Contact and controversy in the ninth inning of last night’s Dodgers-Giants game

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As we mentioned in the recaps this morning, there was contact and controversy in the ninth inning of last night’s Dodgers-Giants game. To set the scene: tie game, Gregor Blanco on second base. Brandon Belt at the plate. Take it away, Vin Scully:

A couple of things are going on here. One is the contact between third base coach Roberto Kelly, the other is the umpire’s attention, or arguable lack thereof, to the play. But let’s start with the rule that governs all of this:

7.09
It is interference by a batter or a runner when — . . .

(g) In the judgment of the umpire, the base coach at third base, or first base, by touching or holding the runner, physically assists him in returning to or leaving third base or first base.

I think we can all agree there was contact here. Blanco was not held by Kelly, but he was touched. The real question here was whether that contact “physically assisted” Blanco in returning to third base. I’ve watched this play a whole bunch of times and, despite my gut instinct in the recaps this morning, I tend to believe that the rules was not violated.

Blanco was slowing down when Kelly and he came into contact. He was not going so fast and was not so out of control that Kelly’s contact with him “physically assisted” him in getting back to the bag. If Kelly was three feet further back, Blanco still would’ve stopped and started back to the bag in the same place and would’ve been safe.

Maybe this is different if Kelly’s contact with Blanco truly helped Blanco apply the brakes. Maybe it’s different if, even with this contact as it was, the ball was close to third base and it might’ve been a close call as to whether Blanco would’ve been tagged out on his minor overrun. But neither of those things applied. Given that this is not a bright line, automatic “no contact” rule but, rather, a judgment call, I think Blanco was properly safe.

Not that this was perfect, of course. Because a judgment call requires the exercise of some informed judgment on the part of the umpire. And I’m not sure how third base umpire Fieldin Culbreth was exercising judgment in this case. Yes, the source of this screencap has an understandable bias, but it doesn’t change where Culbreth was looking:

To be fair, a fraction of a second before this pic, Culbreth was watching the bag (it’s clear on the video). But he was merely looking down at it to see if Blanco touched it before heading home, not watching the entire play unfold. Why he looked away and out to left field is a mystery. By the time he did that it was already clearly a single, so he did not need to signal for an out. He really had no cause other than mere curiosity and spectatorship to be looking out to left. His attention should’ve been at the bag where he may have needed to make an out call, up the line where he may have been needed to assist on a play at the plate or, in this case, at the bag to exercise some judgment with respect to interference.

So, the non-call of interference was right. But it was right despite the umpire’s view and judgment, not because of it. This, I am sure, makes no one really happy. Well, except for Giants fans because their team won the game.

 

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.