A Quiet Rule Change Has Made A Loud Impact

In the past, dropping the ball while transferring it to your bare hand was an out. Starting this year, this is no longer the case. - Ed Zurga

In an attempt to clarify what defines a catch, MLB has turned a gray area into a black-and-white issue, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

During the offseason, the biggest change being made to baseball was the expansion of instant replay. With the ability to challenge one play before the 7th inning and getting to challenge another if the first was successful, there was the relief that more calls would be correct.

However, thanks to a different rule change that was quietly made, that is not actually the case. Over the winter, MLB also changed the definition of what constitutes a catch, and in doing so they are penalizing defenses for plays they actually have successfully made.

When you think of a catch, I'm sure you think of a defender simply having the ball settle in his glove. Prior to this season, you would have been correct. But this year, MLB has adopted a new rule that states that if the defender drops the ball while attempting to transfer it from his glove to his bare hand, then it is no longer a catch.

The rule change has already come into play several times this year. The Twins have seen the play incorrectly ruled by the umpires when Kurt Suzuki caught a foul tip strike for a strikeout, then bobbled the ball and dropped it trying to remove it from his glove (my apologies, I can't seem to find the video). The home plate umpire still ruled the play resulted in a strikeout, even though by the new definition it should have been a foul ball because Suzuki "didn't" catch the ball.

This also has resulted in a new call on double plays. Before, if an infielder at second base caught a throw and then dropped the ball transferring it to his bare hand, the umpires would still give the fielder the out. Now, that same play means the runner is actually safe. The Tampa Bay Rays were hurt by that call when Ben Zobrist had that very play happen fielding a shovel toss from shortstop Yunel Escobar. Watching it in real speed, it seems like Zobrist never had control, but in slow-motion it appears like Zobrist had the ball lodged in his glove but just couldn't get it into his bare hand on the transfer. The Rays challenged the call and ended up losing the challenge.

How about batted balls? Same story, umpires have been ruling that failed transfers lead to the batter being safe. This then leads into a couple of questions, some that seem dumb but could arguably be exploited.

  1. If a fielder catches a fly ball for the final out in an inning, keeps the ball in his glove, then just drops the ball on the mound as he retreats to the dugout, is the batter still out? If you want to strictly adhere to the rule, then no, the batter is not out.
  2. If an outfielder catches a fly ball with two runners on base or bases loaded, then he runs the ball back into the infield before deliberately dropping it, can he pick up the ball and throw to any base to force out a runner and possibly turn a double play? Strictly adhering to the new rule, yes, this can happen. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs argues that teams should start doing this on purpose.
In the infield on double play turns, this play does make sense. But, it turns into an mess when the outfielders become involved. Runners have no idea which base they should take. In Cameron's article, Yoenis Cespedes could have reached first base on a line drive to left fielder Dustin Ackley, but instead was out on a 7-6-3 "groundout" because he went back to the dugout thinking he was already retired. In another "catch" by Dustin Ackley, batter Brandon Moss passed runner Josh Donaldson, causing Moss to be out anyway when if Donaldson has correctly advanced to second base, both Donaldson and Moss could have been safe.

This can't be what MLB wanted to happen. In an effort to clarify a rule on something that should be pretty easy to interpret, they've instead turned it into a mess. In my opinion, if a fielder closes his glove around a batted ball and the ball does not rattle around, it is a catch. It should not matter if the fielder is able to remove the ball from his glove unless it is a bang-bang catch-and-throw play, which really only happens on double play turns anyway, which is where this rule change is best utilized. While I don't think a correction will be made midseason, I'm hoping that MLB realizes its error and changes this rule to become a double play-only rule in the future.
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