Dodgers Advance as a Classic Series Ends With a Whimper

A pizza stain on the new Armani. A chocolate chip cookie, fresh out of the oven, adorned with nine chips and one cat droplet. The middle five wishes of Elliot Richards. Game 5 of the 2021 NLDS.

The Dodgers won 2-1 in as tense and dramatic a contest as we’ve seen all year, one that ended with an inexplicable call from first base umpire Gabe Morales on Wilmer Flores’ check swing. For Los Angeles, it’s a fifth trip to the NLCS in six seasons, a triumph only made sweeter by the circumstances. In vanquishing their rivals, the Dodgers get the last laugh in a brilliantly played season series. Tonight’s game is vindication for Dave Roberts and his lineup choices, redemption for Cody Bellinger, and another line on Hall of Famer Max Scherzer’s remarkable resume. Fans of all stripes were treated to an exquisite contest in nearly every respect.

But like most neutrals, that last pitch is stuck in my craw. With two outs, Kris Bryant on first, and Flores at the plate, Scherzer fired a 1-2 slider. Flores started his swing but appeared to check it well in advance of the imaginary and arbitrary breaking point at which a take (usually!) becomes a swinging strike:

Or, at least he did in the eyes of most viewers. Flores, for his part, didn’t look particularly nervous when Doug Eddings appealed to first base. And why would he be? Associate Justice Potter Stewart may as well have been talking about check swings when he uttered “I know it when I see it,” and the vast majority of observers outside of the Los Angeles metro area didn’t see it. Morales did, however, and punched Flores out, ending the ballgame.

If the moment was a letdown for most spectators, it was positively agonizing for the Giants and their fans. A dream season of staggeringly unexpected success, timely hitting, and Late Night LaMonte, truncated a moment too soon.

To be clear, Los Angeles was overwhelmingly likely to win the game at the time Flores tried to halt his cut. If you look at our win expectancy graph, the Dodgers were 90% favorites at the start of the at-bat, and while we don’t have count-specific probabilities, their odds went up as the count shifted to 1-2. The Giants weren’t exactly robbed, at least not in the way that, say, Armando Galarraga was when Jim Joyce denied him a perfect game.

They were, however, denied their fair chance. A baseball team gets 27 outs to work with, 81 strikes to scratch out as many runs as possible. If the sport only gave teams 80, the Rangers would have a title on the mantle and Bill Buckner could have lived his final decades in peace. We don’t know what Flores would have done with another chance. He probably would have made an out, and even if he reached, the Dodgers may have won anyway. We’ll never know though, and at the end of such a compelling game and series, it’s a shame.

There will be consequences. Already, the Twitterverse is buzzing about automated umpiring and expanding replay to cover check swings; I look forward to these discussions with a zeal normally reserved for root canal appointments. Whatever happens in that arena, I can only hope this doesn’t become a life-altering moment for Morales in the way that bad split-second decisions impacted people like Steve Bartman and Don Denkinger. At the very least, he can expect a loud reception the next time he calls a game in the Bay.

Enough about the ending, though. What a game, what a season series! The sport’s two best teams battled evenly all year long. The Giants held the edge in the season series, but by the slimmest of margins at 10-9; meanwhile, the Dodgers held a meager +2 run differential. It was only fitting that what was perhaps the best Division Series matchup of all time would stretch to a fifth and decisive game, and just perfect that they entered the ninth tied 1-1 with an even scoreline across the board. Maybe it would have been best for this meeting to arrive with a trip to the World Series on the line, but better for it to happen too early than not at all.

The tension started early, arguably the night before when Dave Roberts reportedly teased Gabe Kapler with a late night text about his plan to start Corey Knebel instead of Julio Urías. Knebel worked his way around a couple of long flies in the first, one of which Buster Posey hit off the brick ball for a double, and Brusdar Graterol threw a shaky but scoreless second to bridge the game to Urías. In a weird role, the southpaw threw well, striking out five in four innings of work. Were it not for a titanic smash from Darin Ruf, the Dodgers would have turned a 1-0 lead over to the back of the bullpen.

For his part, Logan Webb dazzled again. Just six years ago, I (twice!) watched him fail to escape the first inning of a short-season ball game. Today, he spun seven brilliant innings against the Dodgers for the second time in a week. The lone blemish on his line came in the form of a Mookie Betts special. Betts, who went 4-4 and had the Dodgers’ first three hits, singled to open the sixth. With a groundball machine on the mound and one double play already on the books back in the first, Betts took off for second on the first pitch to Corey Seager, and made it easily. The decision paid off, as Betts was able to trot home on Seager’s blooper to left two pitches later.

