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.


Batting out of Order

There aren’t very many baseball rules that are dealt with incorrectly more frequently than batting out of order. The applicable rule is Rule 6.03(b), which was last revised (and clarified) in 1957. So it’s been around for a while. (For an interesting read about the history and confusion surrounding this rule, see an article in the SABR Research Journal entitled, fittingly enough, Batting Out-of-Turn Results in Great Confusion, written by Mark Pankin.)

Sometimes the confusing comes from something as simple as an unannounced substitution (Rule 5.10(j)); nevertheless, the manager on defense comes storming out and wants an out on somebody (though he’s not sure who). Or he comes out in the middle of the at-bat to challenge a batter, and again he wants an out. Or the coach on offense notices that he has the wrong player at bat and freezes because he’s afraid to call attention to it (fearing he’ll get an out), but equally afraid that if he doesn’t do something about it the sky will fall. Or worst of all, you’re the plate umpire and everyone agrees there has been a batting-order infraction, and now everyone is looking at you to fix it, but nobody has appealed it yet, so there’s absolutely nothing to do.

The rule, penalties, and remedies for batting out of order are really not that difficult master, once you catch onto the logic. In fact, the only really tricky thing about batting out of order is knowing how to fix it once a successful appeal has been made. The plate umpire owns this one since the plate umpire owns the lineup.

Before going any farther, let’s be clear about two terms that are essential when discussing batting out of order: proper batter and improper batter. These two are important because when verifying and untangling a batting-order appeal, the only two players that matter are the batter presently at bat and the previous batter. We’ll see why soon enough.

  • Proper batter. The correct batter at bat with respect to the official lineup and batting order. To belabor the obvious, there is always just one (and only one) proper batter at any given time.
  • Improper batter. Any offensive player other than the proper batter who is at bat, until such time as there is a pitch to the batter following the improper batter. If there is no appeal made on the at-bat of an improper batter, that batter becomes normalized (becomes the proper batter, retrospectively) once there is a pitch to the batter following. Sounds confusing, but it makes sense.

Important: Batting out of order is an appeal play. You should never call attention to an improper batter, nor should you let the scorekeeper or anyone else “outside the fence” have any say. Only members of the team on defense can ask for time and appeal a batting order issue. That said, the offense, if it notices the error, can rectify the mistake without penalty so long as the improper batter is still at bat.

If the team on defense appeals batting out of order, you must stop and consult the official lineup to establish whether a player batted (or is batting) out of turn. If you confirm that you have batting-order infraction, there are three courses of action, depending on the circumstances at the time of the appeal:

  1. The improper batter is still at bat. If either the defensive or offensive manager asks for time and points out that an improper batter is presently at bat, after confirming this with the official lineup, you must do two things. First, you send the improper batter back to the dugout, and then you call the proper batter to the plate. The proper batter assumes the count that was on the improper batter. That’s it. Play on. There is no penalty if the infraction is discovered while the improper batter is still at bat.
  2. A pitch has been delivered to the batter following the improper batter. Once a pitch is delivered to the batter following the improper batter, then that batter (whether on base or in the dugout, if he’s been put out) is now “normalized” and now is considered to have been the proper batter. The next batter up, then, is the player in the batting order who follows this newly normalized proper batter. Any subsequent challenge to the batting order is ruled on with reference to persons in the batting order who follow the normalized batter.
  3. The improper batter has reached base or otherwise completed his turn at-bat. If the defense appeals after the improper batter has reached base by any means, or if he has completed his at bat by being put out, but there has not yet been a pitch to the batter following the improper batter, then take these steps:
    • First, identify the proper batter (the one who failed to bat in his spot in the lineup). Call that player out.
    • Next, you must nullify any action that resulted from the improper batter’s at-bat. If the improper batter is now on base, you send him back to the dugout. If other runners advanced due to action by the improper batter, return those runners to the base they occupied when the improper batter advanced. (Exception: if a runner advanced by stealing a base during the improper batter’s at-bat, that runner’s steal stands.)
    • Finally, call the next batter to the plate. The next proper batter is the batter whose spot in the lineup follows that of the batter who failed to bat in turn, whom you’ve just called out. (Often, this is the improper batter that you’ve just sent back to the dugout.) Note that if the batter now due up happens to be on base, then you simply pass over him and move to the next player in the batting order.

