Sunday, October 5, 2014

Case Play 2014-5: Legality of a Fielder Blocking a Runner

2B Umpire Fieldin Culbreth's ALDS Game 3 obstruction no-call in Detroit is the subject of the rare postseason Case Play. With one out and R2, Tigers batter Torii Hunter hit a ground ball to Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, who threw to second baseman Jonathan Schoop in an attempt to catch Tigers baserunner R2 Don Kelly off second base.

Video: Cubby calls the strange sequence at 2nd
Replays indicate that as F6 Hardy threw to F4 Schoop, Schoop positioned himself in front of R2 Kelly. After the throw, Schoop dropped the baseball and, as he recovered the ball within his immediate reach, Schoop remained directly between R2 Kelly and second base, effectively preventing Kelly from touching second base. When Schoop tagged Kelly with the baseball while Kelly was off of his base, U2 Culbreth ruled Kelly out on the tag, prompting Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus to argue the call with Culbreth as resident lawyer and 3B Umpire Dan Bellino joined in the conversation before Culbreth affirmed his out call.

Question: Is this the proper call and application of rules? Was this a good non-call or should this have been deemed obstruction? If the call was improper, was it incorrect because of a matter of umpire judgment or an issue of misapplication or misinterpretation of rules?

This is a postseason Case Play, which takes a different form than an in-season CP. The postseason CP is more of a discussion in that the correct response will be provided. Participants may receive one UEFL point for this conversation. (Warning: Answer is Posted Below.)

Answer: Yes, this is the proper call and application of rules. The reason Quality of Correctness is correct begins with Rule 2.00 (Obstruction), which states that a fielder, while not in possession of the ball nor in the act of fielding the ball is guilty of obstruction when he impedes the progress of the runner. As Wendelstedt Umpire School Chief of Instruction and Administrative Director Brent Rice stated in the solution to Case Play 2014-4: Batter-Runner Obstruction, acts of impediment include where the runner must run around, jump over, slow down, or stop to avoid the fielder.

As alluded to above in the underlined text, the issue of when a fielder is considered "in the act of fielding the ball" is of tantamount importance to the present play. For instance, Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment states that, "After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the 'act of fielding' the ball."

Time to get out those MLB Umpire Manuals and turn to Rule Interpretation 43, Play 4. This play addresses the case of a batted ball that deflects off the shortstop and starts to roll away from him. As the shortstop attempts to recover the loose ball, he collides with the runner from second base.

The accepted Major League Baseball interpretation for Rule 2.00's "in the act of fielding" clause is whether "the ball is within the fielder's immediate reach." If the ball is within this immediate reach, the fielder is to be considered "in the act of fielding" and specifically has not "missed" the ball as written in the language of Rule 2.00 (Obstruction). An example of the ball not being within the fielder's immediate reach is the case in which the fielder must chase after the ball—in this case, the fielder has "missed" the ball. A fielder on the ground who simply must lunge to retrieve the loose ball is accordingly said to have the ball within his immediate reach, has not "missed" it, and, thusly, is still in the act of fielding.

Brent provided additional clarification for this interpretation: "The step and reach interpretation only applies for ball deflected in front of, or to the side of, the fielder. It does not apply for ball where the fielder must turn around to retrieve it. So, if the ball would have gotten behind the second baseman (to the right field side of second base), he likely would not have been protected and obstruction would probably have been called. Since the ball was deflected to his right though, and it remained within his reach, he is still considered in the act of fielding the ball."

Because F4 Schoop impeded the progress (or retreat) of baserunner R2 Kelly while he was in the act of fielding the ball, and because the ball remained within his immediate reach and he did not "miss" it, F4 Schoop is not guilty of obstruction and R2 Kelly is out for having been tagged with the ball while off his base. Quality of Correctness = Correct.

Video: Players get tangled off second base on a play reminiscent of the 2013 World Series game-ender (FS1)


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