In a different world, the decisive moment of this one would have come in the top half of the ninth. Camilo Doval, electric as ever but also a bit wild, faced Bellinger with runners on first and second. Bellinger, of course, has had a miserable season. There are many ways to describe it, but on a recent episode of Chin Music, Kevin Goldstein said that “he’s hit like a pitcher with a little power” and that’s good enough for us here. Notably, his campaign has been defined by a complete inability to catch up to velocity, which seemed a bad match for Doval’s upper-90s gas. The 24-year-old went a different way though, throwing slider-slider-slider-slider. On the fourth try, Bellinger atoned for a lost season with one swing:

Bellinger’s single provided the game’s last run, but the remainder of the contest had more than its share of drama. Kapler pulled Doval and brought in Kevin Gausman (for perhaps his final Giants appearance? Man, the end of a season is a ride.) with one out and runners on the corners. Chris Taylor boldly attempted history’s third successful safety squeeze, which ended as prosperously as most of the previous four thousand. Gausman then retired Matt Beaty on a groundout to first that produced a closer-than-expected dash to the base.

In the bottom half, Roberts went back to an old habit, hauling in his ace from the bullpen for the final three outs in a make-or-break playoff game. He’s done it with Clayton Kershaw on multiple occasions, and I can’t imagine anyone really believed him when he said Scherzer was unavailable today. His entrance, long a distinct possibility, became inevitable once Roberts pinch hit for Blake Treinen in the seventh.

Scherzer’s tidy job in the ninth belies how boldly Roberts handled the late innings. The legend was in vintage form Monday night in Game 3, but had looked shaky over the past couple of weeks, and didn’t command the ball well at all in last week’s Wild Card game. He’s been somewhat dinger-prone in recent years, and entrusting him with a one-run lead on a night when he was already working on short rest was a real gamble.

Fortune often favors the bold though, and Scherzer rewarded his skipper. One back-up breaking ball aside, Scherzer looked electric, throwing harder and with more movement than usual. He retired Brandon Crawford on a fly to left, and breezed past a one-out Justin Turner error by striking out LaMonte Wade Jr. and Flores. Who knows whether we’ll remember this alongside all of his other accolades when he finally hangs ’em up. He and his teammates presumably couldn’t care less right now, in much the same way they won’t be bothered at all by the legitimate griping from the San Francisco side. In the haze of the cigars and the redolence of the champagne, it’s hard to have a care in the world.





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johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

It wasn’t just Flores’ non-swing. Check out pitches which were called strikes but out of the strike zone on mlb.com:

The Giants got 6 (1st pitch to Solano in the 3rd inning, 3rd and 5th pitches to Bryant in the 4th inning, 1st pitch to Solano in the 5th inning, 3rd pitch to Ruf in the 8th inning, 1st pitch to Crawford in the 9th inning). The Bryant AB was really extreme, as Crawford led off the 4th with a single and Urias fired 5 consecutive pitches which were clearly out of the strike zone, all of which Bryant took. You might think that this would get a rally going but two were called strikes anyway. Solano’s and Crawford’s led off innings, while Ruf’s put him behind 1-2 (he had already hit a thunderous homer and two deep fly balls and was clearly the Giants’ most dangerous hitter in the game). Only Solano’s in the 5th wasn’t in an important situation.

The Dodgers didn’t get a single strike called on them which was out of the strike zone.

This is messed up.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

This is overstating it a little. Reviewing the Savant data, Dodgers pitchers had 6 pitches that show outside the zone called strikes, as well as 4 pitches inside the zone called balls

The Giants, as you mention, did not have any strikes called outside the zone. They also didn’t have any strikes missed inside the zone for called balls. Both of these are probably driven by the fact that the Giants didn’t throw very many borderline pitches in the game. Both Posey and Smith are pretty capable framers, and you could see Smith nab a few close calls. Posey never had the opportunity to do so, because the Giants pitchers just didn’t throw anything that missed by just an inch or less for him to frame – everything was either in the zone or missed substantially. I’ll also note that I’m being fairly generous there, as the Giants have a few called strikes that appear to be strikes by milimeters: those kinds of pitches are often called balls, and the pitch tracking is really not accurate to that degree to distinguish balls and strikes there.

It’s easy to remember when it feels like a wrong call that goes against you, but Dodgers pitchers both had those strikes and also had missed strikes in the zone. I’ll link the Savant settings for you in a reply as sometimes links get held up in the moderator.