Note: If the improper batter’s at-bat results in his being put out, and if the defense then appeals the batting order infraction, that put-out is nullified. The defense gets the out from the batting-out-of-order appeal, but they don’t get that out and the improper batter’s put-out. Taking it one step further, if the improper batter’s at-bat results in a double-play, an appeal nullifies both of those outs. In short, a defensive manager is wise to know this rule well, since sometimes it’s best to let it go and just leave well enough alone.


This all sounds very confusing and in fact it can become a really tangled mess, but if you learn the rule and approach this systematically you can usually untangle it without too much trouble. The graphic on the right summarizes the conditions and appropriate courses of action for each. Also note that Rule 6.03(b) (Approved Ruling) includes a large number of example scenarios that you can learn from.


An Umpire in a Coma

You have probably seen the YouTube video of the play in the girl’s softball game where the base runners advancing to home are knocked to the ground by the catcher, who is not only not in possession of the ball, but is also blocking the plate. That’s obstruction, of course, but that’s the least of the problems with the play. First, though, in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the clip. Watch the catcher.

This is clearly unsportsmanlike conduct (“malicious contact”) and the umpire should have ejected the catcher on the spot. Why didn’t he? That’s difficult to say. In the first instance, he was clearly looking at the play. He even turned his head to see the runner fall to the ground. But he did nothing. On the second instance, we do not see the umpire in the frame but we can assume that, with a runner scoring, he was in a position similar to the first instance.

Let’s count the ways the umpire blew this one big-time. We might learn something.

  1. First off, he’s out of position. He’s on the first baseline extended when he should be on the third base line extended. This is a high school game, so it’s surprising that an umpire at this level would make such a rookie mistake. Had he been in position, the play would have been coming right at him (and the runner falling at his feet) rather than the play passing him.
  2. The umpire fails to note or signal the obstruction. It was right in front of him, so it’s hard to believe he didn’t see it. The runner scored without a play on her, so he would have waved off the obstruction regardless. Nevertheless, he should have signaled it.
  3. He failed to react to the blatant malicious contact. This is not a difficult call. The elbow is conspicuous, as is the blocking of the plate. The base runners go flying, for crying out loud.
  4. Finally, he appears to have fallen into that mysterious umpire coma that some blues fall into for inexplicable reasons. (I once heard a story about an umpire who went down to his partner on a checked-swing appeal, but then didn’t see his partner where he should have been near first base. He noticed him then, over at the fence, trading pins.)

While we can rail at the catcher’s poor behavior (which is what most of the public shouting is about – some of the shouting revoltingly crude, I should add), in my view this cluster-flip lies squarely on the umpire, and on the catcher’s coach as well. While the latter are to blame for the first instance, the umpire is to blame for not fixing the problem, ejecting the catcher, and getting the game back on track.

But no matter, I suppose, The video clip has gone viral so not only is the catcher probably suffering a social penalty far greater than an ejection, but the umpire, too, whomever he is, has landed smack-dab in the bull’s eye of every umpire critic on earth (and then some).


Calling Balls & Strikes: The Matthew Effect

Jerry Kim

There was quite a bit of chatter in the press last year (Spring of ’14) about an academic study published in the journal Management Science entitled “Seeing Stars: Matthew Effects and Status Bias in Major League Baseball,” by Jerry Kim and Brayden King. The study analyzes Pitch f/x data for every pitch thrown in all of the 2008 and 2009 Major League games in which the batter did not swing. The data covers 4,914 games, 313,774 at-bats, and 756,848 pitches (non-swinging pitches only). That’s over three-quarters of a million pitches.

Braydon King

Kim & King’s study was not about calling balls and strikes. It focused instead on our unconscious biases that come into play when we make judgments. They simply used three-quarters of a million ball/strike decisions to test their hypothesis that subjective factors can affect these otherwise objective decisions.

So they looked at Pitch f/x data to see how often umpires mistakenly called a ball a strike and vice-versa. The error rate, according to their analysis, is 14.7%. So on nearly one in every eight pitches, MLB pitchers incorrectly undervalue a pitcher’s performance (call a strike a ball) or overvalue his performance (call a ball a strike). When you consider that the average Major League game has close to 300 pitches, and if roughly half of those are called pitches, then we’re talking about roughly 22 mistakes each game.

