Instant replay has been a leading topic of discussion across the baseball world during this young season. In an apparent attempt to reduce the use of replay challenges on infield double play attempts, MLB issued the following official rule interpretation statement:
Umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand.
A baserunner running from first to second thus is safe if the second baseman drops the ball when attempting to throw it to first to complete the double play even though the second baseman cleanly caught the flip from the shortstop. (This video clip provides a clear and simple example of this scenario.)
As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron realized, this seemingly innocuous rule interpretation actually carries sweeping implications for the defense’s control of the running game because it applies to outfielders as well as infielders. Cameron explains:
The drop at second base has no real impact on the runner’s decision making. The batter is sprinting down the first base line to try and beat out the double play, and probably will rarely even know the ball is dropped on the double play attempt. . . .
That is absolutely not true with runners and outfielders, however; the decision of whether to advance or return to base is entirely dependent on whether the outfielder is ruled to have safely caught the ball. Runners are taught to get enough of a lead off the base to maximize their potential advancement in case the ball is not caught while still retaining their ability to return to their previous base if it is. When the ball enters the glove, the runner returns to their prior base in order to avoid a potential double play. Only now, the ball entering the glove is no longer the determining factor of whether or not the catch was made; that is now the ball moving from the glove to the hand.
A catch thus is not a catch until the receiving player secures the ball and then securely transfers it to his throwing hand. Cameron astutely realizes that there is room for exploitation here, and it comes in that second phase of the now more expansively defined catch process, the transfer to the throwing hand.
The leading case appears to be Johnson v. Denorfia, in which the officials determined that Cleveland rightfielder Elliot Johnson’s apparent catch of a fly ball by San Diego’s Chris Denorfia was not a catch. Johnson secured the ball in his glove, but dropped it when he attempted to throw it back to the infield. What’s noteworthy about this case is the fact that it was not a bang-bang drop: Johnson took multiple steps before dropping the ball. (Click the image below for video of the play.)
If the Johnson case stands for the proposition that an outfielder can secure the ball and take multiple steps before completing phase two of the catch, what’s the outer limit? To what lengths may an outfielder go in order to leverage the advantage he has by delaying the completion of the catch process?
The principle behind real options analysis is that an option generally becomes more valuable the longer it is held. In other words, if you have the right or capability to exercise an option, it usually is best for you to wait as long as possible before making your decision.
That principle now applies to fly-ball fielding in baseball. The new rule interpretation means that a catch is not a “catch” until the fielder successfully removes the ball from his glove. While the ball is in his glove, the baserunners cannot know whether the catch really is a “catch.” (A commenter creatively referred to this as a “Schrödinger’s Catch” situation.) The outfielder who has caught a fly ball in his glove but not yet attempted to transfer it to his throwing hand therefore controls an option: he can decide whether his catch really will be a “catch.”
If there aren’t any runners on base, that option has minimal, if any, value. The defense has nothing to gain by foregoing the batter’s immediate out. The same is true if the defense already has two outs, regardless of the number of runners on base, because the defense stands to gain nothing by extending the inning.
With one or more baserunners already on base and fewer than two outs, however, the calculus changes. To see how, compare two scenarios. In both, there is a runner on first and second, nobody out, and the batter hits a fly ball to the outfield. In the first, traditional scenario, the outfielder catches the ball and cleanly transfers it to his throwing hand, completing the catch. The batter is out. The two baserunners must go back to their bases and tag up before attempting to advance, which they will be unlikely to be able to do, unless the fly was particularly deep into a rightfield corner, for example. This scenario represents the dynamics of baseball as we commonly know them.
In the second scenario, the outfielder catches the ball in his glove but makes no immediate move to transfer it to his throwing hand. Instead, he begins to run towards the infield. At this point, the batter is not out, the existing baserunners have nowhere reasonably safe to stand, and the outfielder’s option is skyrocketing in value. If he decides to complete the catch (batter out), he could then step on second base and fire to first for two more outs of the advancing baserunners who failed to tag up. If the baserunners are staying close to their bases of origin to avoid that outcome, the outfielder could decide not to complete the catch. The batter and all of the baserunners would have to advance, and the outfielder, if he positioned himself near third base, could step on third and throw to second for two outs, and the second baseman could then throw to first to get the batter for the third out.
Because this is an absurd result that creates defensive and baserunning options and incentives that are silly in unfunny and uninteresting senses, Cameron rightly speculates that MLB’s rule interpretation will last no longer than the current season, if it makes it a month.
UPDATE: MLB has reversed course and will return to “a more common-sense approach” when ruling on catches. The change is effective today, April 25, 2014.
The outfielder’s option, described above, will continue to be available, however, as it was prior to the recent rule interpretation, if in a less easily executable form. Physguy reminded me of one of our neighbors growing up who insisted he was immune from tackle during touch football so long as he continued to bobble a received pass, never really possessing the ball until he arrived in the end zone after juggling it all the way down the sideline. The basic physics of major league baseball probably make this approach a practical impossibility. And who knows? Maybe one of baseball’s innumerable and infamous unwritten rules covers that situation anyway.