Josh Phelps and the consequences of unforced rules

On of the common and unnoticed ways that rule breaking affects the game is how selective enforcement of the interference rules results in dangerous and frequent cheating. In double plays, where the runner to second is allowed a free shot at the fielder and the fielder isn’t required to touch second to get the force out, and at home, catchers are allowed to block the progress of the runner and runners are allowed to run full-tilt into the catcher, either to try and knock the ball loose or to even stop them from fielding the ball.

I saw a particularly violent example of this today, in the Seattle-New York game. The play starts at about 1:20:30 in the feed. Josh Phelps, coming in to score from second on a single by Jeter, runs home. Johjima sets up in front of the plate and a little to the first base side to receive the throw. Phelps has a wide open shot at the plate and, even if he couldn’t see that the ball was late coming in, could have run through or slid, forcing Johjima to come all the way around and make a sweeping tag, but pretty much he’s home free.

Phelps takes Jojima out. Here’s a still to show how far he went to make this hit.

aaand_the_hit.jpg

Phelps has to go so far off the plate that after driving into Johjima, he goes back to touch home. Johjima, as a possibly revelant aside, is the only Mariner really hitting well so far this year. If the umps are going to let you take a shot and possibly get him out of the game, why not go for it?

From the Seattle Times blog:
Phelps said “When I saw him starting to crouch down, for me, it tells me he’s getting ready to receive the ball. I can’t just let himn tag me real quick.”

Johjima said he “was kind of surprised because I had left the plate open.”

Washburn then plunked Phelps in the sixth. Skipping the subject of whether headhunting’s ethical or not (it’s certainly against the rules to hit the batter on purpose), under baseball’s code, that’s entirely acceptable for a pitcher to throw a pitch at a batter on purpose. I don’t think I need to go into how dangerous it can be to get hit.

Actually, there were two: he throws inside, low, and misses Phelps, and then goes up and in to get him on the arm.

The ump warns both benches, which is a whole other dynamic in how these things escalate (short version: there’s a huge incentive for you to be the guy who does the plunking that results in the warning, because it prevents retaliation).

The total:
- Josh Phelps makes a strictly speaking illegal but allowed hit on Johjima, which even the Yes! Network announcers said was unnecessary. Considering that Johjima was looking away, this is even more dangerous than it seems.
- Jarrod Washburn makes a strictly speaking illegal but allowed pitch at Phelps, an intentional throw designed to hurt Phelps, if not injure him.
- with two outs in the 7th and no one on, Scott Proctor throws a pitch clocked at 96 behind Mariner shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, Proctor’s ejected.
- An angry exchange of words, dugouts empty. The throw’s bad enough, but people get hurt (and suspended) in brawls too.

The history of allowing catchers to block the plate and runners to try and bury them resulted in an opportunity for Phelps. Phelps took his chance. The Mariners then resort to their own allowed but tolerated opportunity to get revenge, and then Proctor takes revenge for the revenge. One dangerous play created by the selective enforcement of the rules would up creating three different dangerous incidents in the game.

These kind of openings exist as vestiges of baseball’s early days, when collisions and rough play were much more common, and hitting the opposing batter routine (this is in The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball‘s coverage of the McGraw Orioles and those times), and games like today’s provide an interesting snapshot of how far the game has come since those days, and how opportunities that remain are exploited.

10 comments ↓

#1 The 26th Man on 05.07.07 at 11:51 am

Phelps’ hit on Johjima was bush league. Washburn did the right thing in drilling him the next time up. The situation should have been resolved right there, but Proctor took it a step too far by throwing behind Betancourt.

Let the players play. Love the book, by the way.

#2 BJones on 05.09.07 at 12:20 pm

The thought that crossed my mind when Washburn threw at Phelps was whether he was doing it just to keep Jose Guillen off his back.

#3 Steve on 05.09.07 at 4:57 pm

In double plays, where the runner to second is allowed a free shot at the fielder

The runner is not allowed a free shot at the fielder.

and the fielder isn’t required to touch second to get the force out,

The “neighborhood play,” has long been a source of discussion amongst umpires. On this one you are correct that strict observance of the runs or interpretations is not followed. However, umpires do rule the neighborhood play with certain understood and respected criteria. While you and I might disagree with that criteria, as you said, it is accepted.

and at home, catchers are allowed to block the progress of the runner

No, they are not. And by the way, what you are describing is not “interference.”

and runners are allowed to run full-tilt into the catcher, either to try and knock the ball loose or to even stop them from fielding the ball.

I agree that running into the catcher is dangerous, but I am unaware of any rule that prevents contact between two players trying to legally occupy the same space while either making a legal play on the ball or legally running the bases.

#4 DMZ on 05.09.07 at 5:16 pm

Guys running to second are totally allowed by the umps to take out a fielder who’s making a transfer, even if the fielder is off the base. They’re not supposed to be able to do that.

And as for the play at home – catchers set up all the time to try and block runners off the plate to get the tag. You can’t do that. You can field the ball and make the tag, but you can’t put your feet in a position where the runner can’t reach home plate while you receive the ball and turn and tag the guy out.

Well, you can. You’re not supposed to, rule-book wise.

#5 Steve on 05.09.07 at 7:12 pm

Guys running to second are totally allowed by the umps to take out a fielder who’s making a transfer, even if the fielder is off the base. They’re not supposed to be able to do that.

If the runner can reach the base with his feet or hand, it is a legal slide and the contact is allowed. Both players are allowed by rule and interpretation to be in their respective positions. The runner cannot simply disappear.

You can field the ball and make the tag, but you can’t put your feet in a position where the runner can’t reach home plate while you receive the ball and turn and tag the guy out.

That would be incorrect.

Direct from the rulebook: Rule 2.00 – Definitions – OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.
Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.” It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the “act of fielding” the ball. For example: If an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.

#6 DMZ on 05.09.07 at 7:22 pm

I don’t think we’re arguing the same thing. I’m not arguing a runner can’t slide into second. I’m arguing that the runner can’t attempt to take out the second baseman who is fielding the ball for the force out. This is called out specifically.

It’s in 7.09:
(e) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.

And on the home plate thing, it’s the same thing: I’m not arguing that they can’t, or don’t, block the plate, or that it isn’t a judgement call.

My point is that catchers block the plate in cases where it is not legal for them to do so, and they get away with it.

#7 DMZ on 05.09.07 at 7:26 pm

Also, why is 7.09 wrong on MLB’s site? This is annoying.

#8 Steve on 05.09.07 at 10:18 pm

I’m arguing that the runner can’t attempt to take out the second baseman who is fielding the ball for the force out.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a second baseman standing on second base and fielding a ground ball. Is that the play you are talking about?

My point is that catchers block the plate in cases where it is not legal for them to do so, and they get away with it.

My point is your stated belief that the catcher must be in possession in order to block the plate is wrong. It is wrong by rule and interpretation. In college, high school and most youth ball you would be correct, but not at the pro level.

Frankly, it doesn’t make sense for the catcher to block the plate against the rules. First, he is going to get wiped out by the runner and secondly, the runner is going to be awarded the base. So I have a feeling that you are applying a standard to when the catcher may block the base that is not accurate.

#9 DMZ on 05.09.07 at 10:30 pm

That’s not at all what I said. Thanks.

#10 Steve on 05.10.07 at 10:18 am

That’s not at all what I said. Thanks

That is what you said when you wrote:

You can field the ball and make the tag, but you can’t put your feet in a position where the runner can’t reach home plate while you receive the ball and turn and tag the guy out.

And I am still totally lost on your play at second.