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Jose Lobaton was out and it feels awful

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Replay is an improvement in the game until it sucks.

Divisional Round - Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals - Game Five Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

There was controversy to burn in last night’s NLDS Game 5. Strange and terrible things devoured Max Scherzer and his catcher Matt Wieters in the fifth inning. Yet the Nationals battled back. And then of course, everything went haywire in final and convincing fashion, to the irritation of many in the baseball world.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, with a run already in for the Nationals and the score now tight at 9-8, Jose Lobaton kept the inning alive with a single. With the speedy Michael Taylor at second base, and Trea Turner at the dish, the Nationals looked to be on the verge of an incredible recovery after blowing their early lead. And then Jose Lobaton trumped all the bone-headed moments in this game in one fell swoop.

Cubs’ catcher, Willson Contreras, caught Lobaton napping at first, and snuffed the rally. The Cubs went on to victory, and the Nationals and their fans are very, very sad now.

Ok, that’s not exactly how it happened. It took a replay to confirm that, despite clearly beating the throw back to the bag, Lobaton’s foot had then slipped across the bag due to the force of impact, and probably—though not conclusively—lost contact with the bag. Rizzo’s glove was—though not conclusively— probably still touching Lobaton in this fraction of a second. And in this moment, the quantum state of Lobaton’s out-ness, or safe-ness hinged on perhaps a centimeter of space between his toe and the surface of the base. In this tiny arena of pain, the fate of a playoff series was decided.

And people are not happy about it. The takes, as you see, are quite hot right now.

It’s interesting that no angle has yet emerged that perfectly captures Rizzo’s glove touching Lobaton while his toe in not in contact with the bag. The word conclusive, you see, still has an element of a judgement call involved. Be that as it may, there was enough from some angle to convince the High Lords of Replay to deem Lobaton out at first base.

Personally, I agree that moments like this are extremely frustrating. Lobaton is at fault for getting caught napping. Had he been more wary, he wouldn’t have had to flail back to first base quite so desperately. In more control, he probably could’ve stuck to the bag. So it’s hard to have a ton of sympathy there.

However, Dave Cameron makes some quality points in arguing that this kind of thing is not what replay was instituted to determine. Losing contact with the base momentarily conveys no intent to advance to the next one. And the physics make the requirement to maintain contact rather onerous.

The bases aren’t coated in adhesive. They aren’t designed to be sticky. Large mammals moving quickly have a very difficult time adhering to such an object—to say nothing of a base made wet by rain—without a little slip here or there. The base isn’t exactly stable either. It doesn’t feel true to the spirit of the rules for things to be quite so ticky-tacky. At very least it feels cheap.

However, to end what Cameron and others see as a fundamentally unfair expectation that one never lose contact with the bag, even more metaphysical gymnastics are going to be required. Introducing the concept of airspace, as Cameron suggests, isn’t necessarily going to be anywhere near as simple as he suggests.

If we’re going to change the rules to say that leaving the bag is okay, as long as the player remains above the bag, that’s a pretty vague standard. How far above the bag can one go? And do you literally have to remain within the volume of space above the bag as delineated by the bag’s edges? Can you slip off to the side an inch or two and be safe? Is that worse than if a player’s foot bounces off the bag and is eight inches up in the bag’s “airspace” when a tag is applied?

Questions like these only get worse the more finely tuned we try to make rules and officiating in sports. Ideally, the judgement and discretion of the umpire would work perfectly well, but that just isn’t reality. Without strict guidelines, we’re just transferring the burden back onto their imperfect shoulders.

These are questions that cut to the core of what we want from our games, and how we want the rules implemented. It’s very easy, in our irritation at the perceived unfairness of a play like the Lobaton pickoff, to start stacking exceptions, definitions and rules on top of each other until things start to look like an NFL game. That, presumably, isn’t how we want things to go. It doesn’t mean that the “perfection” required by replay is a perfect standard. But it does mean that it’s at least a perfectly consistent one.

What this comes down to, is the fact that Lobaton made a mistake. Contreras is well known for his arm, and willingness to throw to first. Lobaton should have never been caught half-stepping like that to begin with. Had he stayed closer to the bag, or had the awareness to know Contreras might try to throw behind him, he might have gone back head first and had no issues.

Yes, it feels lousy that replay caught him off the bag by such a tiny amount. But the proposed cures for moments like these are often worse than the disease. We can talk about this, and perhaps simply beating the throw is enough, even if you subsequently leave the base for a moment. But let’s not lose sight of the reality here. Jose Lobaton got caught napping, and then he was out, and that’s as baseball as it gets.