Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Runner's Lane Interference Plagues Chicago's Heyward

Jeff Nelson's runner lane interference call on Chicago Cubs batter Jayson Heyward put an out on the board for San Francisco while simultaneously sending a Cubs baserunner back to second base from home plate, as the friendly confines encountered a little animosity in the wake of one of baseball's misunderstood rules.

Controversy concerning runner's lane interference—or a lack thereof—is nothing new. Mike Scioscia's Angels lost their protest in June 2016 over a runner's lane interference no-call that Scioscia claimed was a missed call, while skippers Terry Francona (MLB Ejection 065 - Manny Gonzalez (1; Terry Francona)) and Andy Green (MLB Ejection 090 - Bill Miller (2; Andy Green)) were ejected for arguing similar runner's lane interference plays.

Cubs Manager Joe Maddon questions Nelson.
The Giants-Cubs May 24, 2017 Play: With one out and two on, Cubs batter Jayson Heyward hit a ball on the ground and up along the first base line to Giants pitcher Matt Moore, who threw to first baseman Brandon Belt as Heyward arrived at first base. As Heyward reached to touch first base with his left foot, the ball struck his leg and caromed down the right field line, while HP Umpire Jeff Nelson called Heyward out for interfering with Belt's ability to field Moore's throw.

The Rule: Runner's Lane Interference ("RLI") is codified in Official Baseball Rule 5.09(a)(11):
A batter is out for interference when—In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead.
Heyward exits the lane before his last stride.
Analysis: In order for RLI to apply, the runner must be out of his lane when he interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base.

Furthermore, we know that "the lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane," and a batter-runner may exit "in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base," which these days is fully in fair territory. We're also aware that the issue is not whether the batter-runner interfered with the thrower, but with the receiver.

The accompanying image indicates that Heyward exited the lane prior to the immediate vicinity of first base (or, if that is a disagreeable statement to you, then he exited the lane prior to his final stride, which means he failed to fulfill the "sole purpose of touching first base" criterion, as his left foot touched the dirt relatively far from first base).

Ok, so Heyward was out of his lane...but being out of the running lane, on its own, isn't interference. He actually has to impede fielder Belt's ability to field the throw.

The Harry and Hunter Wendelstedt rule interpretation pertaining to runner's lane interference states, "The determination is not whether the throw is true, but whether it could still reasonably retire the runner."

Ball strikes the back of Heyward's right leg.
In other words, Heyward has not interfered unless pitcher Moore's throw could have reasonably retired him, and only if Heyward's impedance on Belt prevented such a reasonable opportunity for said retirement.

There is no interference unless, all else equal, the throw could have reasonably retired the runner. Even though the result of the play was a two-base error, which allowed the lead Cubs baserunner to score a run, that fact is irrelevant in the adjudication of runner's lane interference: interference isn't meant to account for what happens to the ball after it fails to retire the batter-runner. The only question that matters is, "could [the throw] reasonably retire the runner?"

If your answer is "yes," Heyward is guilty of interference and was properly declared out.
If your answer is "no," Heyward is not guilty of interference and was incorrectly called for RLI.

Having trouble deciding? Here's a potential clue:

According to Officially Speaking columnist and former Triple-A umpire Brian Hertzog, who wrote articles titled "Runner's Lane Interference" and "RLI No-Call, Part Deux" last season, "This rule is written in a way that protects [the throwing fielder's] throw both “outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, [and] inside (to the left of) the foul line.” This verbiage tells any fielder making a throw from this area exactly where that throw will be free from any [runner] interfering with it. If not, then we penalize the B/R for it. This puts an onus on the defense to make their attempt to retire the B/R either inside or outside of the three-foot lane."

With Heyward, we have a throw that hit his right leg mere inches to the inside of the lane, and was released by pitcher Moore while his throwing hand was directly over the foul line, or barely inside the lane. Try and decipher whether Moore's throw was entirely inside the lane, or whether it travelled over the foul line (whatever happened to those foul line cameras we were supposed to get?).

Given all that backstory on RLI, what's your call?

Alternate Link: Runner's Lane Interference strikes Cubs at Wrigley, taking a run off the board (SF)


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