Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day

A truism of baseball is that whenever you watch a game, you might see something you have never seen before and will never see again.  Of course this is true in a trivial sense of any game, but it has a more specific meaning in baseball. Baseball has a system of concisely scoring every play. Each fielder is assigned a number: the pitcher is 1, the catcher is 2, and so on. These are used to record every fielder who touches the ball on a play. So a routine grounder to the shortstop, who throws to the first baseman to put the runner out, is a 6-3 out. Most plays fall into common patterns, but every so often you see something weird. This brings us to the triple play the Mariners turned on the Blue Jays on July 26..

Triple plays are not especially uncommon. There have been over 700 of them turned in the history of major league baseball. There is no such thing as a routine triple play, so if you see one happen you either, depending on your affiliation, high five the guy next to you or grumble about the team finding creative ways to avoid scoring. But you ought not be amazed at the mere occurrence of a triple play. (An unassisted triple play is another matter. Those are extremely rare, occurring about as often as perfect games.)

What makes the triple play of July 26 remarkable is not that it was a triple play, but how it happened. It was a 3-6-2 triple play. Or, to use the more precise notation of the SABR triple play database, it was 3*-6-2*-2*, the asterisks denoting which fielder made each out. So this was a ball fielded by the first baseman, who got the first out, who then threw the ball to the shortstop, who in turn threw to the catcher, who got the second and third outs.

The video of the play is posted below, but first stop and try to figure out how this could work out. What sequence of events can plausibly lead to this result? I’m not ashamed to admit that I was stumped. So here you go:

Mariners execute a 3-6-2 triple play

What the hell just happened? With runners at first and third, the batter hits a ground ball to the first basemen, who fields it and tags the base for the first out. He throws the ball to the shortstop covering second to get the runner from first. The force play is broken, however, so the runner quite sensibly stops rather than running into the tag. At this point the runner from third is standing halfway between third and home, waiting to see what will happen. The shortstop observes this and stops worrying about the runner from first. He freezes the runner from third merely by directing his attention there: if the runner breaks in either direction, the ball will reach the base before the runner. The shortstop runs across the diamond holding the ball, forcing the issue on the runner.  The hapless runner feints toward home, so the shortstop throws to the catcher. The runner reverses course and retreats toward third base. Ordinarily the catcher would then throw to the third baseman, but he observes that in the meantime the runner from first has advanced to third. So when the runner from third retreats to the bag, the result is two runners on the same base. Only one of them is entitled to the base. The catcher, rather than working out in his mind which this is, simply tags them both. The rule of thumb is that the leading runner is entitled to the base (except in a force play, which this is not) so the runner from first is tagged for the second out. Then, and this is where the play moves from merely bad base running into the realm of the weird, the final runner falls off the base. The catcher is still holding the ball, so he tags the guy for the third out.

Got that? If not, that’s OK. The announcers were confused, too. I should have warned you to ignore them. They went down a garden path with the notion that the runner from third interfered with the shortstop.  Offensive interference by definition only occurs when the fielder is attempting to make a play with the ball. The shortstop no longer had the ball, and the ball wasn’t being returned to him, so whatever offense against sportsmanship the runner might have made, it wasn’t interference. The plate umpire signaled this clearly, making a safe sign. The announcers got hung up on the idea of its being interference, and didn’t work it through. Had it in fact been interference, the runner from third would have been out, and the runner from first entitled to the base and therefore safe.

Then for the weird part. The runner from third is back on the base, having accomplished nothing, but neither having lost anything. Then he falls down. Notice that the third base coach touches his shoulder. One of the later replays shows that it was a pretty solid laying on of hand. The runner was off balance, and this is what sent him down, resulting in the final out. That’s something you don’t see every day.

How did this all happen? It was a series of screw-ups of the sort normally associated with nuclear power plant accidents. In order:

(1) The runner from third should have committed one way or the other. Breaking for home when the first baseman threw to the shortstop would be risky, but defensible. A runner on third base should play conservatively when there are no outs, since there will be more chances to bring him home, but more aggressively as outs accumulate. The batted ball had double play inscribed in golden letters upon it. The runner was reasonable in acting on the basis of two outs, rather than none or one. But going down halfway then stopping to admire the action is inexcusable. Decide: run or don’t run. If the latter, make sure you are close enough to the base to get back safely.

(2) The runner from first should have stopped at second. The guy from third, even caught in a rundown, might make it safe. A rundown involves a lot of throwing back and forth, and there is always potential for the ball and/or the runner to get past a fielder. But by taking third, the runner from first makes this far less likely. The catcher doesn’t need to throw the ball; he merely needs to keep between the runner and home plate (and not even really that, since the pitcher presumably is covering home). Had the runner from first stopped at second, the worst case scenario is that there still would be a runner in scoring position. A runner on third with two outs is only slightly better than a runner at second. (Note the third base coach waving at the guy to go back to second.)

