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Dipping into the mailbag ...

A couple of item's from the old mailbag:

    Hi, I was checking out UZR and UZR/150 on fangraphs recently -- actually like 2 minutes ago. Specifically, looking at 2007 and 2008 OF stats. In 2007, Alfonso Soriano rated the best OF. In 2008 he's in the top 10 (7th in UZR and 3rd in UZR/150). Could it be that he was actually much better than we all thought back then? Obviously, he was below average last year and abysmal this year (in the field). I guess I'd just like your reaction to that. IS UZR flawed? IS he a statistical anomoly -- over 2 years?

    John (Chicago)

Well, Soriano stole 19 bases in each of those two earlier seasons, and I think it's safe to say there's a correlation between speed and outfield defense. Not a perfect correlation, obviously; Lonnie Smith was both fast and hopeless in left field. But most guys, if they can run well they can play left field well enough.

Last year, though, Soriano stole only nine bases in 117 games, easily his fewest since becoming an every-day player in 2001. So it wouldn't at all surprise me if he was pretty good in 2008 but not good in 2009, when he had a sore knee for much of the season. Granted, we always have to take one-year fielding metrics with a healthy dollop of salt, in this case the numbers seem to match up fairly well with the other stuff.

    Hi Rob. I have something of a rules question. During last night's Mariners/Rangers game, Mike Sweeney hit a groundball with the bases loaded. Milton Bradley was on second and jumped over the ball. My question is, if he stood in the way of the ball and allowed himself to be hit by it, he would have been out, but it's considered a base hit for Sweeney and the runner on third would have scored the winning run. Is that correct? The runner on third wouldn't be placed back on third, would he? Aside from giving Chris Perez an aneurysm, wouldn't that have been the smart play? I imagine there is probably too much instinct to naturally avoid the ball, but it would have been fun to see.

    Brian (Huntington Station, NY)

Brian, one thing I love about baseball is that the rules make so much sense. Sometimes you have to drill pretty deep, but eventually you realize just how logical they are. And it would obviously be illogical to allow a runner to break up a double play the way you suggest.

Oddly, for many decades it seems to have been a perfectly legal (and occasionally employed) tactic. Today, though, we have Rule 7.09(f):

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.

According to Red Smith in a 1975 New York Times column, that "subsection was written in to cope with Jackie Robinson, a baserunner who used to let an obvious double-play grounder hit him. That rendered the ball dead and eliminated the double play, although Robinson was out automatically."

I'm not so sure about that. Other sources have named Don Hoak as the principal figure in this little procedural drama. Here's Rich Marazzi in The Rules and Lore of Baseball:

    It was during the first month of the 1957 season when Don Hoak of the Redlegs sent shock waves throughout the baseball world. Because of a loophole in the rules, Hoak engineered a stunt unprecedented in the diamond sport.

    In a game against the Milwaukee Braves, the Redlegs were batting with Hoak on second and Gus Bell on first. Wally Post, the batter, bounced a grounder in the direction of Braves shortstop Johnny Logan. To avert an apparent double play, Hoak startled everyone in sight when he fielded the ball with his bare hands. The guileful Redleg was called out because any runner that is hit by a batted ball in fair territory is out. But did the punishment fit the crime?

    At the time, there was no provision in the rules to cover such a prank on the part of the base-runner. Hoak's maneuver stimulated the Lords of Baseball to cover such a situation with rule 7.09(g). If that happened today, Post would also be out because of Hoak's actions.

As usual, history's a little messier than that. Hoak certainly was in the middle of things, but there was actually a sort of craze early in the '57 season. According to The Sporting News, "The unique, if not altogether new, way of breaking up double plays was pulled successfully three times by the Cincinnati Reds in successive games recently."

First Johnny Temple let a potential double-play grounder hit him. Then Hoak fielded a grounder and actually tossed the ball to Johnny Logan. And then Wally Post "ran into a ball hit by Catcher Ed Bailey."

But those guys clearly weren't the first to break up a double play this way, even in '57. Four days before Temple pulled it off, Baltimore's George Keller did the same thing, and said afterward the Orioles had "talked about and practiced" the play in spring training.

So it wasn't just Hoak, though his blatant mockery of the rules might have spurred action. And there was immediate action. Wally Post (unofficially) interfered with the double play on the 22nd of April. On the 25th, the American and National League presidents released a joint statement that immediately instituted what is today Rule 7.09(f), explaining, "The purpose of this regulation is to add an additional penalty when a base-runner deliberately and intentionally interferes with a batted ball (even going so far as to field the ball) to deprive the defense of an opportunity to complete a possible double play. The spirit of the rules requires that runners avoid interference wherever possible."

It's not clear when this new ordinance was added to the physical manifestation of the rules. According to an early edition of Total Baseball, it wasn't officially added until 1964 (which would be surprising, as there were many other changes between 1957 and '64). Either way, it seems fairly clear that the umpires had their instructions and the practice did end early in 1957. And I'm perfectly happy to call it "the Don Hoak rule" (I love rules named for players).

Does that answer your question, Brian?