They Screw Up At Least One Important Call Every Game

I didn't get to watch the Angels/Yankees marathon last night, but I've been reading about it, and - surprise! - an umpire made a controversial call that had a dramatic impact on the win expectancy. This one was the doings of second base umpire Jerry Layne, who decided the tenth inning would be a good time to stop calling the neighborhood play. This, of course, came as a surprise to Erick Aybar, who was given no indication that extras in New York meant the game would now, in select circumstances, be called by the rulebook.

Here's video of the play in question. What's clear is that Aybar never actually touched the bag. What's also clear, though, is that he got close, close enough that he would ordinarily get the call. The same call it looked like he had gotten in, say, the third inning, when Mark Teixeira grounded a ball that Maicer Izturis flipped to Aybar with Johnny Damon bearing down on him from first base. The same call it looked like he had gotten in the seventh inning, when the characters were Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner. The same call that middle infielders get all the time, a call that everyone knows isn't technically correct but a call that is nevertheless universally understood to be among baseball's unwritten rules.

According to my spreadsheet, the Yankees had a win expectancy of ~73% with a man on first base. The grounder, as ruled, dropped that to 72%. Had Layne called Cabrera out at second, however, it would've dropped all the way down to 55%. That's a 17% difference, or roughly the equivalent of awarding the Yankees a leadoff double. The call didn't end up hurting the Angels - Darren Oliver worked his way out of the inning - but it did still deal their chances a severe blow, and just because it didn't ultimately end up costing anyone any runs doesn't mean we can just sweep it under the rug.

If you're an umpire, and you want to call a game by the book, that's great. That's pure, and it's good to adhere to a concrete set of rules. But if that's something you want to do, then (A) you have to make all the players and coaches aware of what you're doing before the game, and (B) you can't just change your mind all willy-nilly in the middle innings, completely unannounced. All anyone ever wants from refs or umpires is consistency. While there's a difference between being consistent and being correct, the former takes precedence over the latter to the point where they can be one and the same. The neighborhood play, for example, isn't correct, but because umpires have been consistent about calling it, it's been regarded as such for as long as anyone can remember. Consistency. If umpires could be consistent about their calls, then no one would have a problem with them.

Layne, it seems, deviated from consistency. He deviated from consistency in the bottom of the 10th of a tie game in the ALCS, and he deviated from consistency knowing full well that, though he had the rulebook on his side, the Angels would be steamed, because he was going against what's normal. Somebody explain that to me. Somebody explain to me why that particular situation warranted aberrant punctiliousness, especially when it looked like earlier plays in the third and seventh innings were called as they've always been called.

That call isn't the reason the Angels lost the game. They lost the game because they didn't hit when they had to, they didn't field when they had to, and Yankee Stadium allows for some damn retarded home runs. But that call is just the latest in a series of questionable calls that umpires have made in what's still a young playoffs. I don't think there's any good excuse for doing what Jerry Layne did in the 10th inning last night, and until umpires are either replaced or held to a higher standard of conduct, baseball's going to bear a blemish that it doesn't need to bear.

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