Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Rules and Confusion

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Rules and Confusion

by Matt Smith

WHGB11A catch wasn’t necessarily a catch on Thursday, but by Friday it was.

If that sounds a confusing way to start then that about sums up where we are in MLB so far this season. The laws of the land have changed and no one’s on a sure footing with any of it.

The ‘transfer’ rule fiasco was one of the first unintended consequences of baseball adjusting to the game being played with the possibility of instant replay challenges hanging over every act.

Being able to use slow-motion replays to judge if a catch had been made or not was always going to lead to a grey area around plays when the fielder loses their grip on the ball on the ‘transfer’, taking the ball from the glove quickly so that a throw can then be made.

MLB knew this all too well and therefore adjusted the definition of what constituted a catch so that umpires basically had to rule ‘no catch’ if the ball was fumbled in that situation. This change was made to make it easier for umpires as there then was no real grey area once the replay footage kicked in; the laws said it wasn’t a catch and if people didn’t like it then that was their problem.

It was a similar thought-process that went into deciding that ‘neighbourhood’ plays (when an infielder is awarded an out at second-base whilst turning a double-play even if they don’t quite touch the bag) shouldn’t be reviewable under the new instant replay. Subjecting those plays to such scrutiny would have changed the game in a way no player wanted, so they solved this simply by not allowing that type of event to be challenged.

It was a noble intention to take away the area of judgement on transfers, but it’s not always the case that making rules black-and-white leads to a satisfactory outcome. Referees in football may be glad in one sense that they have no choice but to award a penalty and a sending off when a clear goal-scoring opportunity is denied, yet they know better than anyone that most people think this ‘double jeopardy’ outcome is unfair.

So was the case in the opening weeks of this MLB season. Catches in both the outfield and the infield – the latter particularly on the pivot during a double-play attempt – that players, managers, fans and, most probably, umpires would normally see as being a good catch were now being turned down. Something had to give and that’s why MLB acted to implement a change on Friday to take the interpretation back to how it used to be.

It’s to MLB’s credit that they admitted the change had caused issues and quickly reversed course, although it would be welcome if they took that decisive approach more often (more than four years on and the Blue Ribbon panel looking at the Oakland A’s potential relocation to San Jose still hasn’t given any clear steer on the matter, for example).

It’s one of the helpful things about MLB being a largely self-contained competition that they can implement such changes, with the agreement of the respective unions of the players and umpires, rather than being at the mercy of the industrial-scale bureaucracy created by UEFA and FIFA in football.

Rules do need to adapt over time as the games change and it’s important that the rule-makers are sensitive to potential issues when they implement something new or different. Football has a slightly bizarre tendency to bring in changes at the biggest tournaments – the 1998 World Cup ruling on harshly penalizing tackles from behind being a good example – which often can leads to those changes providing the post-match talking points rather than the skill of the players.

We’re seeing the same situation with MLB’s new rules on home plate collisions. Early in the Rangers-A’s game on Wednesday it looked like Alex Rios had scored to make it 2-0 to Texas, only for Oakland’s manager Bob Melvin to challenge the call that he was safe on a close play at the plate.

Upon review the footage showed that the A’s catcher Derek Norris had applied the tag just before Rios got to the plate and the run therefore came off the scoreboard, yet former Major League catcher and current A’s commentator Ray Fosse got more convinced with each replay that Norris probably hadn’t complied with the new plate-blocking rules and that Rios should have been given the run anyway due to the plate being blocked before Norris had the ball.

The truth was that no one, from Fosse to Norris to Rios to the umpires, seemed to know exactly what should be allowable when blocking the plate.  It appears as though runners and catchers are still ending up in that situation in a game far from clear precisely as to how their actions will be interpreted.

And then we return after a two-week break to the sticky matter of pitchers using pine-tar. We’re in a situation there were the rules are clear that a pitcher shouldn’t use pine tar, yet they are doing so and both pitchers and hitters don’t seem to have an issue with it so long as it’s not excessive and is done discretely.

The Yankees’ Michael Pineda could not have been less discrete when putting pine-tar on his neck in a game against the Red Sox this week and even the Yankees agreed that Red Sox manager John Farrell had little choice but to alert the umpires to it. It tells you a lot that as standard an opposing manager – even in the red-hot heat of a Yankees-Red Sox rivalry – wouldn’t want to take such action, presumably as his own pitchers are sometimes breaking the same rule too.

Joe Torre, in his role as MLB executive vice president, has cautioned against the growing idea that the rules should change to allow pitchers to use pine tar and such caution is advisable (there are rules on how much pine tar hitters can apply to their bats, but it would be difficult to draw a line between using enough pine tar simply to get a safe grip of a baseball and actually gaining an unfair advantage), but pressure will grow if those in and around the game don’t feel the current laws are viable and realistic.

Confusion abounds at the moment. The only thing we can be thankful for in the current tangle of rules is that checking if a pitcher is using pine tar is not something that’s reviewable under the instant replay challenge system. So far, at least.

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