The Flores check swing call is crappy, and it undoubtedly feels bad, but it probably wouldn’t have felt any better if Flores struck out on a 1-2 slider on the following pitch. There’s no way to lose an elimination game to your archrival and have it feel good, and in a tight, 1 run game, there are numerous plays on both sides that create ‘could have been’ moments.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

You tell me which 4 pitches called for balls to the Giants were in the strike zone mlb.com shows that grand total of one (pitch 6 to Crawford in the 1st, when in any case he struck out). You can look for yourself.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

Per the savant tracker:

Corey Knebel 1-0 to Tommy LaStella, 1st inning
Corey Knebel 2-2 to Brandon Crawford, 1st inning
Julio Urias 1-1 to Kris Bryant, 6th inning
Kenley Jansen 1-2 to Darin Ruf, 8th inning

Are all pitches that nick the strike zone and weren’t called.

Whereas the opposite calls are:

Urias 0-0 to Solano, 3rd inning
Urias 0-0 to Solano, 5th inning
Jansen 2-1 to Posey, 8th inning
Jansen 1-1 to Ruf, 8th inning
Scherzer 0-0 to Crawford, 9th inning

Savant shows the 3-1 to Bryant as juuust nicking the edge of the zone, pretty much identically to the Rogers to Corey Seager 2-1 pitch in the 8th. Both of those pitches show as technically strikes by a millimeter or whatever but in practice are fairly low-probability strike calls that are within the margin of error of pitch tracking technology.

There’s no way that being eliminated by your archrival is going to leave you feeling good, but getting mad at the umpires is a copout here. I don’t blame you for it, though, because having to blame your own players feels much worse.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

That isn’t even close to what mlb.com shows. You can see for yourself.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Just so that we are clear: your position is that mlb’s own site shoukd not be trusted regarding which pitches are in the strike zone and which are not?

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Baseball Savant is way more accurate than MLB. I don’t even think MLB’s site is tracked electronically, just eyeballed.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

Baseball Savant is also MLB’s site, so its not like its some rogue thing out there. It’s statcast tracking, son! It’s the gold standard!

Rob Moore
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Rob Moore

also, in every other game, the umpire calls favored the Giants, per the Umpire Scorecards twitter feed.

Eric M. Van
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I scored the game pitch by pitch, with apparent bad calls according to the K zone noted (including the degree of apparent badness). My scorecard matches your breakdown fairly well. But as j.f.g. asserts, the 2-0 and 3-1 pitches to Bryant looked nowhere close to the zone. If you’re correctly reading the Statcast data, then where in heck is the K zone data coming from? Something’s funky. It’s possible that the K zone is is based on a quick-and-dirty calculation from fewer sources, and the final Savant data is more accurate … but wouldn’t we have heard about that?

mikejunt
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mikejunt

The K zone is the oldstyle pitch fx i think, and the zones are basically arbitrary. On Bryant’s AB, for instance, pause the frame and compare the bottom of the zone to his knees. It is not at the hollow of the knee. The pitch looks like it misses by a mile in part because the zone is drawn wrong.

And also parallax – the camera isn’t actually dead on, and so it can be misleading.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I should add, what you said about quick and dirty vs more accurate later – that is exactly how pitchFX worked, and we knew it.

Jon
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Jon

Sorry, I couldn’t disagree more with your last paragraph. I was watching this as a baseball fan (no real interest in the winner), and went to bed in an awful mood because of the way the game ended. Disgraceful was the word that continually came to my mind.

I would have been completely fine if he struck out legitimately, popped out, or whatever. I imagine the same would be true for Giants fans – how could you not prefer losing legitimately to having your last desperate hope stolen from you?

Finally, even for Dodgers fans – I’m sure they would all prefer there to be no question about their win. On a personal note, I’m a Yankee fan, and remember feeling similarly about the Jeffery Maier/Jeter home run – I just wish the ball was hit a couple feet deeper because I honestly felt bad about benefiting from that call.

So no – it definitely would have felt MUCH better, to all parties, if he legitimately struck out.

Jon
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Jon

Would love for any downvoters to tell me with a straight face that they would prefer to have something stolen from them than for them to lose it themselves.

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Obviously. But like all fans of teams that lose a heartbreaker, you’re ignoring all the close calls that went FOR them, if not in that game than in previous ones. This is the thing about human error and luck: There is no pattern, and sometimes it just jumps up and bites you in the butt at a particularly bad time. Giants had a LOT of good fortune this year (especially with the health of a senior team).

mikejunt
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mikejunt

As a Dodger fan I have seen them lose series that were just their fault for not playing well and for .. other reasons (see: Astros, banging scheme, etc).

