6-7-10 SPY Postscript

SPY POSTSCRIPT

 

Sportswriters by instinct are armchair or Monday morning quarterbacks – albeit not as critical as the ladies in the ESPN broadcast booth – who regale the listening audience with comment on how they would have made different decisions than the coaches on the field, or, how they performed in certain situations as players.

However, print or broadcast, we all seem agreed that the umpires, up to this point, have taken over the game, especially through their calls of illegal pitches – notably, against two of the game’s top performers, Stephanie Brombacher and Kenzie Fowler.  The official record shows only one other IP, against Hawaii relieve Kaia Parnaby.

Brombacher and reliever Ensley Gammel were called for four and two IPs in Florida’s first, losing game.  Yet, in the Gators last game, the loss to Georgia, no IPs were called, a surprise which caused SPY to ask if NCAA officials had told the officiating crew to “cool it.”  The verbal answer was no – and the effective “no” was rendered in the next Arizona game when the crew was again calling IPs on Fowler.

Illegal pitches do not appear in box scores and summaries, but do appear in play by play summaries – IF the IP caused a player to advance – a game changer as some call it.  Eg, a number of IPs were called on Fowler in the win over Hawaii, elevating the ball/strike count, but only three are shown in the play by play, because those calls resulted in player advances. 

Do the umpires change the game through IPs?  Absolutely.  Both Brombacher and Fowler, and their teams, were thrown off stride in their first games – both losses.  Not all game changers lead to a loss.  Against Washington, Arizona was ahead 2-0 going into the bottom of the 4th; pinch runner Wagner advanced to 2nd on an IP by Fowler, and was thus in scoring position when Williams singled.  The Wildcats won 4-3.

But, in the 9-0 loss to Tennessee, the IPs were even more prominent as game changers.  The Vols scored four runs on just one hit.  Grieve advanced to 3rd on an IP, and scored on another IP.  In the same inning, Webb scored on an IP.

Yet, when Arizona won the first game yesterday 8-0, no IPs were called. Only one IP was called against Fowler in the penultimate 5-2 win over Tennessee last night. 

In Florida’s loss to UCLA, the officiating crew was Bish, Thomas and Stoodley. The crew in Georgia’s 3-2 win over Florida, in which no IPs were called, was Bartling, Stoodley and Bish.  When Tennessee routed Arizona 9-0 on opening day, when eight IPs were called against Fowler, the crew was Bartling, Tidwell and Kumat.  In Arizona’s 8-0 win over Tennessee, the crew was Bish, Tidwell and Thomas.  In the final 5-2 Arizona win, the crew was Tidwell, Thomas and Bartling.  In Arizona’s 4-3 win over Washington, in which a run scored on an IP, the crew was Thomas, Bish and Stoodley.  In Hawaii’s 3-2 win over Missouri, in which no IPs were called, the crew was Kumat, Bartling and Tidwell.  In Tennessee’s 7-5 win over Georgia, no IPs were called, Tidwell, Kumat and Thomas officiated. Since NCAA does not make public a record which shows which IP was called by which umpire, we find it difficult to detect a pattern here.

We resist the notion that Brombacher and Fowler are the most grievous offenders, and the notion that all other pitchers are performing in exact accordance with the rule.  We also reject the equally unpalpable notion that these umpires targeted two pitchers.  Yet, we find some attraction to the suggestion that umpires are somehow aware that these pitchers have a “reputation” for drawing illegal pitch calls, and, however sublimely, umpires are “looking” for infractions by Brombacher and Fowler.

We also think the umpires, with or without guidance from NCAA, became aware they were changing games, and, were giving pitchers in later games the “benefit of the doubt” which is what NCAA’s rules committee asked them to do after the Garman debacle.

It must also be noted that Brombacher and Fowler are very talented and determined pitchers, with quite capable coaches, and that both worked on refining their delivery after the shattering experience of the games on opening day.

We think NCAA should meet with a group of coaches to reconsider the rule – with a very important question up front: do the pitchers gain any advantage?  Many observers contend they do not – and should not be considered illegal.  We agree with coaches here and elsewhere that NCAA, when making rules which change the game, should announce those rules in the fall, with adequate guidance, including videos.  We think NCAA should confer with ASA and the national highschool association to reach agreements on pitching procedures which can be eliminated or refined early in a pitcher’s career.

At minimum, NCAA should address the issue of consistency.  While some pitchers may strive more consciously to adhere to the rule, especially after being called, the fact is that the rules are not enforced uniformly.  Pitchers don’t change that much, yet they will be called ad infinitum by one crew, and not by another.

Illegal pitch calls should become part of the record produced by Automated Scoreboard and similar gametracking devices – and the summary should show how many IP calls were made by individual umpires.

Unfortunately, the umpiring crews missed some other calls: fielders not in contact with home plate or the base when taking throws for force outs; slappers out of the box when making contact; etc.  At the Garman, I offered to loan my handheld GPS to the UIC to help his umpires find their strike zones.  Could have been useful in OKC.

Bottom line: the questions are pertinent.  Do we have the best umpires here?  Have the rules been applied uniformly and consistently? The NCAA rules committee is meeting here this week and should consider such questions on rules, as well as composite bats.

