Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?

baseball notesInstant 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.     Continue reading