They just all feel bad. It’s just a different kind of bad. When you can blame an outside factor, you get angry. When you can only blame your own players, it’s just sad. One isn’t better or worse than the other. It’s just different.

There was not a way that game could end with a score of Dodgers 2, Giants 1 and fans of the Giants would not feel like garbage afterwards. It is only a question of what kind of bad.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

Dodgers didn’t lose to the Astros because of a banging scheme, they lost because Verlander was great while Darvish forgot how to pitch

Dirkdiggles
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Dirkdiggles

One of the reasons the Giants had home field advantage was they won a game over the Dodgers on an egregious non check swing call. If called correctly it would of ended the game and the Dodgers would of won 107 and the Gisnts 106.

Jon
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Jon

Of course there were a lot of calls that went for them – but a) I’m not sure that’s relevant – here I’m just talking specifically about the final call, and) regardless of the actual baseball impact of the call, there is a massively increased “psychological impact” of it (I’d argue many times so) because it ended the game and the season for the Giants.

Sæder
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Sæder

Dodgers fan here. And nope, feeling absolutely jazzed about this series win. Each franchise and fanbase has had their fair share of calls going for and against. It’s baseball! In my biased opinion, I don’t think this was nearly as egregious or affecting fate as when then-Cardinal Joe Kelly hit Hanley Ramirez, broke his ribs, and ruined him permanently, right in the middle of a serious post-season hot streak in the earliest years of this recent Dodgers run of great teams. That was a calamitous baseball event, as opposed to the everyday occurrence of borderline called balls/strikes/swings.

that check swing call was a a 50/50 coinflip and the series featured tough swing calls for both teams in each game. I swear that’s 100% called a swinging strike in every little league and high school game I played, which is how I judge all my baseball rules still haha.

As monumental as this series was, for now, it’ll be a blip after what are likely to be crazy slugfests the rest of the way. Beyond the Braves, who almost beat the Dodgers last year, both AL teams have won WS over LAD in recent years. If the Dodgers make it to the WS, I expect those match-ups will match or, more likely, dwarf the emotions from the NLDS.

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

They do need to standardize the checked swing rule and make it reviewable under certain circumstances (say, on a 3rd strike only).

JohnHavok
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JohnHavok

In order to standardize the rule, there would first have to be a rule regarding what a check swing is. Currently, there’s nothing in the rulebook that even remotely describes what a check swing is.

As it stands now, the only thing mentioned in the rule book is that either a manager or catcher can ask the home plate umpire to check with whichever ump he needs to on a called ball to see if the hitter swung. That’s it. Whether or not he swung is currently 100% umpire discretion.

carter
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carter

The check swing has always been one of the weirdest rules. Ask 10 guys and you will hear 10 different answers. I imagine something gets put in the books this offseason. From general baseball watching that is not a check swing, but again…literally there are no rules. It sort of is like a bunt in a way when the batter pulls the bat back the ball is literally always at the plane of the ball…it is not possible to pull it back faster vs fastballs for most hitters, yet that is never called a strike. So again who knows.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

The relief of getting past the two teams I’d most hate to lose to certainly outweighs any ambivalence I might feel about a bad call that swung the last 4% win probability or whatever.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

Those are some really rosy colored glasses you’re wearing if you think that check swing was a coin flip

Sæder
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Sæder

indeed, they’re tinted blue 🙂

and the way I remember check swings being called in my high school days (which is a poor reference, I know, but really the only time I had to repeatedly deal with check swings first-hand), it was all about the bat head and your hands crossing the plate and/or moving in front of your hip (i.e. between the batter’s hip and the pitcher’s mound). so, again, I’m pretty sure I’d have been called for a strike on that swing in HS. I won’t defend it. I have no ability to affect the outcome of MLB games nor to set its rules. Just an opinion.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

Granted that it was news to me that there is no actual rule, but I have always heard it associated with ‘breaking a plane’ or ‘breaking your wrists’ such that the bat head approaches or passes a perpendicular position with respect to the player, or moves past the front of the plate. Here, the bat head was still predominantly pointed backwards and his wrists never really activated – it was mostly change of hand position.

In all my years of watching baseball I have never heard a rule articulated for check swings such that this qualifies as a strike. Not worth much, if it’s not in the rules, but that’s where I am coming from

Kanjo447
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Kanjo447

Just remember. Think about what the most important finals matchup of all time is going back to 1900. Not including just MLB. The big 4 sports.

LA vs Houston is the biggest matchup in sports history and MLB and Manfred is well aware of this.

CC AFC
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CC AFC

This is parody, right? I read it as parody but I’m guessing the downvotes didn’t.

