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Did the Athletics have a chance at a successful protest?

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Although the A's front office declined to protest on what they felt was a bad judgment call, home plate umpire Greg Gibson and his crew might have misapplied a rule in calling obstruction on Brandon Moss, and there is precedent to consider this situation as one that adversely affect the A's chances of winning the game.

Tonight's home plate umpire, Greg Gibson
Tonight's home plate umpire, Greg Gibson
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In the bottom of the ninth inning in Thursday night's game against the Angels, Athletics pitcher Dan Otero and first baseman Brandon Moss both attempted to field a chopper hit by Erick Aybar halfway up the first-base line:

While Dan Otero had the ball and appeared to apply the tag on Aybar in the collision, home plate umpire Greg Gibson awarded Aybar first base. The Athletics ultimately protested the play.

Update (August 29, 11:53 AM PDT): San Francisco Chronicle Athletics beat writer Susan Slusser reports that the Athletics will not ultimately be filing a protest:

But if they had protested, you should ignore any temptation to believe Aybar should be out because he ran on the inside of the first base line. In general, a batter can take any path he likes to the next base until an attempt to tag him is being made or some other rule prevents it. The rule you are tempted to cite, Rule 6.05(k), reads "A batter is out when--"

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Because on this play, the ball was not being "fielded to first base" (i.e., thrown to first base, because the umpire must judge there was "interfere[nce] with the fielder taking the throw at first base]), rule 6.05(k) is inapplicable and the running lane is irrelevant.

Next, let's look at the definition of obstruction, contained in Rule 2.00:

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Now look at Rule 7.09(j) interference, where "It is interference by a batter or a runner when--"

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Don't look at this rule as a way to call Aybar out. Aybar should be out for the simple reason that he was tagged by Dan Otero while not in contact with a base he was entitled to stand on. Rather, Rule 7.09(j) creates the possibility that "two or more fielders [can] attempt to field a batted ball."

The rule only requires the umpire to decide if he is trying to determine if a batter is out pursuant to Rule 7.09(j). We don't care about Rule 7.09(j), we only care about whether Brandon Moss can be said to have been in the act of fielding a batted ball, because obstruction is only applicable if a fielder is not in the act of fielding. Both Dan Otero and Brandon Moss can be in the act of fielding a batted ball, so neither should be called for obstruction.

Addressing a counterpoint: Brandon Moss can be called for obstruction because obstruction does not require contact

I just want to look at one more wrinkle in the obstruction rule. Obstruction does not require contact between a fielder and a runner, rather obstruction is "the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner." I would guess that Aybar was impended at the moment pictured below, when he begins to put on the brakes to avoid a collision with Brandon Moss, who is at that particular moment on a line between Aybar and first base:

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Rule 7.06(a) addresses the result of obstruction of the batter-runner (the batter running to first base after putting a batted ball in play):

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Here, obstruction, if it is called at all, could be called at the moment pictured, with the ball still in mid-air. However, this forgets the point made above, according to Rule 7.09(j), "two or more fielders [can] attempt to field a batted ball." And obstruction should never be called when a fielder is in the act of fielding a batted ball. This indeed only bolsters the point, because look closely at the comment to the definition of obstruction:

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A fielder that attempts to field a ball and misses can be said to have been in the "act of fielding" the ball until the attempt does not succeed. That is, he does not actually have to succeed in fielding the ball to have been in the "act of fielding."

Here, when obstruction was most likely called, neither Otero's or Moss's attempt to field the ball was resolved. Both can be said to have been in the act of fielding the ball, and therefore neither should have been called for obstruction. Indeed, the play should have continued at least until this point:

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Dan Otero has the ball in glove, but Aybar is now headed toward Dan Otero, and his progress is impeded by Otero. However, Otero is in possession of the ball. Obstruction cannot be called on a fielder who is in possession of the ball. Again, I believe Greg Gibson called obstruction at the first moment and not the second.

Should Joe Torre have upheld a protest?

Greg Gibson will have to file a report regarding his reasoning for the recall, including judgment decisions therein. If he simply states that he did not believe Brandon Moss was in the act of fielding when he called obstruction, the protest will be denied, because that is simply an awful judgment decision that won't be reversed.

If instead, however, he writes that he believes that both fielders were in the act of fielding, but he adjudged Otero was the only one who was permitted to make a play on the ball based on the "shall determine who is entitled to the benefit of this rule" language in Rule 7.09(k), that simply is not a correct application of the rules, because Rule 7.09(k) is not applicable to calling obstruction, but only applicable to awarding an out if there is no other method of awarding an out.

At that point, however, MLB would have to determine if the outcome of the game was potentially affected by the call. Here's Rule 4.19:

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The fact is, a correctly called play results in there being one out and nobody on, with David Freese due up to bat instead of nobody out and one on, in the bottom of the ninth inning. What happens after that point should not be relevant except to possibly moot the protest if the A's had ended up winning, and perhaps provide more information if the resulting plays were similar in nature than what would have happened. At that point, the misapplication of the rules caused the A's "chances of winning the game to fall," because in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Angels are much more likely to win with one on and none out, than with nobody on and one out.

