The rules that governs batter’s interference are Rules 6.03(a)(3) and 5.09(b)(8). In fact, the rules themselves are pretty straightforward. In fact, we have an entire article devoted to Batter’s Interference in the Rules Plainspoken library at the UmpireBible.
What’s not straightforward is interpreting and applying the rule. In fact, few calls generate more heated arguments than this one. The argument almost always centers on the issue of what the batter should do (and should not do) when the catcher comes up throwing to retire a runner stealing second or third, or when there is a runner stealing home (as on a passed ball, for example) and the batter doesn’t know where to go or what to do.
Batter’s interference covers two scenarios:
(1) Batter interferes with a catcher’s attempt to retire a runner stealing second or third
This play may have started with a wild pitch or a passed ball, but it could also be a straight-up steal. Regardless, the catcher is entitled a clean opportunity to retire the runner. If the batter does something that impedes the catcher’s opportunity, that’s interference. Dead ball. Batter is out. Runners return.
A play with the runner stealing second is the easier play to judge. If it’s a straight-up steal then the catcher has an unimpeded throwing lane to second, so the batter can only interfere if he steps across home plate into the catcher’s path. That’s easy to see. (And if you don’t see it, the coach certainly will.) When this happens, there does not need to be contact with the batter to have interference. Nor does the catcher need to make the throw. If you judge that the catcher intended to attempt a throw, any move by the batter that impedes the attempt is interference. Call it immediately.
When the steal of second results from a passed ball or a wild pitch the situation changes. The catcher is going to scramble to recover the ball and then throw from pretty much anywhere behind the batter. Where the batter gets into trouble is when he tries to avoid interfering by moving out of the batter’s box to try getting out of the way. When he does that but then inadvertently impedes the catcher, that’s interference.
There is a related scenario that causes confusion. When there is a wild pitch or passed ball and the ball rolls into the batter’s box and the batter tries to dance out of the way to avoid interference, but in doing so inadvertently kicks the ball, you would think this is interference. But it’s not. The situation results from a mistake by the offense (wild pitch or pitch misplayed by the catcher), so unless the batter’s action is intentional, there is no interference. Just play on.
The biggest problem you’re going to have is on the steal of third. That’s because, with a right-handed batter, the catcher’s throw is pretty much straight through the batter’s right ear. So what is a batter to do?
The short answer is “nothing.” Unless the batter makes a movement that hinders the catcher, or otherwise intentionally impedes using his body or bat, the batter is pretty much immune from interference if he remains still in the batter’s box. As you’ll often hear in discussion groups, the batter can’t simply disappear. (That said, if it were me at the plate, I’d duck. But that’s just me.)
Absent interference by the batter, the catcher must find a way to throw around the batter. If the batter does nothing, there is no interference. If the catcher’s throw hits the batter, then just play on. If the catcher intentionally throws the ball at the batter, you have unsportsmanlike conduct (Rule 6.04). Allow action to conclude, then call time and eject the catcher. If you think the coach instructed the catcher to intentionally throw at the batter, then eject the coach too.
Important: In all of the cases discussed thus far, if you observe batter’s interference, and yet the catcher gets the throw off and successfully retires the runner, then ignore the interference and the ball remains live. By definition, there is no interference if the put-out is made.
Penalty: The penalty for batter’s interference with a play on the bases is dead ball (call time immediately). Call the batter out. Runner(s) must return to the base last touched before the interference.
(2) The batter interferes with a play at the plate
A batter can interfere with a play at home plate when a runner from third attempts to steal home. This typically starts with a passed ball or wild pitch, but can also be a suicide squeeze. In any event, here again the batter is in the middle of action that he dare not become a part of.
But this situation is different from the first scenario. Whereas with a play on the bases the batter is advised to hold his ground and remain still in the batter’s box, with a play at the plate the batter is obligated to avoid any position that impedes the opportunity to make a play on the runner who is stealing home.
Let’s visualize the situation. There is a runner on third (R3) and a wild pitch goes to the backstop. The catcher bolts for the ball and the pitcher sprints to cover home. So you have two players, R3 and the pitcher, sprinting for home plate, and you have the catcher throwing the ball to the pitcher to attempt the put-out at home. That’s a lot of people and a lot of action converging on a 17-inch piece of real estate. The batter had better get his ass out of the way (and he better know where the ball is, too, so he doesn’t get between the ball and the play).
So the batter must vacate the area to allow the defense an opportunity to make the play. If he doesn’t, and if his failure disrupts the opportunity to play on the runner (the throw from the catcher hits the batter, for example), you have interference.
Penalty: The penalty for batter’s interference on a play at home plate depends on how many outs there are. In all cases call time immediately to kill the ball. If there are fewer than two outs, call the runner out (the run does not score, of course). If other runners were also stealing, they must return to the base last touched before the interference. The batter remains at bat. However, with two outs, call the batter out (not the runner), and no run scores. (But why do you call the batter out when there are two outs? So he is not rewarded with a fresh at-bat at the start of the next inning.)
A few edge cases
There are a handful of quirky edge cases related to batter’s interference. You may go an entire career without seeing some of these cases, but it’s a good idea to at least be familiar with them:
- The batter interferes on strike three. Jaksa/Roder (p. 94) tells us that if the batter strikes out while interfering, he cannot be called out for interference because he is already out. In this situation, you must call an out on the runner. Other runners must return.
- The batter interferes on ball four. Wendlestedt (p. 175) gives us the following: “If [batter’s interference] occurs on ball four, there is no penalty (because the batter is now a runner) unless there was intent, even if the batter-runner crosses over the plate and hinders the catcher. Be aware than on ched swing a ball four may be changed to a strike. If this occurs, you may have to call interference retroactively.” Wendlestedt cites case plays AD1-AD3.
- Pitcher disengages the rubber and throws (not a pitch) to the catcher to retire a runner stealing home. If the batter swings a throw from the pitcher (thinking it is a pitch), that’s interference.
- Backswing interference. If the batter swings and the follow through touches the catcher, this is “interference without a play.” There is no out. However, the ball is dead, and if runners are stealing they must return to their time-of-pitch base.
Exception [Jaksa/Roder (p. 96)]: If the catcher is already throwing to retire a runner when the backswing interference takes place, the ball is not dead and play should continue. If the throw retires the runner, the interference is ignored. If the throw does not retire the runner, or if the throw is not made, then you again have interference without a play. Runners must return.
- The catcher’s return throw to the pitcher hits the batter. If on the catcher’s “relaxed” return toss to the pitcher, if the toss hits the batter, the ball is alive and in play.