Other Issues

 

NCAA should change the postgame format.  Let the coach of the losing team meet with the press, but not the players.  Who gains from watching young girls cry?  One player, asked about a mistake, told me afterward no one needs to remind a player who makes a mistake; they live with it long after the game is over.  I have opposed putting players through this grinder since 2002 when Jennie Finch, who defined stoicism, had to defend losing the title game to California.  Congress may demand to know why a certain ship slipped beneath the waves (I wouldn’t tell them) but softball is not life and death.  Let the coach take the heat.

There is something of a disconnect between what the “experts” in the ESPN booth think are the critical issues, ie, the issues on which they continuously criticize the coaches, and the view of the print media.

The print media did not bore in on Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly about the double play which killed a rally, when a runner at 2nd apparently missed a call on an infield fly rule and went to 3rd.  The coach’s job is to wave off runners, and Weekly could be seen gesticulating with his arms, but the 19-yr old runner apparently didn’t see it.

Nor did the print media zone in on Arizona coach Candrea when he could have sent Lastrapes home from 2nd and forced a run-rule situation on Tennessee earlier in the 8-0 game.  The explanation, as we understand it, was that the Wildcats were having a successful series of two-out rallies, and some of the most dependable hitters when runners are in scoring position were still coming up – and they came through.  Why did Candrea have Chambers, known for her home runs, lay down a bunt?  Stacie had already jacked a massive homer, but she had been inconsistent of late; a bunt was needed and she was the next batter up.

There was more surprise on press row when Florida coach Tim Walton, having just fallen behind Georgia 3-2, had Bruder and Schutte on base with singles to open the top of the 6th, no out, and had his home run leader, Francesca Enea, sacrifice the runners to 2nd and 3rd, where they were stranded.  True, Enea had been in something of a slump, but the next two batters had one hit in six at-bats.  As it happened, the next five Gators in the game all struck out.  The sacrifice made strategic sense; still we would like to have seen Enea take her cuts one last time.

As long as we’re being critical, let’s talk about the food – which the press receives in boxes through the concession stand window.  The method is not the matter.  The dinner fare last night was pizza.  Frankly, they serve better pizza in the Oklahoma County jail.

One thought on “6-7-10 SPY Postscript

  1. Bob Milosavljevic

    Your misguided analysis of the IP situation during the recently-completed WCWS serves little purpose other than to re-direct the blame from where it belongs (on non-compliant pitchers and pitching coaches) to those who are charged with enforcing the written rules of the game (the umpires).

    ESPN had upwards of 17 cameras covering the action in OK City. Most of the IPs that were called were replayed in slow motion from multiple angles. Every one of the IP calls was shown to be spot-on by the replays. Were there others that could have been called (based on analysis of slow motion video footage)? Absolutely, but the vast majority of the uncalled violations fell into the “benefit of the doubt” category. Seeing those subtle, questionable footwork violations in real-time is a daunting, if not impossible, task even for the most highly skilled and experienced umpires, and the umpires were absolutely correct in not “guessing” those questionable IPs, (notwithstanding the post-mortem video “proof”). Years and years of inconsistent/nonexistent enforcement of a contentious and all-but-impossible-to-comply-wth rule has fostered a culture of open disregard by pitchers and pitching coaches, bringing us to the tipping point that we reached this season. After being excoriated by the self-professed pundits in recent years for *failing* to call replay-substantiated IPs, umpires had little choice but to take a hard line this year. To find fault with that is pure and utter hypocrisy on the part of the so-called analysts.

    The argument that pitchers who leap (e.g., Brombacher and Fowler) do not “gain any advantage” is specious at best and downright misleading and false in the worst case. Do the math. Brombacher and Fowler were both shown to throw in the mid 60’s by ESPN’s radar gun. Both also had a final release point at approximately the front edge of the pitcher’s circle, 35 feet from home plate. At 65mph, the pitch arrives in .367 seconds under those conditions. The replays showed both Brombacher and Fowler, by virtue of their leap off the rubber, making contact with the ground with their pivot foot approximately 2 feet in front of the rubber. Without the benefit of that 2-foot leap, the final release point would have been at 37 feet, increasing the travel time of the pitch to .388 seconds. That’s a difference of 5.4% in the batter’s reaction time – that’s “not any advantage”????

    While you “resist the notion that Brombacher and Fowler are the most grievous offenders”, the video evidence refutes that perception. Go back and review your DVR’d games. Look at other pitchers, and use your DVR’s pause/slow-motion feature to focus on footwork. This is one case where pictures don’t lie. There is a very good reason why Brombacher and Fowler got the most attention – they were indeed the most grievous offenders, by far.

    You want to eliminate the controversy and solve the inconsistency problem instantaneously? Make one small change to the pitching rule that will (1) eliminate all subjectivity/judgment in enforcement and (2) level the playing field for all pitchers, whether you’re 6’1″ Jennie Finch or 5’4″ Jocelyn Forest. The change? Place a second pitching rubber in the ground at 36 feet from home plate, draw two lines connecting the outer edges of the two rubbers, and eliminate the prohibition against leaping, crow-hopping, replanting, etc during the delivery. The sole requirement for all pitchers (regardless of pitching style) would be that, at the time of release, the stride foot must be on the ground and within the “box” defined by the two rubbers and the two lines connecting them. An easy change that doesn’t require pitchers to relearn their craft and makes enforcement by the umpires a breeze. Leapers get to leap, the heretofore compliant pitchers have the option of tweaking their styles to maybe get them a little closer at release, and umpires are off the hook for enforcing a rule that evidently nobody likes. Everybody wins…

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