But even that number becomes somewhat skewed, because (as we learn) baseball superstars (pitchers like Greg Maddux and Felix Hernandez, and hitters like Ted Williams and Pete Rose), what they call “high status players,” are frequently the beneficiaries of these mistakes.

These numbers – this error rate – seems awfully high. Umpire instructors typically say that if you miss four to six pitches then you’ve had a pretty good game. These numbers, then, don’t line up well with the impression among umpires of their own fallibility. That said, it’s hard to argue with the data. Nevertheless, Kim and King are not the first to come up with this error rate for MLB umpires. A number of studies (I’ll talk about some of them in future posts) have also arrived at an error rate between 14 and 15%, or roughly one in every seven or eight pitches.

But Kim & King were interested in performance biases, not umpire error rates. So what they did next was to evaluate these roughly 216,000 umpire “errors” and analyze how they correlate with various factors like right/left-handedness, the race of the pitcher, whether home team or visitor, the current count, the stage of the game, and so forth. And this is where their study gets really interesting. Because the umpire error rate changes pretty significantly when some of these factors (but not all) come into play.

What is the Matthew Effect?

Before going farther, let’s ask, just what is the Matthew Effect and what’s it got to do with crappy calls?

In a nutshell, the Matthew Effect states that performers for whom we expect superior performance (an all-star pitcher, for example, or a league-leading batter) that they tend to be judged more favorably than performers for whom there is no such expectation. In short, we have an unconscious bias in favor of those who’ve performed well historically. Sociologists refer to the Matthew Effect as enabling the sense that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Academics lament that the Matthew effect leads to judgments that good readers read well and poor readers struggle.

While the Matthew Effect plays a large role in the fields of education and sociology, it has interesting applications in sports as well. Who, for example, hasn’t complained that basketball superstars like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson receive more favorable treatment than others on foul calls? Or that Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson got more strikes on the corner than, say, Danny Darwin or Bill Singer? (Remember them? Didn’t think so.)

Well, King and Kim set out to measure this Matthew Effect (what they call “status bias”) by analyzing the decision making of MLB umpires calling balls and strikes. In their own words, their goal was “to observe the difference in a pitch’s objective quality and in its perceived quality as judged by the umpire.” Three-quarters of a million pitches later, they have some pretty interesting results.

What did the study reveal?

The study revealed a lot. It revealed that there is an expectation that high status pitchers will throw more strikes and that high status hitters are better at evaluating the quality of a pitch as it approaches the plate. Of course, having that expectation is just common sense. We all have it, more or less. What’s not common sense is what happens to our judgments (unconsciously) while swimming in the stew of our expectations. So here are a few of the study’s more interesting outcomes.

  1. They showed that the home team pitcher experiences a nearly eight percent advantage over visiting pitchers with respect to the “over-recognition” mistakes (that is, mistakenly calling a true ball a strike).
  2. There are nearly five percent more over-recognition mistakes in the ninth inning than in the first. That’s odd, isn’t it? You would expect the opposite – that is, that accuracy would increase (and the error rate decrease) over the life of the game. But I suppose that’s why we collect the data.
  3. Here’s my favorite: Umpires are more accurate with right-handed batters than lefties. In fact, left-handed batters have a 41 percent greater likelihood of getting a mistaken call than right-handed batters. Of course, this high frequency of mistakes include both over-recognition errors (balls called strikes) as well as under-recognition errors (strikes called balls), so many of these (they don’t say how many) cancel each other out. To me, though, it’s incredibly interesting that there is such a vast difference here. We know from experience that the view for lefties is different from our view for righties, but I’m surprised that the difference in the viewpoint results in such a large difference in the error rate.
  4. No surprise here: The closer the pitch to the edge of the zone, the greater the likelihood of a mistake. We all know that. And I’ll have more to say about this in the next section of this post.
  5. Here’s where it gets good (and this shouldn’t be surprising, though many of us will deny it):  The count (balls and strikes) at the time of a given pitch has a huge influence on the error rate. The odds of mistakenly calling a strike is 62 percent lower with an 0-2 count; with a 3-0 count, on the other hand, the likelihood of getting a mistaken strike call is 49 percent higher. This certainly validates that an 0-2 zone shrinks, while a 3-0 zone expands.
  6. Several pitcher-related factors influence the error rate, including the number of years a player has been in the major leagues and the reputation for control (or wildness) for a given pitcher. (For control/wildness, the researchers used a pitcher’s base-on-balls percentage.) A pitcher’s ethnicity, it turned out, has no effect on the error rate, but pitcher’s status (measured arbitrarily by the number of All-Star game appearances) had a very definite impact. Pitcher’s with five All-Star appearances enjoyed a 15 percent greater chance of getting mistaken strike calls (over the baseline), and a 16 percent advantage over non-All-Star pitchers in getting such favorable calls.
  7. The “under-recognition” errors (that is, a true strike called a ball) follows a similar pattern. High-status pitchers are less likely to experience these errors. While the baseline across all pitchers showed the under-recognition error rate of about 19 percent. For pitchers with five All-Star appearances, this drops two full percentage points. That’s not a huge amount – that is, until you count each pitcher’s total number of pitches in a season; then do the math.
  8. The Matthew Effect works for batters, too. Again, using the number of All-Star appearances as a proxy for status, high-status batters get a 1.3% bump for each All-Star appearance in both types of error. The two error types combine for a nearly three percent advantage for each of a batter’s All-Star appearances. So a five-time All-Star has (statistically) a nearly 15% advantage in combined under- and over-recognition errors. Of course, a high-status batter facing a high-status pitcher (who is getting his own favorable errors) is going to have some of this effect nullified.
  9. Finally, Kim and King analyzed error rates for 81 MLB umpires that called more than 1,500 pitches over the two seasons and (as you’d expect) detected patterns for given umpires. The image below is taken directly from the article and is, unfortunately, difficult to read. But it nevertheless shows that MLB umpires vary noticeably one from another. The predominant tendency (shown in the upper left quadrant) is to over-recognize high status while at the same time under-recognizing low status. That’s tough on the rookies. Only a handful of MLB umpires over-recognize low status.

