But for This…

“If we win, it’s going to be here forever. If we lose, then we’ll forget about it. The thing is, if we win, it’s going to be on the highlights for the rest of the years.”
- White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen on the phantom dropped third strike

Well, let’s just say the umpiring this postseason hasn’t exactly been stellar and leave at that.

OK, of course as baseball fans we can never actually leave it at that so we might as well indulge ourselves.

But before we’re too hard on the boys in blue let’s take a moment to remember that despite the, shall we say, questionable calls by Doug Eddings (dropped third strike), Phil Cuzzi (Jim Edmonds‘s strike call), Greg Gibson (Adam Everett’s phantom tag on Yadier Molina), Joe West (questionable interference call on Robinson Cano), and Ron Kulpa (missed catcher’s interference) Major League Baseball has done at least two things in the past few years that have—to use a metaphor from another sport—moved the ball forward.

First, Sandy Alderson, while still the VP of Umpires for Major League Baseball and before he moved to the Padres earlier this season, instituted the guidelines that directed umpires to huddle and get the call right (at least theoretically) rather than operate under the assumption that once a call is made it is set in stone. While this may cost an umpire a little dignity on occasion there is no doubt that more bad calls are corrected now than in the past. While Alderson was pleased after the 2004 postseason that only one call was missed after a huddle (that occurring in Game 3 of the NLDS between St. Louis and Los Angeles), unfortunately for the Angels and Cardinals the umpires didn’t always avail themselves of the opportunity this postseason.

Second, despite all the criticism of the implementation of the QuesTec system (and for a critical history see Howard Bryant’s recounting in Juicing the Game) introduced in 2001, the fact is that it’s a step forward because it finally provides some accountability that will in time breed uniformity. For example, Robert K. Adair’s excellent article “Cameras and Computers, or Umpires?” in volume 32 of The Baseball Research Journal showed how the QuesTec strike zone differed from that of umpires’ zones, data that could certainly be used to enforce a uniform zone more in line with the rule book.

Now if they would only do something about shrinking the wide assortment of different gestures that umpires use to make calls we’d really be getting somewhere. I think it was Will Carroll who pointed out the obvious when he noted that nobody comes to the ballpark to watch Doug Eddings perform his precious strike three “mechanic.”

The idea for this article came to mind while skimming the daily digest for SABR-L (and have I ever mentioned that if you don’t belong to SABR you should?) and running across a post where a questioner speculated that being on the right end of a blown call in the postseason seems to be the pathway to a title. Specifically, our poster mentioned the following well-known calls or non-calls as the case may be:

  • 1969 World Series, Game 4, bottom of the 10th inning. Mets catcher J.C. Martin bunts with the goal of getting Rod Gaspar to third. Orioles pitcher Pete Richert fields the bunt and throws to first but the ball hits Martin in the wrist and bounces into right field allowing Gaspar to score and the Mets to win 2-1. Clearly Martin was inside the baseline, but umpire Shag Crawford lets the play stand.
  • 1975 World Series, Game 3, bottom the 10th inning. The Reds’ Ed Armbrister bunts with nobody out and runner on first. He hesitates before heading to first which impedes Carlton Fisk’s throw to second. Interference is not called and the Reds end up scoring a run and winning 6-5.
  • 1985 World Series, Game 6, bottom of the ninth inning. Jorge Orta rolls a grounder to Jack Clark who flips to Todd Worrell for the out—well not really. The Royals win the game and the series the next night, and Don Denkinger becomes anathema in St. Louis.
  • 1991 World Series, Game 2, top of the third inning. Ron Gant hits a single and is “muscled” off the base by Kent Hrbek while retreating. Gant is called out by umpire Drew Coble despite a heated protest by Bobby Cox. The Twins go on to win the game 3-2 and the series in seven.
  • 1996 ALCS, Game 1, bottom of the eighth inning. Derek Jeter hits a fly to right and Tony Tarasco waits for it to come down in vain as 12-year-old Jeffery Maier reaches over the wall and catches it. Rich Garcia sees no interference, and the Yanks go on to win the game, the ALCS and the World Series.
  • And of course there are others that could be cited, including Eric Gregg’s strike-zone-you-could-drive-a-truck-through in game five of the 1997 NLCS in which Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Braves on his way to a 2-1 win and an eventual World Championship for the Fish, and Elrod Hendricks’ empty-gloved tag of Bernie Carbo in game one of the 1970 World Series, among others.

    But what’s really the point of reliving all of these moments? Well, I think it’s interesting and perhaps instructive for at least one reason.

    In an essay titled “Jim Bowie’s Letter and Bill Buckner’s Legs” the late Harvard paleontologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould argued that the way in which people remember the grounder that went through Buckner’s legs in game six of the 1986 World Series, and I think the way in which many of these blown calls are remembered, has much to do with the human propensity to search for patterns in the world around us.

    In short, it was Gould’s contention that Homo sapiens’ ability to recognize patterns, while an extremely useful skill in a complex world, has the side effect of sometimes leading us astray when we attempt to force the world into our preferred patterns. In this case the patterns manifest themselves as narratives or stories that proceed in a limited number of ways and that help us cope with the world around us. This limited set of stories Gould calls “canonical stories” contain themes of directionality (the story moving in a specific sequence to a specific goal) and causality (nothing is random). The existence of these canonical tales is what Francis Bacon (1561-1626) would have termed “idols of tribe” or thought patterns inherent in human nature.

    The cases in the poster’s note related to blown calls leading to championships and the case of Buckner’s grounder as identified by Gould are illustrations of the “but for this” canonical story where the need for causality is king. In this canonical story a single event is magnified in importance and made the reason that a specific outcome occurred which has the effect of obscuring other elements of the story. In fact in the case of Buckner’s grounder you’ll often now see it reported (as I did last summer) that the error let in the World Series winning run as if game seven never happened. In other words, as Guillen pointed out we remember these plays primarily because they are linked to a specific outcome and not necessarily because the play determined it. The lesson and caution is that we’ve probably all too easily forgotten the calls that went the other way and in our retelling are prone to simplify the events in order to fit them into our prescribed patterns.

    I’ll certainly concede that all of these plays were certainly called incorrectly and nudged the outcome in a specific direction. A simple look at the Win Probabilities before and after each event would be enough to convince us of that. But in a single baseball game, let alone a seven-game series or an entire postseason, there are countless discrete events, all of which combine in unpredictable and interesting ways to lead to the outcome we see.

    So for our poster I would say that while every champion needs a little luck, let’s not forget that the Mets and Royals still had to win game seven, the Braves still had a wonderful scoring opportunity in the eighth inning of game seven of the 1991 World Series, and of course Joe Crede still had to hit the ball.

    References & Resources
    Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville – by Stephen Jay Gould, 2003
    Juicing the Game – by Howard Bryant, 2005

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