Defensive (catcher’s) Interference

I had an adult league game last week in West Seattle in which I called catcher’s interference four times. Four times!  Unbelievable. I doubt that I’ve called catcher’s interference a total of four times over the last ten years. If you call it once a season, you’re on the back side of the bell curve. To get it four times in a game (by the same catcher) is utterly unheard of. If these were ten-year-olds, that would be one thing. But there were adults in their 30s and 40s. At one point – after maybe the third time he did it – I wanted to stop and ask the catcher, “Is this your first time doing this?” But of course I didn’t.

And here’s the capper: The manager of the team with the ill-fated catcher approached me between innings late in the game and said to me, “You know, there’s no such thing as catcher’s interference. We looked it up.” I smiled.

Well, if they looked it up, they didn’t look it up very well. They certainly never checked Definitions (interference)(b):

“Defensive interference is an act by a fielder which hinders or prevents a batter from hitting a pitch.”

The infraction is more commonly known as “catcher’s interference” because it’s the catcher who commits the infraction greater than 99% of the time, typically by stabbing at the pitch and having his mitt touch the bat during the swing. Often this happens and still there is a fair batted ball. Other times the ball is foul, or it’s a swing-and-miss. These situations are handled a bit differently so we’ll talk about that.

Can anyone other than the catcher commit defensive interference? Sure, theoretically. Picture a play in which another fielder “hinders or prevents” the batter from hitting the pitch – for example, the first or third baseman crashing on a bunt attempt. But even that one is rather difficult to picture. And I’ve never seen it, although I’m sure someone has. (So if you’ve seen or called defensive interference on a player other than the catcher, please let me know. I’d love to share your story.)

So let’s have a closer look at catcher’s interference and focus on how to apply the penalty, which can be tricky. We’ll also touch on the infraction’s kissin’ cousin, the catcher’s balk.

Calling catcher’s interference

We’ve covered the basics of the infraction already: A defensive player, typically the catcher, impedes the batter’s attempt to hit a pitched ball. This normally happens when the bat strikes the catcher’s glove.

Note: This does not include the scenario where the bat strikes the catcher’s glove on the follow-through (or backswing). That’s a different situation altogether, called backswing interference. It results in a dead ball, but no other penalty is applied.

Unlike all other types of interference, catcher’s interference is not an immediate dead ball. Rather, it’s a delayed dead ball. When catcher’s interference takes place, point and vocalize the infraction (“That’s catcher’s interference!”), but allow play to continue. This assumes, of course, that despite the interference, the batter struck the ball and the ball is in play. Once action on the play has concluded, call time. Then:

  • Note the disposition of the batter-runner, as well as other runners that are on base at the time of the catcher’s interference. If the batter-runner reached first, and all other runners (if any) advanced at least one base safely, then disregard the interference. Just wave it off and play on.
  • If the batter did not put the ball in play (hit a foul ball or swung and missed), kill the ball and enforce the penalty.
    • Award the batter-runner first base;
    • return all other base runners to their time-of-pitch base; runners advance only if forced.
  • If the batter puts the ball in play, and if the batter-runner or any other runner was put out on the play, enforce the penalty as described above. However, the manager of the team on offense has the option of taking the result of the play rather than the penalty.

For example, with fewer than two outs and a runner in scoring position, the batter who is interfered with might be put out at first, but a runner might have scored. In a close game, the manager might wish to accept the out and score the run rather than have the batter safe on first but the runner sent back to his time-of-pitch base.

Note. Such an election is the offensive manager’s to make. It is not your responsibility to present the manager with these options. The manager is expected to know this rule and to initiate the conversation with the plate umpire.

Catcher’s balk

I’m adding this section on the catcher’s balk because one of the two situations we discuss here dovetails perfectly with catcher’s interference. When the catcher interferes with a batter while a runner from third is attempting to steal home (either on a suicide squeeze play or a straight up steal), then you handle the catcher’s interference as a special case, as described in Rule 6.01(g):

“If, with a runner on third base and trying to score by means of a squeeze play or a steal, the catcher or any other fielder steps on, or in front of home base without possession of the ball, or touches the batter or his bat, the pitcher shall be charged with a balk, the batter shall be awarded first base on the interference and the ball is dead.”

This is exactly like catcher’s interference (because of course it is), but adds a twist when a runner is attempting to steal home. So you handle it just a bit differently:

  • Call time immediately and award the batter first base on the interference.
  • Call a balk on the pitcher.
  • Award home to the runner who was stealing (that’s his one-base award on the balk); if other runners are on base, they also advance on the balk.

There is a second, much less dramatic way for a catcher to incur a balk on his pitcher, this one detailed in Rule 5.02(a) and applies only when delivering an intentional walk.

“The catcher shall station himself directly back of the plate. He may leave his position at any time to catch a pitch or make a play except that when the batter is being given an intentional base on balls, the catcher must stand with both feet within the lines of the catcher’s box until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. PENALTY: Balk.”

We’ve all seen intentional walks a million times: The catcher steps out of the catcher’s box just as the pitcher delivers the pitch. Technically, the catcher must not step out of his box until the ball has left the pitcher’s hand. If he does, the pitcher is charged with a balk (with runners on base), or with no runners on, an illegal pitch (ball to the batter).

Truth is, I’ve never seen this enforced. Not once. Not at any level. Even in pro ball, umpires appear to give a lot of leeway. In youth ball you sometimes see a catcher who is not familiar with the rule so he sets up way outside the catcher’s box. When I see this I simply instruct the catcher to get back where he belongs and explain why. Stepping out of the catcher’s box just a fraction of a second early is no big deal and shouldn’t be penalized.

 

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