Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Analysis - Tennessee Wins on Walk-Off Obstruction Call

The Tennessee Lady Vols won a weekend softball game against Utah after an umpire's obstruction call on a game-ending play at the plate scored the winning run. Was the call correct pursuant to NCAA rules or should the game have continued?

Utes catcher Martinez blocks plate too early.
The Play: With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th inning and Utah leading, 5-3, Tennessee batter Abby Lockman hit a 2-1 pitch from Utah pitcher Miranda Viramontes to left field, scoring baserunners Chelsea Seggern and Scarlet McSwain. Utah left fielder Julia Noskin retrieved and threw the ball to catcher Kelly Martinez, who received the throw as R1 Brooke Langston arrived at home plate, resulting in a game-ending obstruction call from HP Umpire Vince Price, who signaled a delayed dead ball as soon as the violation occurred.
Video at bottom of post.

Still image of catcher's tag of baserunner.
Analysis: Replays indicate that Utah catcher Martinez caught the ball and tagged baserunner Langston before the latter touched home plate, but also suggest that Martinez positioned herself in front of home plate and between the plate and baserunner Langston before gaining possession of the ball. Key to the analysis is a college softball rules change, enacted just in time for the 2018 season.

The Rule: Pursuant to the NCAA Softball Rules Committee's recommendation over the winter, the sport's new Rule 9.5.1, regarding obstruction, states:
Obstruction occurs when a defensive player, not in possession of the ball or in the act of fielding a batted ball, impedes a batter's attempt to make contact with a pitch or impedes the progress of any runner who is legally running bases on a live ball. It can be intentional or unintentional. It is obstruction if a defensive player is blocking the whole base/plate or base path without the ball and/or the runner does not have a clear path to the base/plate. (See also Rule 12.13.)
Rationale: College softball's move toward eliminating the defense's opportunity to block the plate without the ball follows both NCAA and MLB baseball's move to eliminate this area of potential contact. For instance, both baseball and softball agree that once in possession of the ball, the catcher may be positioned between the runner and plate, and all rules codes allow for the runner to be called out if, not withstanding the catcher's positioning, she would have been out by a throw that clearly beat her. College softball's obstruction rule formerly referred to a catcher in the act of fielding a throw (baseball still allows this); softball's present rule requires possession first, in a "Catch=>Block=>Tag" sequence of legality, thus rendering "Block=>Catch=>Tag" explicitly illegal.

An example of a legally positioned catcher.
Baseball Equivalent: OBR's Rule 7.13 came into existence ahead of the 2014 season, and outlawed certain collisions at home plate by prohibiting the catcher without possession of the ball from blocking the pathway of the runner while prohibiting the runner from deviating from his path to initiate contact with the catcher.
Related PostTest Yourself: MLB Adopts Home Plate Collision Rule 7.13 (2/25/14).

The rule also allows a catcher to move up the line to catch a thrown ball, even if such a catch would take the catcher into the runner's path, and dictates that a runner shall be called out if he would have been out "notwistanding the catcher's improper positioning in front of the plate."
Related PostMLB Issues Rule 7.13 Plate Blocking Clarification (9/10/14).

After the catch, F2 legally blocks home.
SIDEBAR: One notable difference between the codes is that, in softball, this form of obstruction can occur on a force play. In MLB baseball, however, force plays are excluded from the plate blocking rule (MLB added this exclusion in June 2014 after a force play was called off due to the catcher's blocking of home plate; the formal language went into effect for the 2015 season under 6.01(i)(2)).
Related PostHow to Illegally Block the Plate with the Bases Loaded (6/4/15).

Still, this rule (now known in OBR as 6.01(i)(2)) has caused its fair share of controversy in baseball, most recently resulting in Cubs Manager Joe Maddon's ejection from Game 1 of the 2017 National League Championship Series for arguing a Replay Review decision that overturned an out call to that of a Rule 6.01(i)(2) violation, thus scoring a Dodgers run.
Related PostMLB Ejection P-2 - Mike Winters (2; Joe Maddon) (10/14/17).

An example of an illegal catcher.
As was the case during the 7th inning of Utah-Tennessee softball, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras had positioned himself in front of home plate—and, specifically, between the plate and scoring baserunner Charlie Culberson—such that even though the throw was up the line, and Contreras may have legally moved into the runner's path in order to field the throw, he nonetheless violated MLB's plate blocking rule simply because he started the play positioned illegally between the runner and the plate.

Conclusion: As such, HP Umpire Price's obstruction call to end the Utah-Tennessee softball game was correct; Utah's catcher started the play in an illegal position between the scoring runner and home plate, thus forcing the runner to alter her path toward home even before the throw arrived in the vicinity of the plate.

In other words, the NCAA wants the play-at-the-plate sequence to read "Catch=>Block=>Tag." By changing the sequence to "Block=>Catch=>Tag," Utah committed obstruction in contravention of Rule 9.5.1, and awarding Tennessee the game-winning run was indeed the proper call.

Wrap: Tennessee vs Utah (NCAA Division I Softball), 2/10/18 | Video as follows:

Alternate Link: Tennessee softball walks off Utah on game-ending obstruction
Second Video: Angle from behind home plate shows how fast the sequence occurred (TEN)


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