(3) The third base coach. WTF? Don’t they teach you in coaching school not to pull your guys off the base? OK, that’s unfair. The guy was off balance, and the coach didn’t realize it. But still. That has to be about the most embarrassing thing a third base coach can possibly do.

On the positive side, the fielding was perfect. I love well-executed fieldwork, perfectly choreographed with everyone going where they are supposed to. This is choreography determined on the fly. It isn’t improvised. These guys are trained for each situation. They don’t have to work out from first principles what they should be doing. But they have to recognize the situation instantly and respond correctly. It is like being given a stack of index cards telling you the proper response for any given situation. You flip through the cards to find the right one. You have half a second to do this.

This play illustrates two peculiarities of baseball. One is that the ball is live unless it is dead. Just because everyone is standing around adjusting themselves doesn’t mean the ball isn’t live. There is a whole class of trick plays based on this. (“Hey, kid. What’s that in your hair? Come over here…”) The second is that baseball is unique among major team sports in that it has people not immediately involved in the game wandering around in the field of play: players not currently involved in the game and coaches and ball girls and security personnel. Sure, they are shoved off to the side in foul territory, but that is still the field of play. Most games have a strictly delineated playing area, and all those other people have no business inside it.  Baseball has this weird foul territory:  some, but not all, game events can occur in foul territory, and there are personnel and equipment strewn about.  Putting these together, we have a situation where the ball is live and a non-player is right in the mix. Wackiness is just bound to ensue. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Yet no one would suggest that the coach had no business being there.

One final weirdness, and this is perhaps the biggest of them all. I had assumed that this play was unique in baseball history, but I performed my due diligence. It turns out that a nearly identical play occurred on August 3, 1955 in a game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Athletics. The difference is that the trailing runner started the play at second, suggesting that the base running was even worse than in the present case. It even ends with the runner from third stepping off the bag. No video, so I don’t know if the coach dragged him off.

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21 thoughts on “Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day

  1. Carrera as the original runner owns the base. The 3rd out is when he leaves the base and is tagged. If he had stayed on the base, it would only be a double play.

    Incidentally, a similar play happened to the Cubs recently, but the oddity in that one was that the owner of the base ran through 3rd base and the Ump declared that he had voluntarily surrendered the base to the runner from second.

    In this case, since the man on Carrera did not voluntarily surrender the base, he was out when he stepped off.

    Ok, now going back to read the rest of the article.

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      • I think that looking at intention is a false path here. Suppose that the lead runner, instead of overrunning third base, had touched the base but then broke for home, with the catcher first tagging the trailing runner on the base, then throwing to the player covering home for a tag out. This has more of a feel that yes, the trailing runner was entitled to the base, but it is logically identical to what happened.

        The tendency is to try to apply Rule 7.03(a): “Two runners may not occupy a base, but if, while the ball is alive, two runners are touching a base, the following runner shall be out when tagged and the preceding runner is entitled to the base…” This is incorrect for the simple reason that the condition of two runners occupying the base was not the case when the tag was applied.

        The only other rule that might apply is 7.01: “A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out. He is then entitled to it until he is put out, or forced to vacate it for another runner legally entitled to that base.” The trailing runner touched third while it was unoccupied. One might try to argue that he was forced off it by the lead runner having the prior claim to the base, but “force” is a term of art, defined in Rule 2 as “a play in which a runner legally loses his right to occupy a base by reason of the batter becoming a runner.” This clearly does not apply here.

        I think the umpires got it right. As they almost always do on questions of weird rules situations. The topic is pushed heavily in umpire training.

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        • I think the umps got it right in the link you posted, but I’m still not convinced in the one I posted. The official ruling was that the runner on third “surrendered” the bag by running through it. Watching it, he clearly just screwed up and thought he was out… which he was after he was tagged while off the base.

          The trailing runner occupying 3rd was out when he was tagged first; the original owner was tagged second – exactly the same as in your video, except the umps applied the intention of “surrendering” the base in the second video. In both cases, leaving the base is what made the original owner Out. It literally hinges on the definition of “surrendered.”

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          • The trailing runner occupying 3rd was out when he was tagged first

            This is the heart of the matter: under what rule was he out? I have shown you the two rules that appear to result in his being out, and explained why neither applies here. Show me the rule that I overlooked, or the flaw in my reasoning.

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            • No, you’re right, I get it now.

