Tie Goes to the Runner?

It’s surprising how frequently this issue comes up: Tie goes to the runner. I get emails through the web site, or I’m approached by people who know I’m an umpire, and the thing people want to vent about are the close plays at first base: the runner’s foot hits the bag and the ball hits the fielder’s glove in what appears to be the same instant. The umpire calls the runner out and all hell breaks loose.

Once upon a time, we all played by this rule. We played this rule in our youth, on school playgrounds and sandlots. It was the rule and it served us well. There were no umpires on the sandlots, and close plays at first base were (and remain) the cause of most disputes. So when consensus and arguments failed, the rule (that rule) helped settled the arguments. In those days, on those ball fields, ties went to the runner.


Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball

Nope, ties do not go to the runner. Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball. Not where there’s an umpire making the call. Rather, the prevailing interpretation is that the runner must beat the throw; if he doesn’t, he’s out. That’s the right call. And that’s where the arguments begin.

The discrepancy between the sandlot rule and the Big League rule is interesting, because to a certain extent, the discrepancy exists in a vacuum. The fact is, there is no rule in the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) that offers any guidance in cases where both events (runner’s foot touching the base, and the ball reaching the fielder’s glove), when they occur at exactly the same time. The prevailing (but still controversial) interpretation, that the runner must beat the throw, has but shadowy standing in the OBR. Part of the problem is that there’s no rule covering this situation; at the same time, however, there are rules, three of them, that surround the issue, and the three don’t fully agree. Therein lies one of the several shadowy seams whose ambiguous threads wind around the OBR like the stitching on a baseball.


There are three rules

The fact is, three rules apply, but none of them apply directly to the case of a tie, so you end up with a Bermuda Triangle of rules that surround the issue, and between them all is a foggy interpretation that relies more on tradition than rule.

Here are the three rules. I’ve trimmed them to their essentials (click the links for the full text):

Rule 5.09(a)(10)
[formerly 6.05(j)]
A batter is out when … After a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base
Rule 5.09(b)(6)
[formerly 7.08(e)]
A runner is out when … He or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base
Rule 5.06(a)(1)
[formerly 7.01]
A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out

It doesn’t take too close of a reading to see the contradiction. The first two [5.09(a) and 5.09(b)] make it quite clear that a runner is out if he or the base (when a force) are touched before the runner reaches the base. However, the third rule we cited [5.06(a)(1)] is equally clear that a runner is safe so long as he reaches a base before he or the base (when a force) are tagged.

What we have from the rules, then, is this: On one hand, the runner must beat the throw or tag to be safe, while on the other hand the defense must beat the runner to the bag to get the out. It appears that when the two events are simultaneous, the umpire should flip a coin to determine which of the rules to apply. The mind boggles.

In all of the OBR, the only mention of a tie is in connection with handling a tie score, for example, when a game is suspended. There is neither mention nor guidance of the case of simultaneous events (ties), and because of this, there exists a great black hole at the center of the baseball galaxy that we orbit, day after day, game after game, play after play, argument after argument.


There are no ties in baseball

As ingrained as tie-goes-to-the-runner is in sandlot and playground baseball, an equally time-honored expression among baseball insiders (and umpires in particular) is the axiom that there are no ties in baseball. The axiom was likely spawned, at least in part, by the black hole we’ve just discovered.

Clearly, though – if we’re honest with ourselves – it is not true that there are no ties. The fact is, there are ties on the base path not infrequently. Let’s stay with the play at first base for a moment. Among the many perfections of baseball, the length of the base path (90 feet) has proved an enduring testament to man’s ability (every now and then) to get things right. Legendary sports writer Red Smith said it well: “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.” What he means is, the balance between offense and defense is nearly perfectly balanced by those perfect 90 feet.

A batted ball to the infield will almost always produce an out if the defense plays the ball cleanly, without a bobble or an error. Add a bobble to the play and you probably have a close play (bang-bang), and even a small chance that a fast runner will beat the throw and be safe at first. (Ichiro did this in Seattle on a regular basis.) Misplay the ball more severely than a simple bobble, and the runner is safe close to half the time. Misplay the ball entirely and the runner is almost always safe.

The point is, the balance between the defense and the offense on a batted ball to the infield is nearly perfect, so much so that almost all plays at first base are relatively close, and a great many are so close they’re a challenge to call, as well as a good many very close plays (the bang-bang plays).

