(This article is one section of a longer article, "Back to School Notes", which is available to members only.)
The first thing I should point out here is that a half a second is a relatively good amount of time in a competitive sport. A pitch travels from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt in less than half a second, even if the pitch is a changeup. A fast runner can run as much as 16 feet in a half a second; athletes doing complex things like rounding the bases and playing defense do not run 16 feet in a half a second, but they can easily run 10 feet in that time. An athlete takes several steps in half a second, and a tennis ball changes directions due to contact with the racquet or the ground several times in a half a second. A half a second live may well be 10 to 15 seconds in slow motion.
The concept of "continuation" is spreading like wildfire in sports. It started, I think, in the NBA, and in particular with two rulings in the NBA. Up until some point about 1973. . .I am sure a basketball historian could pinpoint the year better than I can. . .up until some point when I was a young adult, if a player was fouled before he shot, the shot did not count. The argument was made that disallowing a shot if a player was fouled before he could get the shot off created (in some situations) an incentive to foul the player hard while he was shooting, thus giving a benefit to the defensive player for violating the rules. I don’t disagree with that argument; it’s a good argument as far as it goes.
So the NBA developed a continuation rule or a continuation interpretation of the rule, which says that if a player is fouled in the act of shooting and makes the shot, the shot counts as long as the shooter completes the shot using a continuous motion begun before the foul. There is a problem hiding in that sentence, which is in the open-ended nature of the concept of "continuous". Originally this was interpreted to allow shots going off a tenth of a second after the foul, then two-tenths, three-tenths, etc. What’s a continuous motion? Originally that meant that your arms had to be in motion to take the shot before you were fouled, but then that was stretched so that now. . .well, I’m not trying to mock the NBA or exaggerate for rhetorical purposes, but you know what happens. A guy is fouled outside the free throw line, takes three steps and shoots a layup, and he gets the shot based on the theory that he didn’t have a dentist appointment between the foul and the shot, so he was in continuous motion.
I don’t think that’s a really good rule, frankly, and I don’t think it has made the NBA game a better game. But at some point the NBA became so fond of the continuation rule that they decided to eliminate travelling calls, as well. I think the rule originally was that you were supposed to dribble once with each step; not sure, one of you basketball guys can clean that up. Anyway, nobody dribbles once with each step anymore, but then you had to dribble continuously, and then (in the NBA) they decided you didn’t REALLY need to dribble anymore, as long as you were continuing an action which had once involved a dribble, or as long as the referees were still able to remember the last time you dribbled, or something.
OK, now I am mocking the NBA, but the NBA lost a lot of fans because of the way the rule was enforced or not enforced. Anyway, at some point within the last ten years, the NFL decided to get in on the continuation good times, and adopted some sort of stupid continuation policy having to do with completing a catch. It is no longer enough for a receiver to merely catch the ball, as has been the rule for the last 120 years or so. Now, because of some continuation rule, he has to complete the catch by making. . .what is it they say? A football move.
In a sense this is the opposite of the continuation travesty in basketball. In basketball they allow the offensive player to get by with things he could never get by with before as long as there is some sort of nebulous connection between the final act and the good old days. Football’s asinine continuation rule is kind of the opposite; it says that the offensive player DOESN’T get credit for what he has done unless he continues to do it until Grandma has baked her cookies. I’ve seen guys—and you have, too—I’ve seen receivers stick out an arm, grab a pass, pull it into their body, tuck the other arm over it, run five yards, get hit by a defender and fumble the ball, and the referee rules the ball was never caught.
The hell it wasn’t. Again, I don’t think this interpretation of the rule, this "continuation" nonsense, has made football a better game or more fun to watch.
But now it is spreading to baseball; now a baseball player is supposed to "complete" the catch as well. It is no longer enough for the outfielder to merely catch the baseball; now he has to "complete" the catch.
In Boston in the last week of July Mookie Betts caught a long fly ball, ran two steps, and jumped into the fence, as outfielders frequently do, so that when he hit the fence his cleats would not be planted in the ground and he wouldn’t tear up an ankle. Only, being the rather unusual athlete that he is, he didn’t jump into the fence, he accidentally jumped over the fence. As he realized that he was rolling over the fence he held up his glove to show everybody that he still had control of the ball, but when he came down he landed on his noggin, creating a concussion, and that causes your muscles to involuntarily release your grip, so the ball fell out when he hit the ground—10 feet from where he had caught the ball, and with a fence in between.