              I think what goofed me up was watching it live where the official explanation used the term “surrendered.” I think the simpler answer that the base was vacant at the time the tag was applied is a better way to put it.

              I suppose Montero (the catcher) could have picked which runner he would have preferred at 3rd (comparing Murphy’s young legs and Tejada’s ancient) by just standing there with the ball on Murphy until Tejada sauntered back to the base…

              Still, an odd one that had all sides scratching their heads for quite a while.

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  2. Simple enough first out at first base, the sort of thing that happens two or three times an inning, anytime there’s an infield hit. But it got confusing in the moment after that.

    Remember we started out with Ezequiel Carrera on third and Kevin Pillar on first. The play sets up like a fairly standard force-out double play, but instead of the shortstop throwing to second for the force, he throws to first, and the batter’s out.

    Pillar sees the throw going to first and figures, I can get an extra base here, and Carrera’s going to make it home.

    Only no. Instead of trying to throw back to third and concede the run, Seattle’s first baseman Mark Thrombo tosses to the catcher, Mike Zunino. An aggresive bit of defense. That’s the first half of what made the triple play happen, in my estimation.

    Zunino tries to run down Carrera in a pickle, but Carrera is faster than Zunino and tags back up on third. Meanwhile, Pillar was all aggressive and he tagged on on third at the same time.

    if you look closely at the play, you’ll see Zunino sees both men tagged up, slows his stride, and then casually tags first Pillar and then Carrera. I’m not so sure Zunino had worked out in the moment which of the two runners was out of place, but Zunino could know for damn sure you can’t have two runners on one base. So he tags both of them.

    Then the third base umpire does the thumb gesture, signaling a runner is out. Carrera thought he had just been called out, and steps back from third. That’s the second piece of the puzzle falling into place, after Thrombo’s aggressive defensive throw.

    So Zunino still has the ball in his hand, sees Carrera step off the base, and tags him again. That’s the third out. I think this could be explained more than adequately by Carrera getting momentarily confused, just for a split second, about who was out.

    The blame (from Toronto’s perspective) falls squarely on Pillar, who should have stopped at second. I suppose that’s easy enough to say after the fact.

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    • I honestly am not sure whether you didn’t watch the video closely or this is some weird post-modern comment about close-but-not-quite-identical parallel universes. I kind of like the second possibility. Come to think of it, it would explain many of the political comment threads.

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  3. I disagree with all comments saying Pillar is doing anything wrong. In MLB, being caught in a rundown = you’re out. So given that you’re out, your job is to leave the best possible situation behind you.

    Here, getting caught off of 3B is a mistake (either break for home immediately on the throw to second, or go back to your base). Then getting run BACK to 3B is another mistake (your goal should be getting thrown out at home because either (1) they screw up and you score; or (2) you’re leaving a runner on 3B instead of second. Then, falling off of 3B is an error, though not clear whose fault that was.

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      • He is arguing that once the Carrera, the lead runner, was caught in the rundown, he was done for and the proper strategy is for Pillar, the trailing runner, to act on the assumption that Carrera was going to be put out. A runner on third with two outs is better than a runner on second with two outs, so, the argument goes, Pillar advancing to third was the correct move.

        I disagree, but I can’t find actual data one way or the other. The assertion that being caught in a rundown equals being put out is clearly hyperbole. But what are the actual percentages? I can’t find that anyone has studied this.

        If we had actual data, we could then compare the odds of Carrera being put out versus the chance of and benefit of (a) Carrera scoring and Pillar ending up at second with one out, plus (b) Carrera being on third and Pillar on second with one out.

        We don’t have actual data (so far as I know of, anyway) so we are unconstrained by such tiresome details. That being said, I point out that while the chance of Carrera being safe is small, the payoff is large. Pillar, by advancing to third, eliminates the possibility of said payoff–this includes Carrera scoring, since once Pillar occupies third the rundown is effectively over and the catcher chases Carrera back to third.

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        • So let’s consider. The batter is out immediately no matter what happens next, so that’s one out, a runner “on” third, and a runner between first and second. No forces.

          If Carrera stays on third, Pillar is likely out in a rundown of his own (though that’s a more awkward one since Carrera is always a risk). Most likely outcome is two outs and a runner on third.

          Once Carrera is sufficiently off third, the defense properly moves the rundown to him. At that point Pillar can either (1) stop at second (most likely outcome: two outs and a runner at second) or (2) go to third (most likely outcome: two outs and a runner at third).

          The only way Pillar was wrong to advance to third is if you think the decrease in Carrera’s odds of escaping a rundown safely are sufficient to overcome the 0.05 (or so) runs you lose by stranding yourself on second. (Just using these numbers for clarity, which are historical expected runs from each base/outs state).