The upshot, then, is that this perfect balance between offense and defense leads necessarily to a large number of nearly simultaneous events, and some unknown number of truly simultaneous ones. Given all of the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of close plays at first base in a given baseball season, it’s only natural that some number of them result in dead-even ties.  In other words, there are plenty of ties at first. And by the prevailing convention, these ties  normally result in the runner being called out.

What we have, then, is an alternate axiom – one that’s not written, nor spoken, but exists nevertheless: Tie goes to the fielder.


Umpires weigh in

There are two authoritative sources of case law (if you will) and rules interpretations: Jaksa-Roder and Wendelstedt. All umpires with salt know both of these resources. Both are oft-used authorities for untangling thorny rules issues, of which there are no shortage in baseball. Let’s see what they have to say about this black hole.

Nothing. Nada. Niente. Nothing but silence.

Both discuss the rules (the three rules we’ve framed), but neither source addresses the issue of the simultaneous events, the tie at the base. Neither of these honored reference texts even has the word “tie” in their index.

Tim McClelland

Interestingly, on MLB.com, in a section entitled Ask the Umpire, veteran umpire Tim McClelland does address the issue in a Q-and-A. Here’s both question and answer.

I am an umpire for Little League. The coach told me that ties go to the runner. I said the batter has to beat the throw to first because there are no such thing as ties. Who is right?
– L.M.F.

McClelland: That is exactly right. There are no ties and there is no rule that says the tie goes to the runner. But the rule book does say that the runner must beat the ball to first base, and so if he doesn’t beat the ball, then he is out. So you have to make the decision. That’s why umpires are paid the money they are, to make the decision on if he did or if he didn’t. The only thing you can do is go by whether or not he beat the ball. If he did, then he is safe.

This is interesting, because McClelland is saying he’s going with 5.06(a)(1) and leaves it at that. His comments about “you have to make the decision” is really just a smokescreen to cover the ambiguity that’s he’s elected to ignore. But he’s in good company; this interpretation (that the runner must beat the throw) is the view that pervades, particularly in the Major Leagues. And umpiring conventions tend to filter down from there.

But that interpretation is not accepted universally. This subject comes up time and again on umpire chat rooms and discussion boards and the debates are intense and passionate. There’s McClelland’s view, that the runner must beat the throw. Then there’s the opposite view, which falls on 7.08(e), arguing that if the ball fails to reach the base before the runner touches it, the runner is safe. In other words, tie goes to the runner.

And then there are the umpires who (stupidly, in my view) try to have it both ways. They claim that on truly bang-bang plays at first they’ll judge by circumstances. If the defense was sloppy, they’ll call a runner safe. Same thing if a slow player shows extraordinary hustle. A runner who dogs it, on the other hand, is getting called out. This is the worst of all possible approaches to resolving the ambiguity.

Interestingly, a great many umpires assert that literal ties (true simultaneous events) are near impossible. One commentator claimed to have umpired for 50 years and in that span had never seen a tie on the bases. Our new world of super slow-mo and instant replay is slowly undermining this view. The fact is, ties happen.

Sadly, there’s no real conclusion to the story. Ties at first are a fact of life, and they’ll continue being called in a manner consistent with the umpire’s religion, so to speak. And it’s not really so big a problem as it may appear. It’s definitely not so big an issue as the variability in the strike zone. But don’t get me started on that can of worms.



Third Out on Appeal – Does the Run Score?

Here’s a really good question that came in this week. The issue is when the third out is made on appeal (a runner failed to tag up, for example, and is called out on appeal for the third out). Let’s add a twist. Let’s say the runner who is called out on appeal was at second base (he’s R2), but there was also a runner at third (R3) who scored on the play. Here’s the full scenario:

  • There is one out and you have runners on second and third (R2, R3).
  • Batter hits a deep fly ball to right field that is caught for the second out.
  • Following the catch, both R2 and R3 tag up and advance one base; R2 is now on third and R3 has scored.
  • However, the defense believes R2 left early (failed to tag up), and executes a proper appeal at second base.
  • The umpire upholds the appeal and calls R2 out. That’s the third out.

Here’s the question:  Does the run scored by R3 on the play count, or does it come off the board?

The run counts

Yep, in this case the run counts. This is effectively a time play, so the run scored by R3 stays on the board. To better understand what’s going on, let’s start with one of baseball’s most basic rules, Rule 5.08 (“How a team scores”). We’re going to look specifically at Rule 5.08(a), including (most importantly) the “Exception”:

5.08(a) One run shall be scored each time a runner legally advances to and touches first, second, third and home base before three men are put out to end the inning.

Exception: A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made (1) by the batter-runner before he touches first base; (2) by any runner being forced out; or (3) by a preceding runner who is declared out because he failed to touch one of the bases.

