Doolittle, Too Late: Maddon Right to Protest Nats Reliever’s Illegal Delivery

There are times as a leader when you’ve got to stick up for your charges and prove a point. One of those times came Saturday night in Washington when Joe Maddon twice protested Sean Doolittle’s illegal delivery, arguing to the point that it looked like he was trying to get tossed. He wasn’t run from the game, but the Cubs finished it under protest.

This is, after all, a team that had one of its core relievers forced to alter his own mechanics after it was ruled early in the season that his delivery was illegal. Maddon and the Cubs may not have done the best job of handing that situation, but the league and umpires bear the burden of fault as well. By not nipping it in the bud, and by maintaining highly subjective standards of propriety, they’ve given the Cubs carte blanche to call these things out.

To be fair, Doolittle’s toe-tap wasn’t nearly as pronounced as the one Edwards had employed, and Edwards himself started out with a pause modeled after Kenley Jansen. But Doolittle was clearly touching down, even after Maddon’s initial objection. The umpires got together and allowed the Nats reliever to throw some practice pitches before play resumed, at which point the touch was still there.

Though it was nearly imperceptible, a replay showed that Doolittle had indeed grazed the mound again with his front foot. So Maddon came out again, eliciting a chorus of boos from the fans.

“It’s real simple — that’s exactly what Carl was told he can’t do,” Maddon said after the game. “I was told it’s an illegal pitch and he can’t do it. I said if you guys don’t clean it up, I’m going to protest the game. So we protested the game. It’s their rule, not mine.”

This wasn’t about trying to ice the closer or any sort of 3D gamesmanship chess, it was about forcing MLB’s hand. Maddon could have filed it away or taken the matter to the commissioner in private, but such a tactic may have simply been brushed aside. By lodging a formal protest, Maddon is making the league review the legality of Doolittle’s delivery while also sticking up for Edwards. It’s really the only option that made sense for the Cubs.

But don’t tell that to Doolittle, who was feeling a bit too self-important after the game to see the truth.

“It’s a thinly veiled attempt to throw me off my game,” the bespectacled reliever said. “In that moment, he’s not trying to do anything other than rattle me, and it was kind of tired. I don’t know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game…he put his stamp on it for sure.”

I’m sure the hometown fans, not to mention those in St. Louis whose headspace the Cubs are living in rent-free, agree with Doolittle. But c’mon, man, you can’t really think this is about one game. The whole point is that Maddon doesn’t want his guy(s) held to a different standard from the rest of the league.

And when that standard can shift based on the umpiring crew at that time, you can understand why someone might get a little upset. In this case, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook didn’t think anything was wrong with Doolittle’s move.

“[Maddon] thought he was tapping his foot, which in itself is not illegal, and this all kind of stems from his pitcher being called on something that was a little bit different than what Doolittle was doing,” Holbrook explained. “So in our judgment, Doolittle did nothing illegal at all.”

Brittany Ghiroli has a good deal more on this ($) over at The Athletic, including information about a similar complaint against Mariners reliever Cody Gearrin. It’s a little odd that we’re seeing this come up so frequently this season, but maybe that’s just a fluke and it’ll all blow over. Or maybe this is a loophole MLB needs to close in Rule 5.07, which has been changed a little over time.

The explanation immediately below has been present for some time, but the second bit of quoted text was added more recently.

After assuming Set Position, any natural motion associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without alteration or interruption.

The pitcher may not take a second step toward home plate with either foot or otherwise reset his pivot foot in his delivery of the pitch. If there is a runner, or runners, on base it is a balk under Rule 6.02(a); if the bases are unoccupied it is an illegal pitch under Rule 6.02(b).

Seems simple enough, but does that rule out any and every pause? And what is the measure of contact with the ground that constitutes a step? That’s what’s in question here and it seems logical to further amend the rule to state simply that a pitcher’s lead foot may not make contact with the mound between lifting and landing. Done.

I expect this to be cleared up relatively quickly, but I also expect there to be some more verbal sniping in the meantime. At least until the Cubs trade for Doolittle and he and Maddon have to make nice.

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