One of the most popular idioms in the English language is “guinea pig.” It’s simple — we’ve probably all used it — and yet it means so much. To be a “guinea pig” is to be the subject of something new or different. It can be as simple as being the first to try a new toothbrush, and range to something as weighty as testing a new drug.
In baseball terms, the Atlantic League is serving as Major League Baseball’s guinea pig this season. In a deal struck in early-March, the two organizations agreed to change certain rules for the Atlantic League’s 2019 championship season as a way to test said modifications before MLB considers implementing them itself.
One of the more contentious rule changes was the prohibition of the infield shift. The rule itself, as explained in the press release, was simply the requirement of “two infielders to be on each side of second base when a pitch is released.” If the rule is broken, “the ball is dead and the umpire shall call a ball.”
Well, last Thursday, the Atlantic League’s Opening Day, the anti-shift rule was utilized in a game between the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs and the Sugar Land Skeeters. Former big leaguer James Loney (remember him?) was at the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning. On the first pitch from Blue Crabs righty Daryl Thompson, Loney hit a soft ground ball to second baseman Angelys Nina, who easily threw him out at first to begin the inning.
If my description was not quite satisfactory, let’s take a look at the play in GIF form:
As you can see, it’s your pretty standard 4-3. There’s not much to it. But then, confusion hits. The umpires gather behind the pitcher’s mound to discuss the previous play, and the game takes a pause in the action. Blue Crabs manager Stan Cliburn asks for an explanation, and rightfully so:
When the umpires reach their conclusion, they award Loney first base. As you can see in this next screenshot, there is a chalked line drawn behind second base as a way to help enforce this rule:
In their decision, the umpires concluded that, prior to the play, there were not two infielders on both sides of second base. If we take a second look at this, I’m not entirely sure where the violation occurred. Clearly, shortstop Edwin Garcia is on the left side of that line, as shown in the screenshot here:
What I think happened is that because Nina was in shallow right field, the umpires decided that he did not “count” as a second infielder on the right side. That looks like the only reasonable explanation. You can see Nina in shallow right field in this screenshot here:
The broadcast booth joked about how to score that play, which is a fair question, and it appears that in the game log, an error was charged to Nina. A better conclusion, in my opinion, would have been to treat this as if it was a catcher’s interference (that’s what the broadcasters suggested). That way, Loney’s on-base percentage wouldn’t be penalized for a rule violation, as it wouldn’t have counted as an at-bat. In actuality, though, he got an 0-for-1 for the play.
But, as I have since realized, I don’t think that play was scored correctly at all. It shouldn’t have been an error. In fact, it shouldn’t have been the end of the at-bat at all. As you can see in the upper portion of this piece, the rule states that if there is a violation, “the ball is dead and the umpire shall call a ball.”
So, while the violation itself seems a bit iffy, the conclusion doesn’t seem right, either. The umpires should have asked Loney to go back into the batter’s box, and his count should have gone from 2-1 to 3-1. The whole “should this be treated as at-bat?” question would thus go away, and Loney would then have completed the plate appearance as usual.
This works in all counts. Even if a violation occurs on a 3-1 count, the batter would just be awarded ball four and, along with that, a walk. No official scorer confusion is necessary at all, if the violation is indeed enforced correctly.
Granted, the umpires deserve some leeway here. It was only Opening Day, after all. And if the rationale behind this call was that Nina was not in the infield, and therefore only one infielder was on the right side of second, I can understand that. But, what doesn’t make sense to me is how this was ultimately enforced, and I think that’s something the league should look into before this becomes a common occurrence.
I suppose I should mention that I am not a fan of this rule. I am interested, though, in the rule’s effects, and as the Atlantic League serves as a guinea pig this season, it’s clear that so does MLB. The rules just need to be enforced correctly to understand the true impact.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.