So what does this all mean?

Your initial reaction to all of this information might be a rather jaw-dropping recognition that umpires are really bad at calling balls and strikes. That was my first reaction … and that reaction was the impetus for my deciding to write this post: To basically cop to our fallibility behind the plate. Because if the pros are missing one in eight pitches, what does that suggest about the rest of us? I’m suddenly very grateful that Pitch f/x is not installed at my fields.

But in the roughly two weeks that I’ve been working on this post, I’ve softened. And my softening has to do with item #4, above: That the closer the pitch is to the strike zone, the higher the likelihood of an error. In other words, it’s all about the corners.

In their study, the researchers used a variable they called “distance,” which is measure of the number of inches from the border of the strike zone of a given pitch. They go on to report that “…the relationship between distance and over-recognition exhibits a non-linear relationship with a rapid decline in the odds of mistake as distance increases” (p. 27). What they mean by “non-linear relationship” is that the error rate does not decline gradually as the distance from the edge of the zone increases. The relationship is not proportional. Rather, the error rate changes very rapidly as the distance begins to increase. This means that there is a measurable error rate within an inch or two right at the corners, but then the errors decline very significantly as you get to three and four inches from the corner.

And what does that mean? Well, it means what we all know already – that the corners are soft. Pitches off the plate are pretty easy to call. Pitches in the meat of the zone are pretty easy to call. And all of us get almost all of those right almost all of the time. But the corners are different, especially the pitches that hit two corners (down and in, down and up, up and away, low and away). In fact, I would guess (the data doesn’t tell us) that most of the under-recognition errors (true strikes called balls) are at the four corners, where the strike zone gets rounded just a tiny bit.

Here’s another look at Pitch f/x data on MLB batters. This is from The Hardball Times and this article (written by Jon Roegele) focuses on the expanding strike zone (particularly at the bottom). But for our purposes the point is the obvious rounding of the zone at the four corners. That, as you can plainly see, is where a great many (probably most) of the under-recognition errors occur. Even the “expanded” 2014 strike zone shows the rounding effect.

So what about the over-recognition errors? Where are those errors coming from? Well, I can’t say for certain, but I suspect they’re on the outside of the zone, a ball to a ball-and-a-half out, roughly six to eight inches above and below the vertical center of the zone. In other words, right around the belt, but just off the plate.

So the MLB umpires we watch and model on aren’t so damn bad after all — or so I say.


Batter’s Interference

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.


Mud, Coaches, and Ejections

I’ve had a very busy couple of weeks at work (plus four to six games a week), so I’ve been somewhat neglectful of the UBBlog. That’s a shame because a lot has happened, but I’m back. There has also been a fair amount of rain over the past few weeks, so there’s also a fair amount of mud. This is the Pacific Northwest, after all. Rainouts are a way of life.

