The Call

What happened?

For those of you who are just tuning in, in the bottom of the ninth inning last night, with two out, the bases empty, and the score 1-1, A.J. Pierzynski swung at and missed strike three from Kelvim Escobar on a low splitter. Catcher Josh Paul appeared to snag the ball just as it was hitting the ground.

Plate umpire Doug Eddings appeared to signal Pierzynski out using his standard mechanics – he swept his arm to the side and gave the “door knocker” – a fist pump that is commonly used by umpires to call both “strike” and “out.” However, both Pierzynski and Eddings say that the verbal “out” call was never made.

Pierzynski, not hearing that he was out, ran to first base. In the meantime Paul, having caught the third strike, rolled the ball back to the mound; the Angels failed to make a play on Pierzynski. Eddings called Pierzynski “safe” and after an argument with Mike Scioscia, he sought assistance from third base umpire Ed Rapuano. Rapuano could give Eddings no help – his view had been blocked.

A stolen base and a ringing double by Joe Crede followed, the White Sox had won 2-1 and the controversy was on.

Was the call blown?

It appeared to me from watching video replay that the call that the third strike was not caught was incorrect. Eddings mentioned to the press that the replay showed the ball “changing direction,” but I could not confirm this from the replay. However, the play was extremely close and it’s possible that Paul trapped the ball on the ground instead of catching it in flight.

Why the argument?

The argument has arisen because Eddings appeared to signal that Pierzynski was out, but then reversed himself after Pierzynski ran to first. Both Paul and Eddings confirmed that Eddings did not make the call that the third strike was uncaught.

When a third strike is dropped, what must an umpire say and signal?

Umpiring mechanics are often extremely complicated, and not all umpires employ consistent mechanics. The first thing to note is that the umpire’s call and signal are supposed to go together. The signal is a visual aid, and the verbal call is the actual “call,” but an umpire is supposed to make both together. Mike Scioscia, but no one else, claims that Eddings called Pierzynski out. Pierzynski and Eddings himself specifically deny this. At any rate, his signals certainly indicated that Pierzynski was out. Eddings denied this to the press, but a review of the video indicated that during a previous at-bat in the sixth inning of the game, Eddings had waited to give the “door knocker” signal until the batter was tagged.

Umpires are taught that an “out” call should not be made on a third strike until the umpire is certain that the catcher has held onto the ball – which sometimes isn’t until the umpire has sought assistance from a base umpire, who has the better view on trapped balls. “Strike three, you’re out!” is not the proper call. Instead, the umpire should call the strike and then wait to make the out call – and wait as long as necessary. While “out” has not been called, the play is live.

Many umpires, when they know the ball has not been caught, prefer to alert the players to the fact by calling “on the ground … on the ground” while pointing to the ground. This is not every umpire’s standard, however; some just point to the ground and others do nothing. Paul states that he assumed Pierzynski was out because he did not hear Eddings make the “on the ground” call, but that is not a safe assumption for a catcher, who should play to the “out” call.

It is possible that the plate umpire will not make the “out” call but also will not make the “on the ground” call, because he requires assistance from a base umpire. It seems likely that Eddings was looking for Rapuano to give him assistance (which the base umpire will often do by making an out signal – not a call – or pointing to the ground) but they failed to communicate until later.

If Eddings called Pierzynski out, was it wrong to overturn the call?

Even if we accept that Pierzynski was called out, would the umpires have been wrong to reverse themselves? Traditionally, the answer to that would be “yes,” because a call that an umpire would otherwise overturn that was made during a “continuous action” play was held to be unchangeable, because the call itself affects the ensuing play (such as where Josh Paul rolls the ball back to the mound, assuming the third out).

However, prior to the 2003 season, MLB told its umpires that it was moving to a new standard of umpiring, in response to criticism from players, managers and fans about the umpires’ inflexibility. No longer would it be permissible to defend a bad call based on the “continuous action” defense. Instead, umpires were encouraged to conference together on the field where necessary, but to get the call right – and to make the necessary choices and decisions to administer a more flexible justice on the field.

The directive to “get the call right” means that plays like last night’s are going to happen. Of course last night, the umpires didn’t get the call right, they got it wrong. Paul appeared to catch strike three. However, whatever case the Angels might have that the umpire called Pierzynski out, it means nothing in light of the directive to get the underlying call right no matter what effect the original calls had on the play.

It was hard luck for the Angels that they were harmed by the call, and equally hard luck for Mark Buehrle, whose brilliant pitching performance for the White Sox was completely overshadowed by controversy and Crede’s heroics. If the rest of this series is as good as the first two games, we will have a long-remembered classic on our hands.

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