Everything you need to know to rule correctly on this and similar cases is in this rule and its exception. Of course, the rule notwithstanding, you’re almost always going to get an argument, because the rule is poorly understood, by coaches in particular, but also by some umpires. In most cases the argument you’ll hear from a coach is that this was a “force play” (which it isn’t), and that you can’t score runs when the third out is made on a force play. But the coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

So when does the run NOT count on a third out appeal?

The discussion so far begs the question: Under what circumstances does a run not count when a third out is made on appeal? It’s a good question because these are the situations cause the confusion that drives all of the arguments.

To get our answer, we have to read carefully each of the three exceptions that are listed in Rule 5.08(a)(Exception). All three of these exceptions look familiar because, except for (3), they’re really common cases in nearly every baseball game you see. The trick is applying these exceptions to an appeal play. Don’t let that throw you off.

  • Exception (1): This is one of the most common events in baseball. The batter-runner makes the third out before safely reaching first. This is your basic batted ball to the infield, 6-3, for example, or straight-up double play (6-4-3). Everyone knows that no run scores on this play.

I can think of only two appealable infraction on the batter-runner on a play like this that can result in his being called out at first base on appeal – (a) failing to touch first base while advancing (as if on a double), and (b) failing to return directly to first base after overrunning the bag [Rule 5.09(b)(4)]. In both of these cases, if the umpire upholds a proper appeal on the runner at first, and if that out is the third out, then no run can score on the play.

  • Exception (2): If the third out is made on appeal of a runner who is forced to the base where the infraction is appealed, no run scores on that play. For example, let’s say you have bases loaded with two outs and the batter hits a three-run double. Three runs score and the batter-runner is standing on second. But then the defense executes a proper appeal at second base maintaining that the runner from first (R1) failed to touch second base. If the umpire upholds the appeal at second (to which R1 was forced), and if that was the third out, then no runs score and the half-inning is over.

You can change up this scenario in a lot of ways and get the same result. The point is, if the third-out appeal is at a base to which a runner was forced, then no runs score. You can think of this as basically Exception (1), but as a fielder’s choice.

  • Exception (3): This one is a bit less common, but can still cause arguments. We saw in discussing Exception (1) that a base runner called out on appeal does not affect the scoring status of a preceding runner who has already scored on the play. However, when the situation is reversed and the third-out appeal succeeds on a player who scores, and where following runners also score, then none of the runs will count. The runner on whom the appeal was made does not score, of course, because he’s been called out on appeal. And since he was the third out, anyone following him obviously also doesn’t score.

Sometimes having the decision tree as a graphic helps understand the process of ruling on situations like this. Sometimes not. I’ll let you be the judge. Note, however, that the decision tree doesn’t cover all possible scenarios. It represents the basics – the starting point for ruling on third-out appeal scoring.


MLB’s “Chase Utley” Slide Rule & Demise of the “Neighborhood” Play

I used a lot of quotation marks in the title of this post, and that’s telling. Much in baseball (in all sports, I’m sure, but especially in baseball) lives on the periphery of the rules. This is especially true at the professional level. Amateur associations (NCAA, high school, most select and travel leagues, and most definitely Little League) long ago inserted safety rules to protect defenders from malicious acts on the part of base runners. Only recently is Major League Baseball following suit. And not everyone agrees this is a good idea.

Let’s start with Buster Posey

Buster Posey following take-out by Cousins

MLB began in earnest to own up to malicious actions during the 2011 season, when Giants’ catcher Buster Posey had his clock cleaned (and the ligaments in his ankle torn to shreds) by Scott Cousins, who scored from third after tagging up on a shallow fly ball to right field. He took Posey out at a dead run with a lowered shoulder. It was the game-winning score in the 12th inning. Posey was on the ground, writhing in pain, and was finally helped off the field. And he was out for the season. Have a look at that incident, HERE.

At all other levels of baseball, Cousins’ deliberate action (lowering the shoulder and plowing into the catcher) would be deemed “malicious contact” (also known by other names in various rule books). The runner would be automatically ejected from the game. If the action took place before the runner touched home, he’d be called out and the run would not count. If the contact occurred after touching home, the run would count, but he’d still be ejected from the game. As I say, at every level of the game, except for the pros.

The Posey incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Catchers are extremely vulnerable on plays at the plate, so a lot of catchers have endured season-ending (if not career ending) injuries inflicted by 210-pound base runners head-hunting at a dead run, shoulder first. Bigger, stronger, faster players in the modern era can do a lot of damage to a catcher on his knees at the plate.