But we got some good games in, too. Last weekend I worked a  double-header where my partner and I ended up ejecting two assistant coaches – both from the same team, one in each game. That’s a first.

But first let’s talk about the rain. Teams from California sometimes come up to the Pacific Northwest to play in tournaments, and, if there is some rain, they’re always a bit shocked that we don’t quickly suspend the game, and at the wet conditions in which we play. Around here, playing in wet conditions is the norm. We wouldn’t get any Spring baseball played if we played only in perfectly dry conditions. On turf fields, particularly, we’ll push the limits. On dirt infields, however, the play/no-play boundary is defined by mud.

Mud comes in many forms. There’s that sandy, caked mud, which isn’t too slippery and drains water fairly well; you can play on this mud until the ground saturates and the rain starts to form puddles. At the other end of the spectrum there’s the evil mud. Evil mud starts as a dusty dirt and turns to a slippery pudding, particularly around the bases and on the pitcher’s mound. So when pitchers’ plant foot begins to slip, or when runners start to slip or even fall when rounding first, then it’s time to stop the game. I had this situation last week, although we did manage to push the limits a bit and get in an official game (four and a half with the home team leading). There was a light but steady rain and the parents were all in ponchos and everyone was huddled under umbrellas. The kids were all muddy, the coaches dour, the score was not close, so nobody complained when I called the game.

I hate to say it, but not all baseball coaches are good coaches. The same can be said of umpires, of course, but we’ll save that for another post. But the truth is, some coaches, like some umpires, get into the game for the wrong reasons – reasons, I fear, that revolve around power and control. Or maybe these guys just don’t have an aptitude for social interaction and the boundaries described by the rules of the game. Or maybe they’re just ass holes. Whatever the case, coaches sometimes behave in ways that are inconsistent with what’s generally known as sportsmanship.

So let’s get back to that insane game where my partner and I ejected two coaches from the same team in successive games of a double-header.

For starters, let’s remember that, by rule, only the team manager can legally leave the dugout to confer with umpires. Assistant coaches, as well as players who are not currently on the field, at bat, or on deck, are not allowed to be out of the dugout. The only exception for coaches is when they are acting as base coaches. That notwithstanding, assistant coaches and players are not allowed to engage with umpires. That’s the manager’s (and only the manager’s) job.

So I have a play at the plate and the catcher is set up in a partially blocking position while he calls for the ball as the runner approaches home. There’s grounds for obstruction, but the runner scores standing up (he zigs around the catcher then zags to touch home), so I ignore the obstruction. However, because of the catcher’s position, there is light, incidental contact as the runner zig-zags around the catcher to touch home.

Well, that just set things off. The manager of the team on offense, along with one of his assistants, are advancing down the third base line toward me hollering “you’ve got to eject him!” (referring to the runner); “He didn’t slide; he stiff-armed my catcher.” Over and over as they approach me at the plate.

I should have stopped everything right there and sent the assistant back to his dugout, but I gave them a bit of a leash. There’s no such thing as a “must slide” rule, I tell them (this is a common rules myth); furthermore, there was incidental, not “malicious” contact, so I have nothing. And your catcher was blocking the plate anyway, I finish with. We’re done here.

But I do them the courtesy of conferring with my partner (I’m an accommodating guy – sometimes too much so), and my partner confirms my view that there was nothing malicious in the contact. I return to the plate.

“We’re done here,” I tell them again. But they’re slow to relent (particularly the assistant coach) and they start disparaging me: “Learn the rules” and trash like that, so at that point I eject the assistant coach. So he gets belligerent and says he’s not going anywhere.

Well, that’s a pretty easy problem to solve. I clear the field, check the time, and tell the manager that he’s got five minutes to get his coach to the parking lot or I forfeit the game. I cite Rule 7.03(a)(6), which is a bit of a stretch since the rule applies to players, not coaches, but he doesn’t know this and I’m comfortable with the stretch. Of course, the manager complies and we get on with the game.

The second ejection was not dissimilar. We’re in the back half of the double-header, now, and I’m on the bases this game, and this time it was about a balk call.