Ugh, I don’t have the energy for more conspiracy theories these days. I’m just gonna go drink my adrenochrome and chill.

airforce21one
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airforce21one

What do you expect? This isn’t about fairness, this is about entertainment.

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

thats why the astros players were not penalized!

kojo
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kojo

The second curveball to be called a strike against Bryant in the 4th inning was one of the worst calls I can remember. It was practically at his ankles. Props to Will Smith for yanking it into the strike zone so quickly. But that should have been ball four, putting runners on first and second with no outs. That inning could have gone much different if not for that call, as it felt like a rally was in the works. When Bryant struck out, although it was only the first out, it felt like the inning was lost already.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

It wasn’t just that call. In fact, that wasn’t even the worst call against bryant in that at-bat. There were actually three curveballs in that at-bat. The first one, on the first pitch, was in the dirt and way outside and was called a ball. The one you are talking about, which should have been ball 4, which was almost at his ankles, was the fifth pitch. But there was also another curve, on the third pitch, which was outside and even farther out of the strike zone than the fifth pitch, which was also a called strike. In between these was changeup way outside and at the knees and a fastball way outside. Five pitches, none of them anywhere near the strike zone, all taken by bryant, yet the count was 3-2. Should have been men on 1st and 2nd with no outs.

kojo
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kojo

The curveball on the third pitch, while a ball, was close enough that I thought it was a strike in real time. I thought it hit the edge of the zone and finished outside. I understood that one getting called a strike. But I’m also saying this as someone who saw it from behind the pitcher, rather than facing the pitcher, and from over 400 feet from the plate as opposed to like 3 feet from the plate.

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Meh. Yeah, bad call, but it’s one pitch out of, what, 150 the Dodgers threw? Happens every game. It’s a really bad look to whine about strike calls after your team loses. Giants got pleny of good calls this season (I am a fan of another NL West team — not the Dodgers — and can attest to that). You can complain about the checked swing (unlike the poster above, I think that was an obvious no-swing) but even then, chances are 85% or better that Flores makes an out eventually anyway.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

But that didn’t happen with a single pitch the Giants threw.

dl80
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dl80

It’s time for robot umps.

Ivan_Grushenko
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Ivan_Grushenko

It’s been time for some time

mikejunt
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mikejunt

Robot umps doesn’t really do a thing about the check swing rule because it’s just not clearly defined at the MLB level. It is a judgment call that would not be reviewable or assignable to robo-ump.

Jon
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Jon

Then define it and let the robots loose.

newsense
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newsense

I would define a swing as anytime the bat comes over the plate

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt

The current rule is based on intent so that when a player pivots away from a ball that might hit him and the bat incidentally crosses the plate, it isn’t a swing (unless the player actively started swinging before dodging, in whichcase he was attempting to hit the ball, and it is a swing)

carter
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carter

To me the robot umps thing is long overdue, and like anything else the players will adjust. And no one will lose their job. Do not see why anyone cares

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

Nope. Time to get rid of replay and the inaccurate virtual K zone they show on broadcasts, actually.

weekendatbidens
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weekendatbidens

don’t agree with inaccurate but I sure don’t like them on the screen live

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Nope. Would destroy the game for many people. Human error is not just part of sport, it’s a crucial part. Part of the fabric of the game that the players have to navigate, and it resembles, you know, real life. I’m telling you, average fans would hate it.

gtagomori
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gtagomori

Tennis has benefitted from their use of technology

maximus74
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maximus74

you might want to check out the game 1 called strikes that were gifted to webb all night. I see at least 5 pitches well off the plate that were called strikes

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Per mlb.com there were 4 calls like that for thr giants in game 1 (one when webb was batting so it wasn’t significant) vs. 2 for the dodgers. Basically even. Nothkng like 6 vs. 0 for the dodgers in game 5.

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Except it wasn’t 6-0. Get your facts right if you’re gonna do the loserspeak about balls and strikes.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

It was 6-0. No one has identified a single pitch by a Giants’ pitcher which was out of the strike zone but called a strike. mikejunt agreed with that. Are you even reading what people are writing?

maximus74
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maximus74

you’re talking about missed calls like they are specific to only this game. umps miss calls all the time, its the ‘human element’ part of the game the purists are always talking about. shit happens, its up to the players to overcome it. bryant had a chance to overcome a bad call or two but he swung through a pitch

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

He got to 3-2 after 5 pitches which were clearly out of the strike zone because the umpire called two of them strikes anyway. And it’s his fault because he missed the next one?

Will Carter
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Will Carter

God it’s sad you are so obsessed with this you have probably spent hours in these comments. Not a great look.