Precedent: August 21, 1979 - Houston Astros at New York Mets (0.065%)

For an example of an upheld protest that had much less effect, look only to a game between the New York Mets against the Houston Astros at Shea Stadium that began on August 21, 1979. The Mets led 5-0 with two out in the top of the ninth inning, and left the field after they thought they were the victors when Jeffrey Leonard flied out to center field. However, it turns out Mets shortstop Frank Taveras had called for time before the pitch and it was granted by the third base umpire.

The Mets were still returning to the field while first baseman Ed Kranepool was no where to be found, which ended up being a single. Mets Manager Joe Torre however, noticed that his first baseman, Ed Kranepool, was not on the field and argued that the single should be nullified because the game should not have resumed with fewer than nine fielders. The umpires concurred with Torre and the single was nullified. Astros manager Bill Virdon wanted the count reset because all the pitches came with Kranepool missing, but the umpires refused and Virdon protested the game at that point. The visiting team, trailing by five with two outs and nobody on base, has never come back to win the game in the 2,904 similar situations between 1957 and 2013. The Astros initially lost on August 21 when Leonard flew out to left field.

National League president Chub Feeney upheld the protest and ruled that the single would count. From 1957-2013, the visiting team trailing by five runs with two outs and a runner on first base in the ninth inning has won exactly one time in 1,528 tries, for a win expectancy of 0.065%. The Astros ultimately lost the next day when Astros left fielder Jose Cruz grounded out to second base.

Precedent: August 19, 2014 - San Francisco Giants at Chicago Cubs (15.8%)

MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre, the former Mets manager that found himself on the losing end of that August 21, 1979 protest, decided to allow a protest caused by the grounds crews failure to properly store the tarp, holding that the umpires should have suspended the game due to a malfunction of a mechanical field device under control of the home club within the meaning of Official Baseball Rule 4.12(a)(3), rather than call the game on account of rain. At the time of the protest, the Cubs led 2-0 with nobody out in the bottom of the fifth inning.

Torre upheld this protest despite the difficulty of resuming the game the following day with rain forecasted, and the fairly low likelihood that the Giants would come back. A visiting club trailing by two runs with nobody out and no runners on base in the bottom of the fifth inning has won only 15.8% of the time from 1957-2013. The incorrect decision to call the game caused the win expectancy to fall to zero.

Thursday's win expectancy fell 12.0 percentage points if there was a misapplication of the rules

If a rule violation is adjudged to have occurred, the corrected game situation would be a tie score in the bottom of the ninth inning with one out and nobody on base. From 1957-2013, the visiting team in this situation has won 39.8% of the time.

The incorrect call, however, caused the visiting team to have a tie score with a man on first base with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth inning. The visiting team in this situation wins only 27.8% of the time. If Greg Gibson got the rules wrong (rather than his judgment), that 12.0% exceeds by 1800-fold the 0.0065% chance the Astros were given on August 21, 1979, and is in the ballpark of the 15.8% chance given back to the Giants just last week.

Other factors

One could point to the fact that the A's did manage to get out of the inning, so their chances of winning the game weren't really adversely affected, but we can't know how the game would have progressed from that point. Certainly whoever batted next would not have been bunting. Does Efren Navarro come in for Chris Iannetta to bunt? Does Gordon Beckham get intentionally walked? Does Fernando Abad even enter the ninth inning? Does Ryan Cook? Does Albert Pujols even come up to bat to walk in the bottom of the tenth?

I don't know the answers to those questions. I do know that the mistake reduced the A's chances of winning by 12 percentage points at the time of the violation based on the previous 56 years of baseball. With the A's already playing three more games, it should be no trouble at all to continue the game on Saturday or Sunday, though convenience is not a factor under Rule 4.19.

Think of it another way, is it fair that the A's would have been granted a protest if they had coughed up the lead in the ninth inning, but not granted a protest because they were forced to play gutsy baseball to escape bases loaded and one out just to get to the 10th?

Conclusion

It's a thin reed, but a protest may be upheld if Greg Gibson and the umpiring crew did misapply the rules, rather than simply make a terrible judgment call while correctly applying the rules. If upheld, the game will resume with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, with David Freese due up to bat because John McDonald's substitution was announced after A's manager Bob Melvin declared his intent to protest.

MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre, the former Mets manager that found himself on the losing end of the protest but only having to finish off one more out before his regularly scheduled game, could recall that game as a total waste of time and not bother upholding the precedent he was part of, or he could remember how even that almost meaningless chance of winning was good enough for the game's guardians to resume the game. If the A's were wronged because Greg Gibson and his fellow umpires mixed up the rules a little bit, the A's deserve a chance to play this one out with a fair chance of winning, not weighed down by a misapplication of the obstruction rule.