So they ruled that that wasn’t a catch, it was a home run, which. . ..you know; I’m not allowed to bitch about calls going against the Red Sox, for good reasons. I didn’t like the call because it was against the Red Sox, but setting that aside, it seems like a rather fantastic extension of the "continuous action" policy. An infielder can drop the ball a twentieth of a second after he catches it in the middle of a double play attempt, and he has still recorded the out, but an outfielder who carries the ball for three or four seconds hasn’t completed the catch? That’s ridiculous, frankly.
That’s ridiculous, but in terms of damaging, that’s nothing compared to the Carter Capps ruling. I’m sure that 99% of you know what this is about, but just to be on the safe side, Carter Capps has developed a unique pitching motion in which he takes a crow hop forward in the middle of his delivery and throws the pitch from several feet in front of the pitcher’s mound. And the commissioner’s office has ruled, inexplicably, that he is allowed to do this, based on some stupid "continuous action" theory.
First of all, the people who debate this keep saying that Capps is throwing the pitch from 58 feet. 58 feet, my ass. It’s more like 55 feet. Half the league is throwing pitches from 58 feet anymore; Capps has just taken it to a new level. But if the Carter Capps ruling is allowed to stand, it will profoundly change the game of baseball—much in the way that the "continuation" rules changed the NBA in the 1970s. What it will do is, it will add to major league baseball somewhere between 100 and 200 strikeouts per team per season. There were 37,000 strikeouts in the major leagues last year. If the Carter Capps ruling is allowed to stand, that number is going to go way up—and the league batting average is going to go way down.
Capps is throwing a clearly and absolutely illegal pitch—but he is deriving a tremendous advantage from it, and striking out a very large number of hitters. If he gets by with that, why won’t the next guy start doing the same thing—and the next guy, and the next guy, and the next guy? They will. In five years everybody in the league is going to be pitching from 55 feet.
Continuation rules have not been thought through in a serious way.
Here’s what I suggest. I suggest that "continuation policies" in all sports should be limited by three other concerns.
First, "continuation policies" should never link together actions separated by as much as a half a second. I actually think that a half a second is way too long; I think a quarter of a second is more appropriate, but. . ..at least put some limit on it. Stop using this magic word, "continuation", to link together actions which are separated by quite significant amounts of athletic-world time.
Second, any action which could have been controlled and eliminated after the first action is not a part of the first action.
Suppose that a race car driver bounces off the fence and then rams into another driver. If he bounced off the fence and slammed into another car and could not have avoided doing so after the collision with the fence, that’s one thing. But if he could have avoided slamming into the second car but did not, then the second collision is NOT a continuation of the first collision; it is a separate action. Suppose that the second driver slams into the first. If the second driver could have avoided the second collision, then, again, the second collision is a separate event, the same as if it could have been avoided by the first driver. Make sense?
Any action which COULD have been controlled and eliminated by a conscious decision is not a part of the first action, and thus marks an end point of the first action. Therefore:
1) If the shooter could have decided not to the take the shot, then the shot is not part of the first action.
2) If a receiver is hit by a defender who could have controlled his action so as not to hit the receiver, then the collision between the receiver and the defender cannot be a part of the first action. Therefore, the last instant at which the defensive team can benefit from the ruling that the catch must be completed is the last instant before he is hit by a defender.
3) If Mookie Betts could have decided not to hold his glove in the air to show that he had completed the catch, then anything that happens after that (separate) decision cannot be a part of the first action.
4) If a pitcher COULD HAVE decided not to throw a pitch after he hopped forward off the mound, then the pitch is NOT a part of the continuous action which preceded it—for the same reason that the second collision by a race car driver is not a part of the first collision, if the second collision could have been avoided.
Third, no player should be allowed to benefit from systematic adaptation of his playing style so as to exploit confusion as to when an action was continuous. Like Carter Capps, and all of the pitchers who are going to imitate Carter Capps.
The ordinary rule is that a pitcher is supposed to be in contact with the pitching rubber when he throws the pitch. Carter Capps is being allowed an exception to the ordinary rule on the theory that there’s a continuous action. But If he is doing it on purpose to gain an advantage, then it is not a NECESSARY continuation, but an EXPLOITIVE continuation. A player should never be granted an exception to the rule which is ordinarily controlling for the purpose of exploiting the rule to gain a competitive advantage. He should be granted an exception to the rule only when it is necessary for some good reason to grant him the exception.