Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Are These Two MLB Rules Ignored?

Before we delve into this post, a disclaimer of sorts is needed. First, the point of this post isn't to answer any questions. The point is to ask two questions to which the writer acknowledges in advance that he isn't smart enough to answer. And so the questions are posed open-ended for your discussion. That said in advance, there are two rules listed in the official MLB rulebook that seem to be ignored. Are they? Let's look at them both.

The first one is Rule 7.04(c) and reads as follows (as part of a larger section):

Rule 7.04(c) Comment: If a fielder, after having made a legal catch, should fall into a stand or among spectators or into the dugout or any other out-of-play area while in possession of the ball after making a legal catch, or fall while in the dugout after making a legal catch, the ball is dead and each runner shall advance one base, without liability to be put out, from his last legally touched base at the time the fielder fell into, or in, such out-of-play area.

Okay, got that? So how many times have you seen a first or third baseman (or the catcher or an outfielder) pursue a fly ball or pop out and fall into the dugout or over the fence or into the stands? It doesn't happen a lot, but it happens enough to have seen it quite a few times in a lifetime of viewing. According to what this rule is saying, Once the fielder falls out of the playing field, the runners get to advance a base and the ball is dead. Yet, how many times do you see a fielder falling into the stands and come up firing the ball back into play? 

Where is the limit of the rule? Say there are runners on and there are less than two outs. Lance Berkman hits a towering pop up and Ike Davis tracks it in foul territory. Davis inches over to the dugout and makes a spectacular play, but in the process, falls down the steps of the dugout. What constitutes the dugout? Is it the steps? The floor of the dugout? In such a case, shouldn't that be a situation the rule talks about? Berkman should be out and the ball is dead, but any runner on base should be given an extra base. Isn't that what the rules says? Have you ever seen that called?

The same thing is true when falling into the stands. Is it like football where your feet have to land in bounds? If the fielder comes down in the stands, that should relate to this rule, no? Have you ever seen a runner given a base?  Remember the famous play with Derek Jeter flying into the stands? If that hadn't been the third out, wouldn't this rule apply? The Fan has been watching baseball a long time and can't remember this rule ever being enforced. Has it been?

The second rule involves plays that happen much more frequently. The second rule is 7.06 and it reads thusly (with our discussion point in bold print:

7.06 When obstruction occurs, the umpire shall call or signal "Obstruction."  If a play is being made on the obstructed runner, or if the batterrunner is obstructed before he touches first base, the ball is dead and all runners shall advance, without liability to be put out, to the bases they would have reached, in the umpire’s judgment, if there had been no obstruction. The obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction. Any preceding runners, forced to advance by the award of bases as the penalty for obstruction, shall advance without liability to be put out.Rule 7.06(a) Comment: When a play is being made on an obstructed runner, the umpire shall signal obstruction in the same manner that he calls “Time,” with both hands overhead. The ball is immediately dead when this signal is given; however, should a thrown ball be in flight before the obstruction is called by the umpire, the runners are to be awarded such bases on wild throws as they would have been awarded had not obstruction occurred. On a play where a runner was trapped between second and third and obstructed by the third baseman going into third base while the throw is in flight from the shortstop, if such throw goes into the dugout the obstructed runner is to be awarded home base. Any other runners on base in this situation would also be awarded two bases from the base they last legally touched before obstruction was called.(b) If no play is being made on the obstructed runner, the play shall proceed until no further action is possible. The umpire shall then call “Time” and impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction.Rule 7.06(b) Comment: Under 7.06(b) when the ball is not dead on obstruction and an obstructed runner advances beyond the base which, in the umpire’s judgment, he would have been awarded because of being obstructed, he does so at his own peril and may be tagged out. This is a judgment call.NOTE: The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.

When was the last time a catcher was called for obstruction on a play at the plate? Have you seen it in your lifetime? This author hasn't. And yet the plate gets blocked all the time. Once the catcher has the ball, he can block the plate. But not until then. But catchers block the plate all the time. It seems to be accepted practice. Lately, the Fan has also noticed that on steal attempts--since so many runners attempting to steal slide in head first (or hands first if you want to be technical)--fielders waiting for the throw from the catcher are blocking the base with their knees. That seems to be obstruction as Rule 7.06 defines it. The key thing is that the runner is entitled to a free run at the base. Once the fielder has the ball from the catcher, then all is fair in war and baseball, but until then, the base-path belongs to the runner. Have you ever seen a runner called safe on such plays due to obstruction?

Again, these questions are posed in an open-ended way. Feel free to comment because the Fan doesn't know the answers. These seem to be examples of two rules that are often ignored in baseball. Thoughts?


Dan McCloskey said...

I attended Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School back in 1994. So, while I don't profess to know everything about how all the rules are interpreted today, I do have some background.

First of all, the rule book is so vague, that two former minor league umpires (and umpire school instructors), Rick Roder and Chris Jaksa, have written The Rules of Professional Baseball:
A Comprehensive Reorganization and Clarification

The Jaksa/Roder Manual was used as a teaching tool at Brinkman/Froemming, but that school no longer exists. They were bought out by Jim Evans's school, and I'm not sure if he uses the manual or not. Either way, it's not "official," but it represents most of the accepted interpretations of the MLB rule book that are being used today.

For your second example, I can say that rule has come to be interpreted to allow the catcher (or other fielder, for that matter) to block the base while in the process of fielding a throw, in addition to while possessing the ball.

In the first example, I'm not 100% sure, but I think what constitutes "in the dugout" is defined by the park's ground rules. Plus, the fielder is allowed to go into the dugout and make the catch, as long as he doesn't fall down.

For the example of falling into the stands while catching a ball, I think it's generally interpreted as: if he reaches in, catches the ball, but his feet come back down in the field of the play, he's not considered to have left the playing field. Even if he lands with his feet dangling in the air, as long as he can get back on his feet in the field of play, he's OK. If he jumps entirely into the stands, the rule is enforced. I think the Jeter play, if it wasn't the third out, would have resulted in the rule (and one base award) being enforced.

I hope this clarifies a little.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Awesome response and exactly what I was looking for. Thanks so much. A couple of questions based on your response:

In a spring game recently, Nick Swisher caught a foul ball and flipped over the fence out of the field of play. Technically, that would count as a dead ball play?

Second question: Isn't the ruling of "in the process of catching the ball," even more vague? How do you designate when that starts? When the ball is on the way?

Dan McCloskey said...

In response to your two questions:

1) Yes, I think if he lands out of play and can only get to his feet while still out of play, then it's a dead ball. Did the play get ruled on differently? If so, I'll take a look at my out-dated interpretations manual when I get home tonight. I might have to purchase the Jaksa/Roder manual, as I really desire to have all the answer when it comes to the baseball rules.

2) Yes, "in the process of catching the ball" is extremely vague. It definitely leaves it up to the umpire's judgment. I would say the ball has to be close enough to the catcher that he's in the act of positioning his glove to catch it. If the throw is coming from an infielder, that's probably as soon as the ball leaves the thrower's hand.