Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez deliberates with 3B umpire Jeff Nelson. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook, who made the infield fly call, is pictured in the background.
When left field umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Atlanta batter Andrelton Simmons out on the infield fly rule in the bottom of the eighth inning of the Cardinals vs. Braves Wild Card game, the veteran umpire made what he perceived to be the correct call—albeit at the wrong time.
With one out and runners on first and second—a textbook infield-fly situation—Simmons popped up a 3-2 sinker from Cardinals' pitcher Mitchell Boggs, sending St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma into the outfield as left fielder Matt Holliday sauntered in.
Cue the insanity—ultimately Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez filed an official protest concerning the play.
Major League Baseball's Official Baseball Rules specifies that an infield fly is a fair fly ball that "can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort." Rule 2.00 (Ordinary Effort) defines this standard as "the effort that a fielder of average skill at a position in that league or classification of leagues should exhibit on a play, with due consideration given to the condition of the field and weather conditions."
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) further specifies: "On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder—not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder."
In other words, the fact that Simmons' fly ball fell nearly 90 feet into left field has no bearing on the correctness of Holbrook's infield fly rule call. Because Kozma ventured out into left field and began to camp out under the falling fly, Holbrook saw fit to invoke the infield fly rule, based on the criterion that Kozma could have caught the fair fly with "ordinary effort."
Replays from an angle most resembling Holbrook's vantage point confirm Kozma's proximity to the falling baseball, though only Holbrook can attest to how catchable he thought the fly ball really was.
From the angle provided, the call appears to have been correct.
Though the purpose of the infield fly rule is to prevent the defense from gaining an unfair advantage (e.g., by being in a position to turn an easy double play on runners forced to advanced), umpires cannot pick and choose features of the infield fly rule to enforce.
The infield fly is a judgment call and Gonzalez's protest—filed pursuant to the terms of Rule 4.19—would have been dismissed by crew chief Jeff Kellogg had Gonzalez protested the simple declaration of "Infield Fly."
To be valid, Gonzalez had to protest a rule interpretation or other decision deemed to be in violation of the rules. Specifically, a valid protest must have concerned a subsequent provision of the Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly):
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare “Infield Fly” for the benefit of the runners.
Unfortunately for Gonzalez, he later confirmed he had elected to protest the judgment of "ordinary effort" as opposed to the timing of the call.
Replays plainly indicate Holbrook did not make his call "immediately", making the infield fly gesture only as Kozma was calling for the fly ball.
Still, this protestable portion of the infield fly rule also explicitly requires that the umpire's call be made right away "for the benefit of the runners." In Atlanta, neither runner appeared to have been put at a disadvantage by the delayed call, as Dan Uggla advanced to third and David Ross to second base on the play.
Had this portion of the rule been protested, MLB would have been forced to determine whether the timing of the call was valid: Does an umpire's improperly timed call negate the call itself? Did Holbrook's delayed call "adversely affect the protesting team's chances of winning the game," (Rule 4.19)?
If the answer to both questions is a resounding "Yes," then the Braves protest would have stood a chance. However, because the league determined that the runners and the Braves were not put in jeopardy, the timing of the call becomes irrelevant.
The only question remaining was whether Holbrook's judgment was correct—a question that by rule is not subject to protest.
The final question of which umpire is responsible for initiating the infield fly call is irrelevant. Moreover, Rule 9.04—the rule specifying the umpire-in-chief's duties versus those reserved for field umpires—does not specifically exclude a field umpire from making such a call.
In fact, Rule 9.04(b)(3) states that both plate and field umpires "shall have equal authority...in administering and enforcing the rules and maintaining discipline."
Also working against Atlanta was Rule 10.09(c)(1), which states that in ruling on a declared infield fly that is not caught, "the official scorer shall credit the putout to the fielder who the scorer believes could have made the catch."
The box score indeed credits this putout to shortstop Kozma and not to the left fielder, suggesting that official scorer Jack Wilkinson, for one, agreed with Holbrook's judgment.
At a post-game press conference, Holbrook and Kellogg were joined by umpire supervisor (and former MLB umpire) Charlie Reliford and MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre, who stated that not only did all six Wild Card umpires agree with the on-field call, but so too did Reliford and Torre.
In his capacity as Executive VP, one of Torre's responsibilities is to adjudicate protests filed pursuant to Rule 4.19.
As specified during the umpires' postgame presser, MLB officially denied Gonzalez's protest, effectively eliminating the Braves from the 2012 postseason.
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.