Baseball: A Game of Inches, a Game of Seconds

Photo by KEVIN SULLIVAN / Orange County Register

Photo by KEVIN SULLIVAN / Orange County Register

It is claimed that baseball is a game of inches. Every sport is a game of inches. An inch can separate an incomplete pass from a reception, or a first down. How about that putt that stops right on the lip of the hole? In soccer, lacrosse, or hockey, a shot that hits the pipe or cross bar, rather than going into the goal, sometimes that’s just an inch as well.  And then there is that jump shot that circles the rim, endlessly spinning within the perimeter of the basket, or perhaps bouncing above it, and you are watching in agony, wondering if it will fall in or turn into a rebound?

In baseball, inches can separate a fair or foul ball, sometimes for a home run, like a soaring fly ball hitting Fenway’s Pesky Pole (by the way, why is a ball that hits the foul pole a fair ball?), sometimes for a double down the line. The batter racing down the line after a ground ball to short, sometimes an inch will determine if he has a single or the play will be simply scored 6-3. Hey, did that diving outfielder really catch the ball (perhaps a snow-cone catch) or did he trap it?  And please, let’s not get started with the strike zone, we can all lose our minds about that.

But sometimes as much as inches, it is the seconds, particularly the decisions that need to be made in a split second, just on instinct, that control results. In fact, it is these decisions that can sometimes affect the inches. Let’s look at some examples.

Ballplayers, and for this article I am speaking specifically about fielders, have grounders, line drives and fly balls hit at them all game, every game. Most of the time, what they are expected to do in these circumstances is clear. On a ground ball or sacrifice bunt, always try to get the lead runner if that is feasible; if not, settle for the out at first. On fielding a single, or a sacrifice fly, an outfielder always has to judge if he has a chance to throw out the runner at home, or simply throw to the base ahead of the other runners to stop them from advancing.  This is not that complicated; based on the circumstances and clear logic, the right thing to do is generally evident.

However, it is not always all that clear. So much can be left up to a snap, split-second judgment that can affect the game, sometimes by inches. This is not an article on the Mets’ 2015 post-season, but three plays come to mind as I reflect back on their pre-World Series run that may have had an effect on their continuing to advance to the Series.

In Game 5 of the NLDS versus the Dodgers, Daniel Murphy was on third base after one of the most fascinating plays we will ever see. He took third on a walk because the Dodgers’ infield had employed a shift against Lucas Duda, and did not react in a timely way when Murphy, reaching second and seeing the promised land ahead, took off for third. This situation, however, is not the issue in question. The next batter was Travis d’Arnaud, and there were less than two outs when he came to the plate. The Dodgers were ahead 2-1, it was early in the game, the fourth inning, and d’Arnaud lifted a long fly ball that appeared to be drifting into foul territory. Gold Glove winner Andre Ethier caught the ball, knowing that the runner, Murphy, would tag up and likely score. It was a decision he had to make on the spot, taking the out, knowing that the tying run would score early in the game, or letting it drop. Of course, who knows what would have happened had he let it drop foul and let the at-bat continue. Perhaps a double play ball. Perhaps a three-run home run. This is not an indictment of Ethier, just recognition that it was a difficult decision to make, likely without much pre-thought given. He likely would have been the subject of criticism either way.

Game 3 of the NLCS, Mets and Cubs, gave us two more of those situations. In the sixth inning, with a 2-2 tie, Murphy was again on third base. Duda hit a hard chopper to first and Gold Glove finalist (not winner) Anthony Rizzo fielded the ball, maybe a step from first base. He elected to get the out at first and then fired home, a second, and inches, too late. Murphy scored the go-ahead and, in the long run, game-winning run. Was that a bad decision?  Who am I to say?  If Rizzo had gone home, there was a good chance he could have thrown out Murphy. But it would have had to be a perfect throw since Murphy was not forced and a tag would have had to be applied. So, he took the one extra second to get the out and the rest, as they say, is history.

Still another play took place the next inning. Of course, as it turns out, it did not materially affect the outcome, but that was not certain at that point. Wilmer Flores hit a line drive to right field, and the Cubs’ Jorge Soler made a dive for the ball. He did not catch it; he did not block it and the ball rolled to the wall, got stuck in the Wrigley Field ivy, and so goes another oddity in baseball history. Insurance runs that ultimately did not matter scored. From the comfort of my recliner, I, who only played infield softball after the age of 12 and never had to dive for a ball hit in front of me, observed a play in which Soler made a valiant, but misguided attempt to catch an uncatchable ball. Again, this is not an indictment. It was his split-second decision to make.

Inches, seconds, they can all determine the outcome of games. In Ethier’s case, it was that on-the-spot decision about what to do. With Rizzo, and maybe a little less so with Soler, it was that quick decision that led to inches that led to game-changers. I have not talked, of course, about the split-second decisions that batters face on almost every pitch. I cannot think of a situation under which I would thrive more poorly than being in an 0-2, or 3-2, count with anything on the line. The pressure would kill me. The decisions whether to dive or where and when to throw the ball are made multiple times every game. Sometimes they matter a lot, sometimes not so much. But the pressure is on them; all viewers at the park or at home do is yell when the decision turns out “wrong”. I guess that is why the players make the big bucks and people like me just write about it.

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