On Free Plays and the Plays That Never Happened

MLB defensive shift
Arizona Republic

Look, this might not happen at all, but that’s okay. The not happening is kind of the point. We’re a week and a half into the regular season, and while we’ve seen plenty of pitch clock violations, we’ve yet to see a shift ban violation. That makes sense. Tardiness is much more common than trespassing. People get in trouble for being late all the time, even in industries that don’t have timing operations administrator positions to fill. Once we do see a shift ban violation — whenever it is that a shortstop or a second baseman finally forgets that the outfield grass and the dirt behind second base are in fact lava — we’ll enter into a new era of baseball that didn’t officially happen.

One of the things that makes baseball different from other sports is that every single play counts. I always liked the purity of that. If you saw something happen on a baseball field, that thing got written down by the official scorer (unless the official scorer position also needed to be filled). Even if a call got overturned on review, the review was just helping the umpires decide what happened on that play. It didn’t nullify the entirety of the play.

Say a runner stole second base, and the opposing manager ambled out to talk it over with the home plate umpire, then all the umpires trundled over to a spot in the middle of the infield to caucus as the Final Jeopardy music floated out over the public address system, and finally the crew chief called the runner out due to batter interference. That call was still a result of the batter’s action during the play. It was a little bit messy. It didn’t fit into a neat box. But it still happened. It went into the scorebook and the public record and got inscribed in the Book of Life. A hundred years from now, nerds like us will be able to find it in the Retrosheet data and run statistical analyses on it. Baseball doesn’t replay third down or give the offense a free play because of a neutral zone infraction. The umpires don’t wait to see how things play out before deciding that the striker was offside a minute ago.

That’s not to say that no play has ever been nullified. I can think of two prominent instances off the top of my head. On his new Substack, Sam Miller recently wrote about the time a Randy Johnson fastball obliterated a mourning dove during spring training. Umpire Alfonso Márquez decided that the pitch never happened, “which means Randy Johnson didn’t hit a bird with a pitch; he hit a bird with a throw.” Sam even punctuated the piece with screenshots of the pitch going backwards in time, un-happening.

Five frames of Randy Johnson's pitch hitting a mourning dove. The first is a cloud of feathers, the last is the last frame before the ball hits the bird.

I’m guessing you remember the Pine Tar Incident. We’re all nerds here. George Brett hit a home run, but umpire Tim McClelland decided that, due to excessive bat stickiness, the home run never happened. Brett had instead made the third out, ending the game. What you might not remember is that four days after the home run happened and then didn’t happen, American League president Lee MacPhail resurrected it. It was the third out that hadn’t happened, and the game continued at a later date without Brett, whose ejection due to excessive screaming was never in danger of un-happening. (It would also continue without Gaylord Perry, who was so thoroughly devoted to the craft of concealing sticky substances that one imagines he was merely acting on muscle memory when he gave Brett’s bat to a bat boy and instructed him to hide it in the clubhouse.)

George Brett screaming and running out of the dugout with his arms in the air.

I’m sure there have been other plays, whole games even, that didn’t officially happen for various reasons. Feel free to tell me about them in the comments. The difference is that they’re largely like the Pine Tar Incident and the time Randy Johnson smoked that bird: incidental, edge cases, not the direct intention of the committee that designed the rules.

That’ll change the first time an infielder gets busted for positioning himself in no man’s land. Here’s how The Sporting News summarized the new rule: “If one side of the infield has three infielders or an infielder has a foot on the grass on a ball put in play, batters can pick up their previous at-bat with a ball added to the count OR take the play as it is.” It’s a free play, the same as football. The offense can either accept or decline the penalty, depending on the result of the play (though surely they’d never bother challenging a play that benefitted them).

There were a few shift ban violations during spring training, including one game with two of them. Both violations were called in the moment by umpires, rather than being challenged by the victimized teams. On March 27, the Pirates were transgressed against the exact player you’d expect to precipitate a shift violation: Joey Gallo. There’s no footage of the actual offense, but if you watch the video of the pitch that didn’t happen, right before Rich Hill’s trademark grunt, you can clearly hear an umpire shout, “Violation!”

The Twins got called for their violation in the third inning, and once again there’s no footage of the offending player. Pittsburgh’s broadcast team wasn’t sure which player was at fault, and Minnesota’s radio team didn’t even know what had happened until later in the inning. The call nullified a strikeout, but pitcher Joe Ryan took it very much in stride, taking a deep breath and re-retiring batter Ji Hwan Bae on a fly ball to center.

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe a big league game where the floor is lava and a batter gets to demand a do-over will feel a little bit more like the wiffle ball games we played as kids. Or maybe it’ll just be another little technicality to worry about, like when a soccer player waits to celebrate a goal until they’ve turned around and made sure the assistant referee isn’t going to call the whole thing back, or when the announcer has to yell, “No flags!” at the end of a kickoff return so you know it’s ok to get excited about the exciting play you just saw — a tiny little injection of bureaucracy into an otherwise joyous moment. But probably it won’t matter much. Players will make sure to stand an inch or two from the lava, and violations won’t happen at all. That’s okay. The not happening is kind of the point.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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10 months ago

Are we not counting rainouts before the 5th inning? I think they count now, but for decades and decades, they were just erased.

10 months ago
Reply to  sphenreckson

Jimmie Foxx famously lost 2 HR in 1932 leaving his season total at 58 rather than a Ruthian 60

Left of Centerfield
10 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Wow, I never knew that! Will have to read more about it.