          So, how to assess? Well, if Carrera escapes safely to third, you have 2d and 3rd with 1 out (+1.02 runs). If he scores, you have a run and a runner on second with one out (+1.31 runs). Let’s say, then, that on average escaping the rundown is worth 1.16 runs. Let’s also assume that as soon as Pillar breaks for third, Carrera is 100% out.

          What percentage chance of 1.16 runs do you need to give up a sure 0.05 runs? About 4.3%. Seems awfully high, but I agree there don’t seem to be numbers out there.

          Obviously Carrera getting tripled up is a whole different can of worms, but he (or, for that part, his base coach) are the ones making the glaring errors here. He should have stayed close to third but tried to get in the defenders’ heads a bit. Or he should have taken off hard on the 1B’s first throw to try to catch the second baseman napping. I suspect the conventional wisdom on rundowns (the trailing runner should take third, the caught runner should give him time to do so and get tagged heading towards home) is statistically correct.

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  4. There are three camera angles of the situation at third where you contend the third-base coach pulled the runner off the base. To my eyes, only one of them looks at all like that force was responsible for the fall.

    In contrast, the catcher had his hand (in the glove, holding the ball) on the runners midsection, applying mild pressure. However, that pressure was directed along what we call “the weak line”. It was perpendicular to a line drawn through both the runner’s feet. It is extremely easy to knock someone down with mild pressure along the weak line. Assuming they don’t adjust their feet or otherwise compensate for it.

    That’s what I think happened. I think that mild pressure on his stomach from the glove hand unbalanced him and made him fall down. It’s not clear that such an ordinary amount of force would be worthy of notice by the umpires, though.

    (Full disclosure – I am a Mariners fan, having seen Diego Segui lose to Frank Tanana, playing for the Angels, 7-0 in the first game the Mariners ever played. I also watched the Mariners score the first run they ever scored – in their second game ever – against Nolan Ryan. They lost that game, too. I am quite happy to see them fielding so well. Now if only they could hit, etc.)

    Edit: Oh, and thanks for sharing this. It’s fantastic. I particularly like how this reinforces one of the things I like about baseball: No matter how strange the play you see is, chances are it has happened before.

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  5. The only triple play I ever saw live was back when Denver still had AAA ball at the old Mile High Stadium. The Chicago Cubs’ AAA Iowa Cubs were in town. I was sitting a few rows up behind the third base dugout. A couple of rows in front of me was a man in a Cubs t-shirt who had been heckling the visiting players most of the game. The triple-play involved two base-running errors by the Cubs, the details of which I don’t remember. What I do remember is the man in the Cubs shirt jumping up on the roof of the dugout and screaming in an incredibly loud voice “And that’s why you’re stuck here in triple-A!”

    Tough audience, those Chicago fans.

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  6. So I’m wondering whether the failure to put this post in the new “Baseball” category reflects:

    1) failure to read my long reply on the Linky Friday thread – http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/blog/2015/07/31/linky-friday-125-after-alaska/#comment-1056633 – answering a question about the old sub-blogs and explaining why logical categories should be of interest to any serious writer or writer with a particular interest and expertise

    or

    2) a lack of interest in making these posts easier to find, and in other ways to promote this work.

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    • 3) I had internalized that sports posts have in the past been classified under Mindless Diversions, and the more complicated suggestion didn’t make it fully into my frontal lobe. I will return to it when I have time, which won’t be immediately, as I will be spending next week on a glorified sandbar in New Jersey (a/k/a “down the shore”).

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  7. The second is that baseball is unique among major team sports in that it has people not immediately involved in the game wandering around in the field of play: players not currently involved in the game and coaches and ball girls and security personnel. Sure, they are shoved off to the side in foul territory, but that is still the field of play.

    All true, but you left out the coolest fact of all: Spectators can legally be involved in play. When a fielder reaches into the stands to catch a foul pop fly, fans are allowed to knock the ball away. (It’s only when they reach out of the stands onto the field of play that it’s “fan interference.”) Unfortunately, the most famous example of this featured a Chicago Cub fan intercepting a ball that a Cub fielder might have caught, presumably acting out of instinct rather than partisanship.

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    • It used to be even more so. The outer edge of the outfield was used as overflow standing room for big games well into the 20th century. There also was a body of rules about the effects on play of balls handled by spectators (called “block” balls from the 1880s into the 20th century). The rules were nothing like so simple as “the ball is dead and the umpire will guess where the runners would have ended up.” I will write about this some later day.

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