Foul Call: Jim Joyce Ruling Exposes Flaw in Major League Baseball Umpire Judgment Calls

I am not at all a fan of  many Major League Baseball umpires. I especially dislike Jim Joyce and would love to see him leave the game. I’m a lifelong Tigers fan and the image of him blowing a call that cost Tigers starter Armando Galarraga his perfect game is still very fresh in my memory. So when he makes a foul call, I tend to jump all over him.

September 2016 gave me another reason to dislike Joyce. I fell for a “foul ball” call by Joyce. Joyce, behind the dish during a Houston Astros – Cleveland Indians game was brutally maligned on Twitter for a wild pitch call during a Lonnie Chisenhall at-bat. People, including well-respected reporters all jumped on the “Bash Joyce” bandwagon. I am embarrassed to admit my own distaste for the man colored my response too…until I went to the official Major League Baseball rule book. Then I changed my mind. Kind of.

It was on September 7, 2016.

This is the play that awaken the disdain:

 

Houston Astros hurler David Paulino threw a pitch into the dirt. The ball hit about a foot in front of the plate and bounced up. Chisenhall, the Indians’ batter, checked his swing and the ball caromed off to the left of the catcher.

Joyce called it a wild pitch. And the Indians plated two as a result.

 

THE RIGHT-YET WRONG-CALL

It seems simple enough. It was a pretty routine call. As you can see in the replay, the ball hit the dirt nearly a foot before the plate. So it would seem to raise the concern: How any baseball fan doesn’t see that as a wild pitch is bewildering. But what is bewildering is how right and wrong the call was.

There are many issues with this call and, with the rule allowing umpires to make certain judgment calls.MLB Tickets

From Joyce’s perspective behind the plate, it was unequivocally a wild pitch. What he saw was a ball hit the ground then suddenly jump off to his left. He didn’t see Chisenhall’s check swing hit the ball. He simply saw the ball bounce out of reach of the catcher.

That is text book wild pitch, as per the rules.

Rules 9.13 and 2 govern this issue we see in this play and the ensuing call. Rule 9.13 defines a “wild pitch” as a pitch “so high, so low, or so wide of that plate that it cannot be handled with ordinary effort by the catcher.” The rules define a foul ball in this way: “…a batted ball that settles in foul territory between home and first base, or between home and third base, or that bounds past first or third base on or over foul territory, or that first fall on foul territory beyond first or third base, or that, while on or over foul territory, touches the person of an umpire or player, or any object foreign to the natural ground.”

So he’s right for making that call. It’s by the book in accordance with judgment calls and his perspective. He saw the ball hit the ground then veer off. That made it look like a wild pitch from his perspective. Replay shows he was wrong in his assumption.

However, Chisenhall’s bat hit the ball foul. Therein lies the debate. And this play and ruling exposes a significant flaw in the rules and in what is allowed to be reviewed.

While Joyce made the correct call FROM HIS PERSPECTIVE behind the plate, the fact Chisenhall’s bat deflected it out of the reach of the catcher should have been considered. It wasn’t.

 

THE OFFICIAL SCORER ISSUE

Rule 9.13 clearly indicates a wild pitch includes any ball which hits the plate or before the plate on a legally thrown pitch. This one did. As soon as the ball hit the dirt in front of the plate then was seen veering off out of the catcher’s reach, it was considered a wild pitch BY THE RULE BOOK. However, should it have actually been a wild pitch call? Most likely not. The rules also indicate the official scorer decides how the play is scored/credited. But the rules also leave a lot to judgment. The main reasoning behind instant replay was to ensure major errors didn’t happen. It’s obvious there’s still something to work out.

It would be interesting to know what the official scorer would have ruled it if he didn’t have to always go with the ruling on the field when it came to judgment calls.

Save big on MLB merchandise in collectibles in the MLBShop.com outletThe real issue here is that this was a very meaningful play. Had replay been in effect for such a misplay, the Astros most likely wouldn’t have lost. The Astros, at the time, were in contention for the Wild Card. After this ruling, they began to crash and burn. They went 7 and 9 in their next 16 games, moving them 2.5 games out of the Wild Card spot. Four of those wins were only by 1-2 runs. In other words, it deflated them some. Even if nobody wants to admit it out loud, professional players are impacted by such horrible calls, especially ones which damage the team’s efforts late in the season.

Frankly, the call should have been reviewable.

While there’s no steadfast rule about hitting wild pitches, it’s not uncommon to see. If a batter swings at a ball over their head and hits it, it’s considered a hit or a foul. The same goes for balls in the dirt. There are at least two recent precedents for this too.

The play scored two runs, giving the Indians a significant lead. That fact alone should have been enough for the official scorer to have been allowed to overrule the call on the field. From his perspective he could see it was a clear foul ball.