The outcome of the Posey incident came in the 2014 with the implementation of the infamous “Posey Rule” – otherwise known as Rule 6.01(i). The rule was controversial, as you’ll recall, and was not applied consistently. The rule wasn’t very well written. On top of that, hard-liners argued that 6.01(i) has turned baseball into a game for wimps. Most who argued that are Trump supporters, I suspect, because he said as much about modern football: that he laments the “good old days” when defensive ends could take the quarterback’s head off once he broke out of the pocket. It appears to some that taking actions to forestall grave injuries is somehow unmanly. I thought we’d gotten past that, but evidently not.

What about middle infielders?

If catchers are the most vulnerable, then the next most vulnerable defensive player is the middle-infielder (the shortstop and second baseman) while in the act of turning a double-play and with the runner from first bearing down at full speed, intent on breaking up the double play. This is the position Ruben Tejada was in when Chase Utley took him out. It was a brutal take-out slide in which Utley slides so far wide of the bag, and with such obvious disregard for reaching the base, that it’s a virtual felony assault. We’ve got photos.

At every level of baseball (except the pros), what Utley did to Tejada is an egregious infraction that gets a runner thrown out of the game. It’s a special case of interference in which two outs are called – one out on the runner at second for interference (if not already out on the play), and another out on the batter-runner because his teammate interfered with the opportunity to complete the double play.

NCAA force-play slide rule. © NCAA

This type of interference is supported by what is generally known as the “force-play slide rule.” Every level of baseball (except the pros) has a version of force-play slide rule. In the NCAA rule book it’s Rule 8-4. In the FED (high school) rule book it’s Rule 1-32-1, 2. In Little League (all levels) it’s Rule 7.09(e, f). And every amateur league that I know of (and all, I suspect) that use the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) have a force-play slide rule in the supplementary league rules.

The NCAA has the most comprehensive rule, and they even give you a diagram to illustrate. But almost all force-play slide rules follow the same or a similar pattern. In short, a runner can slide directly into a base, or slide within arms-length to either side of the base, but not on the side of the base that a defender is on. Nor can the runner, after sliding, do a pop-up move to affect the throw, or hook a defender’s leg, or in any other way impede the defender’s opportunity to retire the batter-runner at first. In fact, in the high school rule book, simply sliding beyond the bag at second can get you called out.

So now, starting with the 2016 baseball season, professional baseball has its own force-play slide rule – Rule 6.01(j). And from this week forward, it will forever be known as the “Chase Utley Rule,” forever joined at the hip to the play in last year’s Dodger’s-Mets NLDS game in which Utley’s rolling block on Ruben Tejada broke the latter’s leg, ending his season and impairing the Mets’ chances of making it to the World Series.

Utley is well outside a line to the base and, worse, beyond the bag when he slides

Again, some consider this to be just part of the game. But have a look. Utley’s take-out of Tejada was a brutal move. I felt at the time (and still do) that the second-base umpire in that game erred in not calling interference, for even without a force-play slide rule the Official Rules on interference cover such blatant behavior.

Tejada upended and out of control, falling to the ground with a broken let

It takes only these two photos of the incident to make the point. In the first, Utley is well outside the direct line to the bag, and clearly intent upon taking Tejada out. But worse, look where he begins his slide: he’s beyond the bag and he’s not even trying to touch the base. In the second photo you see the result. Tejada is upended, completely out of control, at the mercy of gravity and luck. And it certainly wasn’t his lucky day.

Okay, so what’s the price? What’s the trade-off?

It’s a big one. It’s a trade-off that upsets a generations-old tradition in baseball: the neighborhood play, in which the middle-infielder is given the benefit of the doubt on whether he actually touched the bag, or if he touched it, did he have the ball at that instant, while hustling to turn the double play. The neighborhood play is another of those cases where umpires willfully turn a blind eye to the letter of the law in deference to a tradition of the law (if you will), so that infielders can defend himself from the type of vicious take-out that Utley delivered.

MLB took something away from the offense with the new force-play slide rule. In an attempt to re-balance the playing field, they have decided to eradicate the neighborhood play by making it reviewable. It hasn’t been, prior to this. Jayson Stark, in his piece on ESPN.com, puts it well: “There goes the neighborhood.”

