Thursday, May 10, 2018

Case Play 2018-3 - No Strike, No Balk, No Steal [Solved]

Prior to his ejection of John Gibbons Sunday in Tampa Bay, HP Umpire Jeremie Rehak officiated a deceptively complicated stolen base attempt of home plate, as Blue Jays catcher Luke Maile caught Rays baserunner R3 Mallex Smith stealing in front of batter CJ Cron to end the Rays' 3rd inning.

Which of these many possible calls is correct?
The Play: With two outs and one on (R3), Rays baserunner R3 Smith attempts to steal home plate on a 0-2 count as Jays pitcher Estrada delivers a pitch to catcher Maile, who jumps up from his squat and forward toward the plate in an attempt to prepare himself for the impending play on baserunner Smith. Batter Cron, sensing that Smith is stealing home, briefly begins to back out of the right-handed batter's box before quickly returning to bat as Estrada releases his 0-2 offering.

The pitch appears to be a strike—but is called a ball—which catcher Maile catches at some point as it arrives toward or beyond the front edge of home plate (and likely still over the plate itself, if it did get there) as Cron does not offer at the pitch, and backs away from the baseline between home and third. With Cron nearly out of the right-handed batter's box, Maile tags out Smith, resulting in a third out call to end the inning.

NOTE: For the purposes of this Case Play, we are stipulating that Estrada's delivery was legal from first motion through release: The actions of the pitcher on the mound are not in question. The actions of the catcher, batter, and runner...that's for you to decide.
Case Play 2018-3 Question: First, determine whether this pitch is a strike or not—what would be the call had the ball arrived at the front edge of home plate and was caught while still over a portion of home plate? And what would the call be if the catcher caught the ball before it arrived at the front edge of home plate? Second, is this catcher's interference and/or a balk? Third, is the batter guilty of interference himself (if so, who is out)? Finally, does the home plate collision/blocking rule have any bearing on this play? For the second and third parts of this question, if "strike three" would have ended the inning, assume the count on the batter prior to this pitch was 0-1.

Click here for a video solution to this play.
Case Play Answer (Click for Video Solution):By location alone, the pitch appears to be a strike...but it's not. Here's why. Thanks to StatCast, we have evidence that the ball arrived at the front of home plate, since the pitch tracking technology captures the ball's location as it arrives at the front edge. Since the pitch showed up on the tracker, we can surmise that the pitch arrived at the front of home plate and at least some part of the baseball touched some part of the strike zone, which would otherwise satisfy the definition of "STRIKE," except for a clue provided by Rule 6.02(b) Comment, which specifies what happens when a pitch that slips out of a pitcher's hand rolls toward home plate.

Official layout and diagram at home plate.
6.02(b) Comment states the pitch is a to be deemed legal (since it's rolling on the ground, it's a ball) if it crosses the foul line, but no pitch (and a balk with runners) if it fails to cross the foul line. By rule, home plate is entirely in fair territory and the intersection of the two foul lines occurs at the back point of home plate. Thus, if the ball never crosses the two intersecting sides of home plate (or the point of plate itself), it has never crossed the foul line...but this isn't the principal reason this play is a balk.
Answer, 1) This pitch isn't a strike.

The most common type of catcher's interference occurs when a batter's bat makes contact with the catcher's mitt during a full swing. The fact that this type of contact comprises nearly all instances of catcher's interference exclusively obfuscates the entirety of the rule. A pitch, being a ball delivered by a pitcher to the batter, must actually arrive at the batter so that the batter has the opportunity to choose to swing or not swing at it. If the catcher jumps the delivery and deprives the batter of this free choice, then the catcher has interfered with the batter's ability to hit the pitch.

Although it would sell the call and send a message, given baseball's recent history of bench-clearing incidents over relatively tame instances of contact, interference doesn't require the batter to club the catcher upside the head and potentially cause serious injury in order for this call to be made.
Related PostLittle Home Plate Collision Begets Wrigley Bench Clearing (5/8/18).

Another clue resides in the Official Baseball Rules' appendices, specifically the Layout at Home Base diagram. Note that the distance from the outmost points of the intersecting sides of home plate (that which signify where the foul lines separate from home plate itself) to the mouth of the catcher's box is exactly three feet. Recall that after Hunter Wendelstedt declared Andrew Benintendi out for running out of his base path to avoid a tag during Sean Manaea's no-hitter in April, Crew Chief Brian Gorman explained to reporters that the crew figured the average length of an outstretched arm is about three feet.
Related PostNo No-No? Out of Base Path Call Voids Potential Sox Hit (4/22/18).

