A Walk-Off Letdown

On Thursday afternoon, a familiar groan rippled across the baseball world.

The Mets entered the bottom of the ninth down by one against the Marlins, and had put on a showcase of Fun Baseball to tie the game: a Jeff McNeil bat flip on a bomb into the right field stands, Luis Guillorme hustling out an infield single, and Brandon Nimmo slapping a double down the left field line against an extreme shift. Francisco Lindor was intentionally walked, which brought up Michael Conforto to face Marlins pitcher Anthony Bass. A few pitches later, on a 1-2 count, Conforto leaned his padded elbow into the strike zone and was grazed by a ring-him-up slider that home plate umpire Ron Kulpa was midway through calling before reversing course mid ring-up, instead awarding Conforto first base for a game-winning hit-by-pitch.

Here’s a look at where that pitch was:

And here’s a look at the contact being made:

Ouch?

The play was reviewed, but the only reviewable aspect of it was whether or not Conforto was hit by the ball; they couldn’t re-litigate his efforts to get out of the way of its path, or whether or not it was a strike. The official rule (5.05(b)(2)), by the way, does explicitly state that a batter is awarded first base if:

He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (A) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (B) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;

If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.

In this case, both counts are true: the ball was in the strike zone, and Conforto clearly did not attempt to avoid contact with it. But since that part wasn’t up for review, and upon said review, they did confirm that Conforto had been hit by the pitch, the call stood, the run scored, and the game was over. Hence the groan.

For many watching (and groaning), the feeling was familiar. It immediately reminded me of an afternoon in June 2015, back when it was virtually never worth it to try to stream a live baseball game from a moving car. I nevertheless found myself providing updates to an Acura full of people as I watched the choppy MLB.TV feed of Max Scherzer’s perfect game in progress in the back seat. When Scherzer retired Jordy Mercer for the second out of the ninth, we pulled the car over, and I leaned forward so we could all huddle around the cracked screen of my outdated iPhone, not wanting to miss out on witnessing history in real time. What we witnessed instead was Jose Tabata leaning into the path of an inside slider to break up the perfecto. Needless to say, the energy was sucked out of the car as we grumpily continued on our way to our dinner reservation.

For good measure, here’s where that inside pitch was (it’s pitch number eight in the sequence below):

Clearly the call wasn’t egregious from a balls-and-strikes perspective, as was the case for the final pitch of Thursday’s Mets game. While it’s always a shame to see a personal achievement fall short, especially on a dubious call, a perfect game is just that: a personal achievement. In the case of Conforto’s hit-by-strike (HBK), it determined the outcome of the game! And even though it’s only April, and everyone is still basking in how great it is to have baseball back rather than worrying too much about individual wins and losses, we all know those individual wins and losses add up over time and can make a significant difference come September.

Conforto and Tabata are far from the only players guilty of relying heavily on their elbow padding to lean into inside pitches. Across baseball, hit-by-pitches have increased steadily over time, undoubtedly due, at least in part, to the increased level of protection afforded by that padding (that pitchers are throwing more pitches inside surely plays a part as well). In fact, this trend is not unique to baseball; The Atlantic recently published a piece about how advances in hockey goalie padding have influenced the sport – both in terms of goalie technique, and offense against it – all based around the concept that padding makes getting hit with a projectile less painful.

I’m certainly not arguing against protective padding for batters, especially when pitchers are throwing harder than ever. But it’s also not difficult to understand why hit-by-pitches are steadily increasing in a time when batters can occasionally get plunked without as much risk of serious injury. This trend has inspired much discussion regarding the enforceability of determining whether a batter makes an actual effort to get out of the way of a pitch. The truth is, it hardly seems to be enforced at all at the big-league level. If you watch enough college baseball, however, it won’t be too long before you see a batter lean in a little too much for the umpire’s liking, and leading the ump to insist that he stay in the batter’s box, instead of being awarded first. Clearly, the rule itself is enforceable.

But ultimately, the end of Thursday’s Mets game didn’t come down to a matter of enforceability, but rather one of reviewability. Ron Kulpa has actually already conceded that he should have called Conforto out on strikes. But even if he had realized that immediately, the fact that the play wasn’t reviewable would have prevented him from changing the outcome of the call, and by extension, the game. Once again, a possible solution can be found by looking to the lower levels of the sport. In this case, let’s dive down several more levels, all the way down the Little League.

By rule, the last play of every Little League game in tournament play is reviewed by default. Sure, this may be an effort to avoid the particularly potent heartbreak that only a kid can feel upon losing a game due to an unfair call. But even if the egos of major leaguers are presumably a bit more iron-clad and capable of coping with disappointment, it hardly seems unreasonable to put up safeguards against the outcome of a game coming down to a blown call.

All in all, Michael Conforto’s HBK was the unfitting capper to what was otherwise an extremely exciting inning of baseball. By the end, even the Mets broadcast booth was copping to having gotten away with one. And while it won’t always be necessary to change game-ending plays, expanding the rules of what is reviewable to include all game-ending outs or scores seems like an easy guardrail to install against potentially season-altering miscalls.





Tess is a sports video editor and contributor at FanGraphs.

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I love the term HBK, thank you. Just makes me picture Shawn Michaels walking in and blasting Conforto with a boot for leaning in.

I was watching this on SNY and Keith Hernandez and the rest of the crew all immediately said that he should have been called out on strikes. Ya done messed up when you lost the home team’s crew.

svyatogornyj
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svyatogornyj

Yeah, kudos to the SNY booth for immediately saying what they felt despite the confusion. They continue to set the standard.

dirubin
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dirubin

Not a surprise that the Mets broadcast team called it as it was. That’s the way they roll.