It’s going to be interesting seeing how the elimination of the neighborhood play works out. After all, it’s a hallowed part of the culture of the game. Sometimes, killing off one thing in an ecosystem has unexpected side effects, and this is likely no exception. It will just need to play out. The force-play slide rule and the demise of the neighborhood play are now bonded atoms in a complex molecule. Not much of a metaphor, I’ll admit.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of commentary on this new move by MLB. Reactions run everywhere from your basic “sky is falling” hysteria, to reasoned (but cautious) support. Do a little Googling if you’re curious. But ultimately, the answer will play out on the field.


MLB Explores Changing the Strike Zone

Proposed new strike zone (image courtesy of SBNation.com)

There’s a lot of noise in the sports press this week and last about a recent announcement from Major League Baseball (MLB) that they are exploring a significant change to the definition of the strike zone. The change would redefine the bottom of the strike zone and move it up, from the hollow at the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the kneecap. If that doesn’t sound like much, then … well …

If you’ve never pitched to good hitters, or hit against good pitching, or called balls and strikes for both, then it may be difficult to appreciate just how
big of a change this would be. In real-world physical distance it’s a change of roughly three inches; in baseball space-time, on the other hand, it’s roughly half a mile.

For the record, the bottom of the strike zone was formerly defined at the top, not the bottom of the kneecap. This changed in 1995 when MLB was concerned about an overbalance of offense in the game and lowered the bottom of the zone to below the knee. The effect was dramatic.

The situation is reversed, now, and recent concerns about declining offense seem to be driving the discussion. Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun goes a bit further by suggesting that the decline in offense over the past few years results, at least in part, from MLB going “to war against performance-enhancing drugs.” The inference is that all this talk about redefining the strike zone is connected to fixing the effects of taking PEDs out of the game.

Of course, another step in the inference chain could suggest that player’s gravitating to PEDs in the 1990s may have been caused, at least in part, by the lowering of the zone in 1995. Whether the two trends were coincident or causal is pure speculation, of course, but maybe subject for another post. Another point to note is that such a change will require buy-in from the Player’s Association and syncing up the change with their bargaining agreement. So even if this idea gets traction, nothing can happen this upcoming season (2016).

But let’s get back to the point. Tweaking the rules of the game to drive a desired effect is tricky. The Game is like an ecosystem. You let one species go extinct and all of a sudden you have a cascade of side effects that you didn’t expect and don’t know what to do about. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying, think about it.

There’s an expression about pitching – “Live low, die high.” There’s a lot of baseball in that phrase. A lot of practice and execution. A lot of coaching. A lot of missed spots and high fastballs tattooed over the wall. Millions of ’em. And a lot on the other side, too. Good hitting has learned, patiently, to handle the low pitch – how to dig it out or just lay off. So those low breakers aren’t always a strikeout pitch. Far from it. So there’s no question that raising the bottom of the strike zone a half mile (or whatever) will have plenty of effects, both direct and indirect, and on both pitchers and hitters.

For one thing, it’s going to nudge the curve of pitching competency away from the low-pitch, ground-ball specialist, and toward the power pitcher (as though we needed more of that). In fact, SBNation.com, for one, has explored the implications of this effect and on Friday (1/29/16) published an good piece written by Jason Cohen entitled “CC Sabathia wouldn’t survive a raised strike zone.”

The piece is an interesting read and includes heat maps and pitch graphics that tell us a lot about a pitcher who works down in the zone; that, and about sliders and sinkers and other pitches whose effect is most manifest at the bottom of the zone. Then again, leave it to SBNation.com to include a companion piece entitled “MLB is talking about raising the strike zone, and that’s good for Tigers’ pitchers,” this one written by Christopher Yheulon (1/28/16). The point snaps shut and it maybe makes you chuckle at how far you can take this.

Whatever the outcome, it won’t come easily. A move like this won’t likely raise the passions so much as the other hot off-season “thinking about” issue started by the new MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred (that the National League would adopt the DH), but it’s going to generate some. It’s conceivable that a change like this will hurt the careers of some pitchers, maybe even end it for others; on the other hand, others will have the value of their native skills enhanced. And ultimately, the nature and culture of the Game will adapt.

Postscript: The image of the strike zone that we use at the start of this article does a good job representing the proposed change to the bottom of the strike zone. The image’s representation of the top of the zone, however, while it appears to represent the rule-book definition of the top of the zone (Definitions of terms: “strike zone”), instead represents the single most glaring example of the culture of the game outstripping the rule of the game; because few players over the age of twelve are going to get a strike called where that graphic says they will. What I’m saying is, it’s the only one of the Official Baseball Rules that is willfully overridden by the cultural definition (if that’s what to call it) of the top of the strike zone. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.


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.


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.


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.


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.