since Friday’s near riot in Atlanta, I was struck by what I perceived to be a similar delay in giving the signal. The batted balls went up in each case and the umpire waited…and waited…and then the call was made. Are all the hyperventilating fans and players and commentators and analysts watching this, I thought? Can’t they see that play on Friday wasn’t that extraordinary by comparison?
Not satisfied with a mere eye-test, I resorted to some pseudo-science to determine just how out-of-the-ordinary Friday’s “Outfield Fly” was in comparison to two routine Infield Flies in the Reds-Giants game. Using a stopwatch, I timed each play in segments. I was hoping to measure three things. First, how did Holbrook’s call compare to the calls in the Reds-Giants game in terms of the time it took him to make the call after the ball left the bat? Second, how did Friday’s call compare to Saturday’s calls as far as the time that elapsed from the call until the ball was caught or hit the ground? And third, at what point in the play should the umpire have been able to make the call? Keep in mind, we are dealing with plays lasting seconds and tenths of seconds, so to call my numbers precise would be a stretch. Human eyes and thumbs were involved, but the numbers (even if inexact) paint a pretty clear picture. We begin with the number of seconds it took each umpire to give the Infield Fly signal from the time the ball left the bat:
Cincinnati-San Francisco #1 (runners at 1st & 2nd, nobody out, Angel Pagan batting): 3.9 seconds (home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi made the call, C Ryan Hannigan made the catch)
Cincinnati-San Francisco #2 (runners at 2nd & 3rd, 1 out, Pablo Sandoval batting): 3.0 seconds (1B umpire Brian O’Nora made the call, 2B Brandon Phillips made the catch)
St. Louis-Atlanta (runners at 1st & 2nd, 1 out, Andrelton Simmons batting): greater than 5 seconds*
*This number is difficult to pin down exactly, because you cannot see the umpire in the original feed, nor in any actual-speed replays. I clocked the total play time (from Simmons’ bat to the grass between SS Pete Kozma and LF Matt Holliday) at between 5.9 and 6.2 seconds. I clocked the time at which Kozma calls for the ball at 3.8 seconds. Based on the slow-mo replay, Holbrook’s call comes after that, just before the ball drops. Measured in slow-mo time, the entire play took roughly 7.1 seconds, with 6.3 elapsing prior to Holbrook’s call and 0.8 between his arm going up and the ball falling in left field.
At the very least, we are talking about an extra second-plus up to more than two seconds in difference between the time it took for the umps in the Reds-Giants game to signal the Infield Fly Rule and the time it took Sam Holbrook. Of course, Cuzzi took 3.9 seconds to call a ball that came down just in front of home plate. Would it take a ball an extra second or two to travel to short left field? Maybe. So far nothing appears aberrant to the point of ruling out entirely the possibility that Holbrook got the call right. We move on to the second metric: the length of time between when the umpire’s arm went up and the ball was caught or hit the ground:
CIN-SF #1: 1.6 seconds
CIN-SF #2: 1.4 seconds
STL-ATL: less than 1 second*
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare Infield Fly for the benefit of the runners.
Here is where things start to fall apart. We are talking about something more than half a second, but less than a full second difference, which seems so minute. But Holbrook gave the Atlanta baserunners less than half the time to react that his counterparts provided in San Francisco on Saturday. That’s a late call. And it didn’t have to be that way. Take a look at the third metric, specific to the Cardinals-Braves game: time at which the play could have been called:
In San Francisco, the calls were both made at the point in which the fielder (Hanningan and Phillips, respectively) were camped underneath the pop up. This is something Ron Darling and others on the TBS announcing team kept referring to with respect to Kozma: “he wasn’t camped.” The rule states nothing explicitly about “being camped” or anything of that nature. What it does say is this:
“Seems apparent” means the time to call an Infield Fly is nothing more or less than a judgement call. Still, take a look at these numbers:
Length of time from when the ball left the bat until when Kozma called off Holliday: 3.8 seconds
Length of time from when Kozma called for the ball until the ball hit the ground: 2.1 seconds
In other words, if Holbrook invokes the Infield Fly Rule when Kozma began to wave Holliday off, it is right in line with the two Infield Fly calls from Saturday in terms of timing. Even if Holbrook waited another half second to confirm that Kozma did indeed have position, he would have made the call 1.6 seconds before the ball hit the ground, or right in the range of the two Saturday calls. The depth of the ball may still have been in dispute, but the timing would not have been. It would have been more or less exactly in line with the timing of two routine Infield Fly calls on Saturday.
Based on the inexact science of clocking fly balls on a smart phone, therefore, I have to humbly disagree with Tony La Russa with respect to the timing of Sam Holbrook’s call. I felt that Kozma’s approach to the ball fell within the range of “ordinary effort,” just like Tony. But there was time for Holbrook to make the call before he did, and after having as good an idea as he ultimately did about whether the rule applied. Of course, the location and effort on the play cannot be divorced from the timing of the call. You cannot say “he got the call right, but he called it too late.” If the timing isn’t right, the call doesn’t have the intended effect (notifying the runners of the play) and is therefore a bad call. So, while I believe that, in terms of where the play was made the rule was correctly applied, the timing of the call undermined the purpose of the rule, making it ultimately a bad call. Tough break for the Braves, but no one call determines the outcome of a game. Three errors by the National League’s best defense had just as much to do with the Cardinals’ victory on Friday as a single bad call. Who knows, if Simmons had been safe at 1st, perhaps Mike Matheny would have summoned Marc Rzepczynski to face Brian McCann with the bases loaded. It worked so well yesterday against Washington, he would at least have had to try it, right?
For reference, here is the complete text of the Infield Fly Rule:
An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare Infield Fly for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare Infield Fly, if Fair.
The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul.
If a declared Infield Fly is allowed to fall untouched to the ground, and bounces foul before passing first or third base, it is a foul ball. If a declared Infield Fly falls untouched to the ground outside the baseline, and bounces fair before passing first or third base, it is an Infield Fly.
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infieldernot by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpires judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpires judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.
When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. If on an infield fly rule, the infielder intentionally drops a fair ball, the ball remains in play despite the provisions of Rule 6.05 (L). The infield fly rule takes precedence.