Sunday, October 28, 2018

Runner's Lane Interference - 2018 World Series Edition

A runner's lane interference no-call during Game 4 of the 2018 World Series led to a four-run Dodgers rally as HP Umpire Chad Fairchild opted against RLI when Los Angeles batter Cody Bellinger got in the way of Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez's throw to Steve Pearce, causing the ball to veer into right field. Was this the correct ruling?

An interference no-call sparked an LA rally.
Fortunately for Boston, it's all a footnote now, as the Sox capitalized late to defeat Los Angeles and take a commanding three games-to-one Series lead.

Let's rewind the tape, consider the relevant rule and interpretation, and adjudicate the play from scratch. For good measure, we'll visit the 2014 Japan Series, where a very similar runner's lane interference play sealed the Nippon League's championship round. How about that for a postseason finale?

The Play: With one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 6th inning of Game 4, Dodgers batter Cody Bellinger hit a ground ball to Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce, who threw to catcher Christian Vazquez, Dodgers baserunner R3 Enrique Hernandez out at home. After tagging home plate, Vazquez's return throw to first base sailed into foul territory near right field and allowed Dodgers baserunner R2 Justin Turner to score. With two out, ensuing batter Yasiel Puig hit a three-run home run to complete LA's four-run inning.

The Call: HP Umpire Chad Fairchild ruled Hernandez out on the force play at home and no-called the potential runner's lane interference (RLI) on batter-runner Bellinger at first.

The Rule: The relevant rule is OBR 5.09(a)(11), which states:
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. [Batted ball exemption is inapplicable here]
*Important: "Fielded to" includes any ball thrown to first base, such as an F2-F3 double play try.

Rule 5.09(a)(11)'s associated comment states, "The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base."

SIDEBAR (College/High School BRD): NCAA Rule 7-11-p's Approved Ruling states that, "If the batter-runner is running illegally to first base and his being outside the lane alters the throw of a fielder, hinders or alters a fielder’s opportunity to field the throw, or the batter-runner is hit by the throw that has been made in an attempt to make a play, it shall be called interference and the batter-runner is to be called out." NFHS simply puts him out for running outside the lane (8-4-1g).

Crew Chief Ted Barrett explains RLI.
Ted Talk: In 2015, Chris Welsh and Ted Barrett—possibly a pilot episode for BaseballRulesAcademy—recorded a segment about runner's lane interference. Barrett, crew chief for the 2018 World Series, explained RLI thusly: "If he's running inside [the foul] line all the way and he gets hit with a thrown ball, he's probably going to be out for interference."
Related VideoTECH TALK with Ted Barrett (FS Ohio).

Analysis: Both Wendelstedt and Evans interpretations agree with Barrett's summation, but the offending batter-runner doesn't actually have to get hit with a ball for RLI to be called. For instance, here's Wendelstedt: "A runner that is running the entire distance outside of the running lane will not be protected if he interferes with a play at first base, even if it is in his last stride or step to the base. In order to be protected, this last step must be when he first exits the running lane."

Regarding the throw, Wendelstedt writes, "The determination is not whether the throw is true, but whether it could still reasonably retire the runner."

Pearce and Bellinger tangle at first base.
Batter-Runner Not in Lane: In rewatching the video, first and foremost, we see that Bellinger runs the entire length from home plate to first base completely in fair territory and not within the runner's lane at the 45-foot mark, nor on the chalk line. Accordingly, the first criterion for RLI (BR not in the lane) is satisfied, and per the interpretation manuals, Bellinger is liable to be called for interference anywhere from the 45-foot mark until he arrives at first base, including his last stride or step (e.g., you can't exit a lane when you were never in the lane to begin with).

The Catcher's Throw: After forcing out Hernandez, F2 Vazquez throws down the line—and lane—and sets up contact between Pearce and Bellinger at first base as Pearce attempts to catch the throw while Bellinger attempts to touch first base. Because the throw arrives at the position Pearce would have tried to assume had Bellinger not interfered at about the same time that Bellinger arrived at first base, it follows that, yes, the throw could have reasonably retired the runner if not for the runner's interference with the fielder taking the throw. It would be a bang-bang play to be sure, but we're not concerned with calling anyone "safe" or "out" at this point. We're just looking for whether the throw could have reasonably retired the runner.

F3 Pearce's catch attempt is interrupted by BR.
Timing: This may mean that the umpire has to consider a fielder stretching to catch a ball in front of first base, such that RLI can actually occur in front of the bag, and before the ball physically arrives at the base itself. Just because the runner has touched first base before the ball doesn't mean he has suddenly reached a safe zone and is protected from RLI... Interference can still be called on a runner based on his actions prior to his arrival, and before the ball actually arrives at his location. Remember the golden is not a requirement for interference or obstruction, and interference can occur prior to, or in the absence of, actual contact.

