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The Strike Zone

What's in a catch? Interpretation of transfer rule causing headaches

Ben Zobrist bobbles a ball on a transfer attempt in an April 8 game vs. the Royals. (Orlin Wagner/AP)Ben Zobrist bobbles a ball on a transfer attempt in an April 8 game vs. the Royals. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

Despite the occasional protestations of a wronged manager, player or fanbase, the expanded instant replay system is off to a fairly decent start. Nobody promised that the complicated, unprecedented system would be flawless, and it isn't, but more calls are being gotten right than before, and without the game being slowed down egregiously. However, one unintended consequence of the new system has been umpires' interpretation of and enforcement of what constitutes a catch via the so-called transfer rule — a situation that has created such a mess that MLB officials will reportedly issue a clarification of the rule, perhaps as early as this week. It can't come soon enough.

At the center of the problem is the way umpires are enforcing one part of Rule 2.00, where the key terms used elsewhere in the Official Rules (PDF here) are defined. Here's how it defines a catch, with added emphasis showing the part that's causing the hubbub:

A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught.

What has happened over and over thus far -- in Texas, Cleveland, Seattle, Kansas City, Miami, Anaheim and Boston, just to pull a handful of examples -- is that, if the fielder mishandles the ball on the transfer to his throwing hand following a catch, the runner is called safe, where before, he would have been called out.

For example: In a key play from the seventh inning of Sunday night's Red Sox-Orioles game, Baltimore's Ryan Flaherty took a feed from pitcher Zach Britton and stepped on second base to force out Boston's Brock Holt; when he dropped the ball while making the transfer in an attempt to complete the double play, Holt was ruled safe and Flaherty charged with an error. Two batters later, Holt came around to score on David Ortiz's single, the first of two runs the Sox scored to tie a game that they went on to win in the bottom of the ninth. Here's a GIF of the Flaherty play via Baltimore Sports Report:

Orioles manager Buck Showalter came out onto the field to buy time as the Orioles' video personnel reviewed the play, but he didn't officially challenge the ruling. He must have known he held a losing hand based on the way similar plays have been called this season, like this April 8 play where the Rays' Ben Zobrist dropped the ball after touching second base in attempting to turn two against the Royals:

[mlbvideo id="31920747" width="600" height="336" /]

The runner from first base was declared safe, with Zobrist charged with an error; manager Joe Maddon's challenge was unsuccessful. Afterward, Zobrist explained the problem to Yahoo! Sports' Dave Brown:

"Apparently for 100 years, we’ve been doing it one way and they just changed it. They’ve changed the interpretation of the rule… It makes absolutely no sense to me because everybody can look on the replay and see that it’s a catch...

"[Umpire Phil Cuzzi] said the interpretation of the rule is that if you don’t pull it out of your glove and — if you’re trying to throw it somewhere — to throw it toward that base. If you drop it on the ground, it’s not a catch… The way Phil explained it to me at second base was, if you catch the ball, run 10 steps, hit the wall with your glove and drop the ball, it’s not a catch."

Indeed, transfer rulings have been applied to outfielders as well. Here's another April 8 play, one in which the Angels' Josh Hamilton appeared to catch a routine fly ball in a game against the Mariners before dropping it on the transfer. While the umpires initially ruled it a catch, Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon challenged the call, which was overturned:

[mlbvideo id="31928271" width="600" height="336" /]

Beyond confusing players by telling them that what they've been doing for years and years is suddenly insufficient, the new interpretation has the potential to endanger the same middle infielders that MLB implicitly protects via the so-called "neighborhood play" — which has been codified to the extent that such "phantom tag" plays aren't reviewable. If the application of the rule stays as is, an infielder attempting to be extra careful to secure the first out might hold onto the ball a split second or two longer, prolonging his exposure to an oncoming runner who could potentially injure him.

Contrary to popular belief, this isn't a situation where rogue umpires are selectively applying their own interpretations, this is an extension of the way that the league ordered them to follow a specific interpretation. Two weeks ago, amid the controversies stemming from some of the aforementioned plays, MLB issued a 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."

Pressed for further clarification, an MLB spokesperson told The Score's Drew Fairservice, "In the process of expanding instant replay, we were asked to provide guidance on how some rules would be applied. After fielding questions, Major League Baseball clarified some examples of how a catch during a transfer is called. We have issued this guidance to Umpires and Clubs alike.”

So it's MLB's direction that is causing the problem, one that's created such widespread dissatisfaction that league executives are huddling with umpires and union representatives to make adjustments and clarifications regarding not only the transfer rule but also the new plate-blocking rule, which is its own can of worms. Via Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, sources say that the likely outcome is the application of "a less strict interpretation of the transfer rule, in which umpires would rule on catches the way they did in the past, using more of a common-sense approach rather than following the letter of the law."

While a formal rulebook change would probably have to wait until the offseason to be ratified and implemented, that's not what's at stake here, just the interpretation of an existing rule. Such a change won't solve every problem with umpiring or the new replay system, but it would restore business as usual to the most basic and ingrained aspects of the game, catching and throwing. With 89 percent of the 2014 regular season still to play, it's hardly too late for common sense to prevail.
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