One of baseball’s advantages over football is that we all know what constitutes a catch.
Or so we thought.
Down two runs in the bottom of the first, Jose Altuve turned on a pitch from Rick Porcello and sent it towards the short porch in right field. Outfielder Mookie Betts went back, back, to the wall, and leaped…
His glove collided with a fan. There’s no question about that–the video evidence is indisputable. But does that constitute fan interference?
MLB.com’s glossary includes this description of “spectator interference”:
In every case of spectator interference with a batted or thrown ball, the ball shall be declared dead and the baserunners can be placed where the umpire determines they would have been without the interference. When a spectator clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball by reaching onto the field of play, the batter shall be ruled out. But no interference is called if a spectator comes in contact with a batted or thrown ball without reaching onto the field of play — even if a fielder might have caught the ball had the spectator not been there.
Did the fan reach into the field of play? Was Mookie’s glove over the wall? Did the Astros tie the ball game?
We want sports to be scientific. More than ever, baseball can be distilled down into numbers. We’ve moved beyond simple batting average and ERA to wOBA and BABIP. Analytics can explain everything–everything, that is, except the beautiful grey areas of sport.
No sport is played in a sterile lab. It’s not a computer simulation. We don’t match up each team’s exact talent level against the other, and take the more talented team; we play the games. And when we play the games, life happens.
It’s in those grey areas beyond the numbers where the science of baseball ends, and the art of sport begins.
Incidents like the one that took place in the bottom of the first in Houston last night give sports fans and sports reporters alike talking points for the next day. You won’t hear talk about Mookie Betts’ hard-hit-ball percentage around the water cooler in the morning (except maybe at MLB.com’s offices), but you’ll certainly hear your coworker Jeff’s argument that Joe West is an idiot for blowing that call and losing the Astros the game.
Umpire decisions are an indelible part of sport for this very reason. We want to get all the calls right, to be sure. A runner is either safe, or he’s out. There’s no in between. But umpires make judgement calls all the time. Did the fan “intentionally” interfere with Mookie, or not? No computer can answer that question for you. And one umpire might see the situation a different way than another.
Did Joe West get the call wrong last night, and cost the Astros the game? Depends on who you ask.
Did he give us something to debate, something to disagree over, and something to engage all of us fans in the sport we love?
If a computer can create a 3-D of home plate to determine if a pitch was in the strike zone, why can’t a similar 3-D creation be done to determine if Altuve’s ball was over-the-wall or not?