Monday June 23rd, 2014

“If there’s a play that needs to be reviewed you should be able to review it.” That thought, expressed by A’s manager Bob Melvin after the A’s ten-inning win over the Red Sox on Saturday, seems reasonable enough. There are obvious reasons not to subject strike zone calls to review, checked swing calls can’t be reviewed because what constitutes a swing is not explicitly defined in the rule book, and the neighborhood play at second base was declared unreviewable for safety reasons. Beyond that, Melvin’s logic would seem sound.

However, not every other type of play is reviewable even under this year’s expanded instant replay rules, and one of the more confounding exceptions nearly cost Melvin’s team a game on Saturday.

The play came in the top of the eighth with the Red Sox trailing Oakland 1-0 with two outs, runners on the corners, and a 2-2 count on Mike Naploli. A’s reliever Luke Gregerson’s 2-2 pitch was a slider down and away that fooled the swinging Napoli. The ruling on the field was that Napoli fouled the ball into the dirt, where it was trapped by catcher Stephen Vogt. What actually happened was that Napoli missed the ball entirely and Vogt caught the ball cleanly before it hit the ground, as seen in the above screengrab from the game.

The replays, both from the center field camera and perspective of the first-base dugout, were clear as day. In the words of Red Sox color man Dennis Eckersley on the NESN broadcast, “He caught that ball. That ball did not hit the ground.” The pitch should have been strike three, Napoli should have been out, and the inning should have been over. However, the play was not reviewable because trap/catch rulings are only reviewable on plays in the outfield, and Napoli’s at-bat was allowed to continue.

That limitation makes absolutely no sense. A sinking liner to an infielder can’t be reviewed to see if it hit the ground before it was caught? You’d think MLB would have made a point of including exactly the kind of play that happened in the Napoli at-bat on Saturday among their reviewable plays because a play just like it was one of the most controversial calls in recent postseason history, one stoked the fires for the implementation of instant replay in the first place.

That call came in the bottom of the ninth of Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series between the Angels and White Sox. With the score 1-1, the bases empty, and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzysnki struck out swinging at a Kelvim Escobar pitch in the dirt, but home plate umpire Dan Eddings ruled that Angels catcher Josh Paul trapped the ball rather than catching it cleanly, and Pierzynski scrambled to first base before the Angels, all of whom assumed the inning was over, could react. Pablo Ozuna pinch-ran for Pierzynski and stole second, and the very next batter, Chisox third baseman Joe Crede, doubled Ozuna home to win the game and tie the series.

The replays on the pitch to Pierzynski were far less clear than the on the pitch to Napoli, but the speed with which the blown call was followed by a run on was similar on Saturday. Gregerson’s very next pitch to Napoli was also in the dirt. Vogt blocked it, and it ricochetted back into fair territory. As Vogt went to retrieve the ball, Dustin Pedroia dashed home from third and scored to tie the game at 1-1.

The A’s ultimately won 2-1, when Coco Crisp cashed in a leadoff walk to Alberto Callaspo with a walkoff single in the bottom of the tenth. Still, it was galling in this new era of instant replay to see a call so severely blown*, and so easily correctable via replay, not be eligible for replay. That’s a significant flaw in the current replay rules and one that should be fixed immediately, not after the season. It didn’t cost the A’s on Saturday, but it will cost another team eventually, and if it happens in a big spot in the postseason again, the victimized team won’t be the only one crying foul.

*Not only was the catch call blown, the foul call was as well. Napoli didn’t make contact with the ball. Vogt should have been able to tag him out to end the inning even if he was ruled to have trapped the ball, but the call on the field was a foul in the dirt, when the ball was neither fouled nor in the dirt.

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