But to be fair, there’s also no rule about hitting a bounced ball ON THE FIELD. By the official scorer’s perspective, that was to be ruled a foul ball.

The problem, I had pointed out to me in a very clear and respectful way, is there’s a rule book — on-field discrepancy. Play rules don’t always jive. This is what the person said:

“Rule 9 applies only to official scoring, not to play on the field. There is no definition in the MLB rule book that requires a batted ball to be hit before it touches the ground. Corey Dickerson doubled on a bounced pitch in 2013. Vlad Guerrero also singled on one a few years before that.”

But there’s an issue here too. The rules do apply to the field, but at the same time don’t. The fact Dickerson and Guerrero both hit a bounced ball could mean the plate umpire got those plays wrong. The issue with the assertion that others have done it before is that we all know umps are fallible.

I think it’s best if we go with what the official scorer would have put had he been allowed to rule on the facts. If the previous two hits were scored as wild pitches, then we know the umps got those wrong. If in those previous “wild pitch” hits, the scoroer would have ruled them wild pitches, then those umpires got it wrong. If they registered as hits, then Joyce got this one wrong.

MLB needs to figure out the point of the official scorer now. If they MUST go with the call on the field when there’s this type of call, there’s no sense in their existence. But if they get to overrule an umpire’s call on the field (perhaps only once per game), it fixes the issue.

CONFUSION GALORE

The official rules of the game serve more to confuse the issue than to clarify anything. A continuance of Rule 9.13 regarding fielder’s choice further clouds the call. In a vague manner, this play could have also been called a fielder’s choice.

To add to the confusion, Rule 6.01 of the official rules for 2016 implies the call could have been interference since Chisenhall deflected the ball making it impossible for the catcher to field it. The replay shows the ball on a trajectory directly to the catcher.Save big on MLB merchandise in collectibles in the MLBShop.com outlet

The fact is clear though, despite my personal dislike of Jim Joyce he made one of three possible correct calls. He ruled BY THE BOOK and from his limited perspective behind the plate. That’s precisely what he’s supposed to do. However, the rules allowing umpires to make judgment calls complicates this mess.

 

WHY DIDN’T THE ASTROS PROTEST?

The Astros never protested the game. Given it was crucial for them, I’m confused as to why they wouldn’t have done so. They had two possible ways to protest the game, but ignored them both: 1) Rule 6.01 (Interference) and 2) a protest over the official scorer ruling.

Considering the tight race for the post season, this game could change a lot for the Texas team. I’d protest loudly.

Alas, this isn’t actually possible. Or is it?

Given that Chisenhall could also be guilty of interference in violation of Rule 6, they could have further challenged it. Based on Rule 6.01 (Interference) the Houston Astros could have adamantly protested that game. It appears it is supposed to be interference.

The rules (8.02 specifically) indicate teams cannot protest umpire JUDGMENT calls. However, the rules DO say teams can challenge the OFFICIAL SCORER. Had the official scorer judgment been a wild pitch (it was, since the rules indicate the scorer must go with the ruling on the field if it differs from their own—something that needs to change, obviously), they would be well within their rights to protest it under Rule 8.02.

But the Astros chose not to challenge on either case. Why?

 

THE BIG MESS

I defend Joyce only so far. From his perspective I get why he called it the way he did. However, given this was a very crucial game for the Astros, the Indians and the Tigers, MLB should have stepped in and reviewed the play.

Regardless, this is one of the wonderful things about baseball. It’s not cut and dry. That lends itself to some great debate, and more than a few tempers flaring. But unlike soccer, football, and other sports (except hockey), we don’t kill one another when tempers flare.MLB Tickets

What MLB needs to do is alter the judgment call rule more. The fact is, replay already overrules judgment calls. It’s supposed to allow a review for any meaningful play. This play impacted the season of three teams (it would have allowed the Tigers to game a game on the Indians and it would have helped solidify the Astros’ chase for the Wild Card). So MLB needs to either allow the official scorer to overrule blatantly wrong calls or allow for “local” reviews of one meaningful play per game. In this system teams could look at the Jumbotrons to ensure the call was correct. The replays seen in the park clearly show Chisenhall’s bat slapping away the ball.

Even Chisenhall knew the call was bad. He knew he hit the ball and it should have been ruled a foul ball. He was quoted as saying as much.

While Major League Baseball has done much to minimize umpire errors like the perfect game call Joyce botched a number of seasons ago by incorporating replay, September 7 exposed a significant flaw in the game which needs immediate consideration at the Winter Meetings.

Perhaps Manfred will call for a rules clarification on plays like this. I’m not holding my breath though.

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