It’s a complicated scenario that I won’t go into (it’s not relevant) except that it revolved around the simple question of whether the pitcher disengaged from the pitching rubber before attempting a play on a runner stealing second. I saw him disengage, so no balk call. My partner also saw him disengage, so we’re in accord. However (you know what’s coming) another of the team’s assistant coaches starts bellowing “That’s a balk! You gotta call that!” On and on until my partner forced the assistant back into the dugout. But, as before, the coach had a parting shot, and at that point my partner tossed him, too.

That’s unusual. I’ve ejected fewer than a handful of players and coaches in my many years in the game and to have two from the same team in successive games is … well, it’s just plain funny.


Night Games, War Stories, & Stump the Ump

Double-header on Thursday and the back half was my first game of the season under the lights. It was cool, but clear, and the field shone like … well, like sharp green grass under bright lights. We’re at a beautiful ballpark in Kirkland, Washington, named Lee Johnson Field. It’s a gem that lay right in the center of downtown Kirkland. The photo is not Lee Johnson, but it’s not far off.

There is nothing quite like a ball field under the lights. The bright light from the stanchions captures objects on the field very differently than daylight does. It’s not better or worse, just different. And delightfully so. Everything is in sharper contrast – the players, the cutout of the grass, the pitcher on the mound, the foul lines, the batter – and the action seems sharper. It’s an optical illusion, of course, but it’s optical none the less.

The teams were Pony 13U, but the play was pretty good. In the first game of the double-header, the pitching on both sides was decent, but one team was bigger and hit much better and the game ended on the mercy rule after just four-and-a-half innings. Normally, it’s a welcome event when a game ends quickly (you can’t wait to get onto the field, and then can’t wait to get done).

When you have a double-header, however, you pay a price. We finished so early that, instead of the standard thirty minutes between games, we had nearly and hour and a half. That’s a daunting interval when you’re tired and sweaty and have nowhere to go and not much to do. So what happens is you pull up your camping chairs at the back of your vehicle, pull out a half sandwich and banana or maybe a power bar, and you shoot the shit. My partner last night, Mike Carter, has been at this for 45 years, he tells me, so he has a pretty big bucket of war stories.

We spent most of the time talking about screw-ups we’ve faced when working with partners who don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not too uncommon to meet umpires who’ve been poorly trained. That’s a shame, but it’s a fact.

Most rookie umpires start out when their kids are in Little League. They come out of the stands (kicking and screaming, quite often) to help out because the coach has asked and because the kids need someone to ump the game. About one in five of these (maybe more) discover that umpiring their kid’s ball game isn’t half bad, so they make an effort to do a decent job. And then about one in five (maybe more) of those end up getting hooked and stay with it after their kids have done with baseball. That’s my story.

I was geographically fortunate in this. I live in a neighborhood whose Little League is joined to a district (District 9, for you movie buffs) whose umpiring organization is well run, and which provides really good training. Geographical serendipity could have treated me poorly in that department. But I was lucky.

So Mike and I are on the same page about working as a team – knowing that the key isn’t so much knowing what we (each of us) will do in a given situation (that’s in muscle memory). The key is knowing what your partner is going to do under any set of circumstances. This is crucial, particularly when you’re working two-man (which is what most of us do most of the time), where even under the best of circumstances there are blind spots.

If you’re unlucky you get an assignment with a new partner and he turns out to be one of those “I do it my way” guys. You don’t get this very often, but it happens. It can be painful because their not knowing what they’re doing creates enormous pockets of unknowns. And it’s not because they’re Cretans, because they’re not. It’s just that they … well, they just had bad geographical serendipity.

So we’ve still got about 30 minutes to game time but it’s time to start gearing back up. The war stories are wearing thin so Mike turns to another distraction we turn to when there’s time on our hands – stump the ump. It’s not that hard to stump an umpire, because there are so many tiny holes and edge cases in rules interpretations. Mike has one, and it’s a good one, and he stumps me. He asks me, “How can you have a swinging strike without having a swing?”

I think for a few seconds but quickly give up. I just can’t picture it. There are swinging strikes and there are called strikes, but I’m stumped at the prospect of a swinging strike without a swing?

The answer is pretty good and a true edge case. On the pitch, you have the batter start, but then check his swing. However, on pulling back the bat the pitch just barely grazes the bat and then goes sharp and directly to the catcher’s glove and is legally caught. “And that,” Mike gloats, “is not a foul ball; it’s a foul tip.” And, as it turns out, a foul tip is technically a swinging strike (scorekeepers will tell you that), and yet a checked swing is not a swing either. Hence, you have a swinging strike without a swing. Good one, Mike.

