Four weeks into the season, Major League Baseball has ordered umpires to revert to a common-sense approach when ruling on whether a catch has been made, correcting a problem that had sprung up repeatedly as an unintended consequence of the expanded instant replay system.
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.
This interpretation — which was not actually a new rule, just a differing way of enforcing an existing one — was the result of a directive from the league on how to handle challenge calls where possession of the ball was in question:
“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.”
What had happened again and again and again was that if a fielder caught the ball but mishandled it when transferring it to his throwing hand, the umpire called the batter or baserunner in question safe, even if said fielder had taken several steps and clearly established control. Here's an instance from Thursday night at Fenway Park, where Yankees baserunner Brett Gardner was ruled safe after Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia dropped the ball when trying to turn an apparent force play into a double play:
After a similar play at second base was negated earlier this month, the Rays' Ben Zobrist said, "Apparently for 100 years, we’ve been doing it one way and they just changed it. They’ve changed the interpretation of the rule."
Zobrist was hardly alone. Indeed, the outcry from players and managers was widespread enough that late last week, league executives began huddling with representatives from the players' and umpires' unions to hash out a better solution regarding both the transfer rule and the new rule preventing collisions at home plate. The collision rule has yet to receive clarification, but MLB's Playing Rules Committee issued a new directive regarding the transfers that will go into effect with Friday night's games:
The Committee has determined that a legal catch has occurred pursuant to OBR 2.00 (Definition of Terms, “Catch”), or a valid force out or tag has occurred pursuant to OBR 2.00 (Definition of Terms, “Tag”), if the fielder had complete control over the ball in his glove, but drops the ball after intentionally opening his glove to make the transfer to his throwing hand. There is no requirement that the fielder successfully remove the ball from his glove in order for it be ruled a catch. If the fielder drops the ball while attempting to remove it to make a throw, the Umpires should rule that the ball had been caught, provided that the fielder had secured it in his glove before attempting the transfer. The Umpires will continue to use their judgment as to whether the fielder had complete control over the ball before the transfer.Considering the fact that umpires aren't particularly strict about applying the letter of the law to some rules including those pertaining to pace of game, their sudden, strict interpretation of the transfer rule was a jarring one. Thankfully, everyone involved was willing to address the problem ASAP, with 86 percent of the regular season schedule still to play, instead of waiting until the winter.