It finally happened. Well, I’m sure it’s happened before, but it’s the first tangible proof I have of one of the absolutely most ridiculous practices in baseball costing a team a ballgame.
In the 10th inning of last night’s Astros game against San Diego, Alex Bregman was at the plate with two outs and Derek Fisher at second base. Bregman skied a pop-up in the infield, a play that should have sent the game into the 11th inning still scoreless.
As soon as the ball was hit, Padres pitcher Phil Maton did what he’s been instructed to do since at least entering professional ball, and perhaps even earlier. He pointed up. Look, there’s the ball, he helpfully pointed out to infielders nowhere it.
First baseman Eric Hosmer, playing back given the game situation, charged in at full steam to try to make the play. But, not terribly surprising, he overran the ball and it dropped untouched a few feet behind him. As the ball was finding purchase on the Houston turf, Fisher was skittering across the plate with the winning run.
It’s all so damn ridiculous. There was one player perfectly positioned to make this play, who located the ball from the moment it left the bat, but MLB protocol prohibited him from doing so. Why, because Phil Maton’s a pitcher, and pitchers can’t catch pop-ups.
It’s an asinine tradition, and it finally cost a team a ballgame.
Look, I’m all for establishing an infield hierarchy that places the pitcher well down the list of pop-up handlers. If the first baseman or third baseman or even the middle infielders can make a routine play, they should call the pitcher off every time. It’s no different than the outfielders having the freedom to call off the infielders on pop-ups hit between them.
But on a play like this, where the ball is hit just a few feet in front of the plate, then the pitcher ought to be the one catching it. The corner infielders aren’t necessarily close enough, and the catcher should be the last resort, given his starting spot often makes the ball difficult to pick up off the bat, his uniform is bulkier which limits his mobility, and his mitt isn’t optimally designed for catching fly balls.
We expect the pitcher to field grounders; to cover first on grounders to the first sacker; to take their place in the run-down conga line; to make pickoff throws (Jon Lester excluded). Why we can’t expect them to also catch a simple pop-up when they’re the only one in position to do so is truly mindboggling.
Yes, this is the protocol. But there’s another, more apt protocol that covers virtually every other play on the diamond. If it’s hit to you, catch it.