The second game came off without a hitch, and again we ended in five full. A short game on a lovely night with the bright lights framing the field and the players like a set piece in a gilt frame. I love this game.



Interference by a Non-Runner: Who’s Out?

When offensive interference is called on a player who is not a base runner, who do you call out? For example, the on-deck batter could interfere with a fielder’s attempt to catch a pop-up, or on some fields pitchers warm up in live ball territory (on foul ground, of course), and can sometimes interfere with a fielder attempting to catch a fly ball.

This scenario came up on one of the umpire discussion boards this morning and it’s a really instructive exchange. This scenario is just rare enough to be unfamiliar, but not so rare that you won’t see it once or twice a season. Thanks go to Dave DeRosa (WA District 12) for the scenario.

Here’s the scenario

We have fewer than two outs and we have runners on second (R2) and third (R3). We have a wild pitch/passed ball and the runners attempt to advance – R2 advances toward 3rd and R3 is attempting to score. The catcher (F2) sprints to the backstop for the ball while the pitcher (F1) runs to cover home. F2 tosses to ball toward F1 to make a play on R3 who is coming in standing. R3 crosses the plate, but just then F2’s throw goes right to the runner who instinctively catches, then immediately drops the ball, which F1 goes to retrieve.

So what do we have?

Let’s start with what we know

  • We know we have interference. Definitions of Terms (interference)(a) gives us that.
  • We know that interference is an immediate dead ball, so the instant R3 touched the ball, the play was over.
  • We know someone needs to be called out for the interference. However, an offensive player who is not a batter or base runner cannot be put out, and R3 is no longer a runner because he crossed the plate before he interfered.
  • Once interference occurs, no runner may advance beyond the base they last touched prior to the interference. This puts R2 back on third base (probably).

Now what?

So now we actually have two decisions to make. First, does the run by F3 crossing the plate score? And second, whom do we call out?

  • Does the run score? Yes, it does. The interference occurred after R3 crossed the plate, so the run scores.
  • Who is out? Well, for this we turn to Rule 6.01(a)(5), where we learn that “Any batter or runner who has just been put out, or any runner who has just scored, hinders or impedes any following play being made on a runner. Such runner shall be declared out for the interference of his teammate.” Therefore, you call R2 out.

In other words, there is a presumption that had the interference not occurred, the defense had a play on R2, but that the opportunity was impeded by the actions of R3.

A caveat

During this morning’s discussion of this scenario, the rulings that I present were not unanimously held. A couple of those on the discussion board felt that the “catch” by R3 was probably inadvertent. We know from Rule 5.09(b)(3) that a runner struck by a thrown ball is not out for interference (unless the runner intentionally touched the ball), and some felt that our scenario falls more into the category of a runner struck by thrown ball than runner interfering. Everyone agreed that more information would help clarify, and that one really had to be there and seen it themselves to be 100% certain of their call. Nevertheless, I stand by my ruling that the “catch” and “step” by R3 is a determining factor in ruling interference.


One-Man Sucks!

First game of the season yesterday and here in the Seattle area the skies from an otherwise rainy week cleared completely and graced us with a 70-degree day, blue skies, no wind – perfect day for a ball game. It was a Pony game, 13-year-olds, and both teams were playing their own first games of the season (after multiple rain-outs).

Baseball in the spring in the Pacific Northwest is tough. March and April are typically very wet months, and May is frequently not much better (although May can go either way). So when you get sunshine and 70 on March 26th, you’re having a good day.

One downside, though. I was scheduled to work solo. One-man. And one-man sucks.

It’s not so much the extra work. I don’t mind the extra work. What I hate most about working solo is that you can’t give a good game. Not really. You can’t call a close play at second base. You can’t get the pick-off play at first base if the tag is behind the runner. So when there is a close play and the tag is behind the runner, which you cannot see, then your only option is to go by timing. And when you go by timing … well, sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. It’s a coin toss.

Complicating the issue is that the first base coach has a perfect view of the pick-off play at first base. So if you get it wrong, the base coach knows it. You’ll get that look. But he’d better be smart and just keep his mouth shut and eat the call. That’s what he should do.