F2 appears in front of home without the ball.
By this same token, the logic would dictate that a catcher positioned at the mouth of his box with a fully outstretched arm would reach roughly to the aforementioned base of the plate's upper rectangle. It is simply not within the spirit of the rules for the catcher to reach all the way to the front edge of home plate. Yes, the catcher may leave the box to catch a pitch, but the catcher mustn't interfere with the batter or obstruct another offensive player in doing so.

Due to the angle of the video, we cannot definitively discern whether the catcher has stepped "on or in front of home base"—though we do know the ball was not permitted to traverse the entirety of the hitting area, so we can deduce that at least some part of the catcher was on or over home plate. That on its own isn't enough (not entirely definitive on video, in any case) to satisfy 6.01(g), but it is another clue.

The batter need not swing here for an interference call to be made, but the batter must remain in the box (he does) and show he is interested in choosing between a swing and taking the pitch. Though the batter appears to briefly back away during the pitcher's delivery, he hurriedly returns to a hitting stance as the pitch is thrown and seems engaged. Because the batter does back away initially, there may be some doubt as to whether the batter was truly ready to hit. In this situation with the catcher jumping across the back edge of home plate to catch a pitch while it is still in the hitting zone, since the batter never exits the batter's box (his legal position), the benefit of the doubt must go to the batter.
Answer, 2) This is catcher's interference and a balk.

To think, John Gibbons could have been ejected earlier in this game had this call been made...
Related PostMLB Ejection 033 - Jeremie Rehak (1; John Gibbons) (5/6/18).

The home plate collision rule has nothing to do with this play, as the catcher gains possession of the ball well in advance of the runner's arrival (and also, technically, since the balk penalty would render this point moot).
Answer, 3) There is no violation for blocking the plate.

Official Baseball Rules Library
OBR 5.02(a): "The catcher shall station himself directly back of the plate. He may leave his position at any time to catch a pitch or make a play." [Gil's Note: There is an obsolete reference to IBB here.]
OBR 5.04(b)(5): "The batter’s legal position shall be with both feet within the batter’s box. APPROVED RULING: The lines defining the box are within the batter’s box."
OBR 5.05(b)(3): "The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when—the catcher or any fielder interferes with him...Comment: If a runner is trying to score by a steal or squeeze from third base, note the additional penalty set forth in Rule 6.01(g)."
OBR 6.01(g) [Interference With Squeeze Play or Steal of Home]: "If, with a runner on third base and trying to score by means of a squeeze play or a steal, the catcher or any other fielder steps on, or in front of home base without possession of the ball, or touches the batter or his bat, the pitcher shall be charged with a balk, the batter shall be awarded first base on the interference and the ball is dead."
OBR 6.02(b) Comment: "A ball which slips out of a pitcher’s hand and crosses the foul line shall be called a ball; otherwise it will be called no pitch. This would be a balk with men on base."
OBR 6.03(a)(3): "A batter is out for illegal action when—he interferes with the catcher’s fielding or throwing by stepping out of the batter’s box or making any other movement that hinders the catcher’s play at home base."
OBR 6.03(a)(3) EXCEPTION: "Batter is not out if any runner attempting to advance is put out, or if runner trying to score is called out for batter’s interference."
OBR [Definitions]: "Offensive interference is an act by the team at bat which interferes with, obstructs, impedes, hinders or confuses any fielder attempting to make a play."
OBR [Definitions]: "Defensive interference is an act by a fielder that hinders or prevents a batter from hitting a pitch."
OBR [Definitions]: "The CATCHER’S BOX is that area within which the catcher shall stand until the pitcher delivers the ball."
OBR [Definitions]: "A PITCH is a ball delivered to the batter by the pitcher."
OBR [Definitions]: "A STRIKE is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, not struck at, if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone."
OBR [Definitions]: "The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball."

Videos as follows:

Alternate Link: Analysis of the sequence in Tampa and Solution to Case Play 2018-3 (UEFL)

Raw video:
Alternate Link: Stolen base attempt at home plate proves far more complex than it appears (TOR)


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