And that’s the main reason that working one-man sucks. It’s impossible to get close plays when the tag is on the far side. You can’t get all of your base touches if there are multiple runners, and you can’t get all of the tag-ups on deep fly balls. You can’t get obstruction away from the ball, and you’re screwed if there’s malicious action going on behind your back. So while the league gets an umpire on the cheap, the kids have a high likelihood of getting a crappy game. Not because the umpire is crappy (although that can happen, too, doubling the damage), but because one umpire can’t do it all. Even with two umpires there are compromises. But one just sucks.

And of course you cover this at the plate meeting. You meet with the managers at home plate and exchange lineups; you go over ground rules, you touch on special league rules (mercy rule, time limits, and so forth), and then you give your one-man-crew speech. You make it clear:  if I miss a call because of my position, because I’m judging on timing because I’m blocked, well, I don’t want to hear about it. If you want to appeal a missed base, you’re probably wasting your time. If there was an illegal slide at second while I was getting the call at first, then just save your breath.

But yesterday’s game went smooth as silk. One team was overmatched and we ended on the mercy rule after five full with a score of 17-1. But that’s okay. It was 70 degrees and sunny in March in Kirkland, Washington, and we had no booted calls, no arguments, and everyone seemed genuinely grateful to be playing baseball in the sun.


Strike Zone, Part I

Baseball is unique in that one of the central and most important features of the field of play is completely invisible. There are no lines that mark it, no buzzers or bells that go off when it’s touched. There is a five-sided plate in the ground beneath it, but that’s more for the purpose of having a base to touch when a runner scores than to define the strike zone itself. Although it does, of course, contribute to the definition of the strike zone.

How wide it the strike zone?

You may know that home plate is 17 inches wide. So if you’re at a bar with friends and someone bets you a beer if you can answer this question, you may be tempted to reply (maybe smugly): “seventeen inches.” Bzzzzzz. Wrong. You owe your buddy a beer.

Let’s start with the obvious:  the rule book: Definitions of Terms (strike zone) (OBR 2016):

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

So the strike zone is a three-dimensional area over the plate (a rectangular prism for you geometry geeks), and it extends from the hollow at the bottom of the knee to a point “at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.” Discussing the top and bottom of the zone is a discussion all to itself (because it fluctuates depending on many factors), so let’s save that for another post. For now, let’s concentrate on the “over the plate” part of the definition. But wait. First, we have to ask what it means to be “over the plate.”

To answer this, we turn again to rule book definitions, but this time we’re looking for the definition of a strike, which we find in Definitions of Terms (strike), where we learn, among other things, that a pitch is a strike “… if any part of the ball [in flight] passes through any part of the strike zone.” In other words, if any part of the ball touches any part of the strike zone, it is, by rule, a strike. (Note that I added that the ball must be “in flight”; that is, a pitch cannot be a called strike if it first touches the ground then bounds through the strike zone.)

So here’s what we know:

  • Home plate is 17 inches wide (Rule 2.02)
  • A regulation baseball is just a shade under three inches in diameter (Rule 3.01). (In deference to the geeks among us, the diameter is actually 2.9443 inches; but what’s sixty-six hundredths of an inch among friends. So let’s just call it three.)
  • If any part of the ball in flight touches any portion of the strike zone, it’s a strike.
  • Therefore, we see that the strike zone is 23 inches wide.

Note that the black on the edge of the plate is not part of the plate.

In truth, the “over the plate” part of judging balls and strikes is the (relatively) easy part. The top and bottom of the zone, on the other hand, is a hotly contested, furiously debated, and nearly impossible to pin down aspect of the game. While defined by rule, it is adjudicated by eye, and we all know where that leads: arguments and ejections. I saw a spring training game earlier this week between the Yankees and Braves in which the Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was ejected by home plate umpire Dan Iassogna for arguing a ball call on the game’s very first pitch. Holy guacamole, Batman! (And by the way, Gonzalez was right. It was a strike.)

We are going to talk a lot more about the strike zone over the coming months and years. We’re going to discuss the perilous subject of the top and bottom of the zone, as well as the mysterious art of calling balls and strikes. We’re going to talk about Pitch f/x data, on variations among umpires, differences for left- and right-handed hitters, differences related to the current count (how does an 0-2 strike differ from a 3-0 strike, for example), and a great deal more.

So stay tuned. The strike zone is a marvelous (if invisible) part of the game of baseball, and there is no end to trouble we can create by discussing its mysterious contours.