Question whether the throw was reasonable.
This came up with a 2016 play (Mike Scioscia tried protesting a game because Phil Cuzzi didn't call interference...just like Alex Cora's attempted complaint on Saturday...RLI is a judgment call, cannot be challenged for Replay Review purposes, and cannot be protested). The only difference was that batter-runner Raul Mondesi quite clearly beat the throw to such a degree that it could not have "reasonably retired the runner." Because the "reasonably retire" criterion wasn't satisfied, the play was not runner's lane interference. It's not whether the runner beats the throw to the base, but whether the runner beats the throw to the fielder, who may be attempting to stretch in front of the base, and if he is illegally interfered with, RLI should be called.
Related PostAngels Protest Cuzzi RLI No-Call in Kansas City [Denied] (7/27/16).

Is slide INT a realistic possibility here?
TMAC'S TAKE: I have RLI, but there's more to this play than meets the eye—what are our responsibilities and in what order? This may be up for debate, but the first thing is our force play, then we are looking for potential slide interference—in a game of this magnitude we can't miss slide INT...or can we? Slide INT is reviewable and RLI is not... I can see exactly why Fairchild was in the spot he was and may have missed RLI and i don't fault him a bit. Whether or not your have RLI (and for the record I do), this is a bastard play based on everything you have to watch.

An illegal lane runner gets no leniency re: RLI.
Gil's Call: In real time, I too had RLI based strongly on the runner's failure to attempt to run in the lane for his entire trip down to first base. The WUM/Evans interpretations are explicit: there is to be no leniency for a runner who makes no attempt to comply with the RLI Rule 5.09(a)(11). The trickier part of the play comes in with whether the throw can reasonably retire the runner. In my estimation, it can. If Bellinger doesn't stop Pearce from reaching out, I think the fielder catches the ball, and I think he possibly catches it before the runner touches the base. I'm not considering "what happens if Bellinger is in the lane" because, as previously stated, there is to be no leniency extended to a violative batter-runner.

I'm rather a fan of this look from 1BL ext.
I'm also not thinking about "safe" or "out"—just "reasonable," and I think this play fits that bill. It's close enough, naturally, that, like tmac, I wouldn't fault a no-call, either, though I would still consider it a personal miss. Just a matter of judgment, which happens to be during the World Series.

Finally, I refer to the 2014 Japan Series (see below) vs Saturday's Game 4 RLI plays in regard to umpire positioning. In 2014, the NPB plate umpire is first base line extended and has a great view down the line at potential RLI. On Saturday, the MLB umpire is very shallow third base extended watching for slide interference (maybe?) before pivoting to the potential RLI. Like all line calls, I am a firm believer in getting on or approximately on the line/extended line in order to have the best chance at judging the play, whether or not you ultimately have RLI. That's what works for me, and quite obviously, I'm not in the major leagues, so your mileage may vary, but having to look for slide interference, a force play at home, and RLI really has a way of complicating matters.

Nippon Series ends on a similar RLI play.
Precedent/History: The 2014 Japan Series actually ended on a similar RLI play, with a champion crowned in the NPB as a result of a runner's lane interference call on an attempted double play with the bases loaded in the top of the 9th inning. Just as Bellinger did in Game 4 of the 2018 World Series, Hanshin batter Tsuyoshi Nishioka grounded into a fielder's choice at home plate. Then, as SoftBank catcher Toru Hosokawa attempted to complete the double play by throwing to first base, Nishioka tangled with SoftBank first baseman Yuki Yoshimura, resulting in a game-ending RLI ruling as umpires deemed that Nishioka interfered with Yoshimura's attempt to field a throw that could have reasonably retired him.
Related VideoRound 5 of 2014 Japan Series Ending Between Softbank and Hanshin (10/30/14)

Miller called Contreras out for RLI at first base.
In August, Bill Miller ejected Joe Maddon for arguing a correctly officiated RLI call against Cubs batter-runner Willson Contreras, who ran inside of the foul line and out of the lane on his way to first base, interfering with Nationals first baseman Matt Adam's opportunity to field pitcher Greg Holland's throw. This was a correct call because the runner was illegal the entire time down the line.
Related PostMLB Ejection 116 - Bill Miller (1; Joe Maddon) (8/10/18).

Segal rules RLI on Rangers BR Tocci.
In July, Chris Segal ejected Jeff Banister over a correctly officiated RLI sequence involving Rangers batter-runner Carlos Tocci, who advanced the entire distance from home to first in fair territory, such that the "exit" exemption of RLI did not apply and Tocci was called out for interfering with Tigers first baseman John Hick's ability to catch a throw that could have reasonably retired the runner, even though the ball hit him during his last stride to first base. Again, there is no leniency when a runner is 100% out of the lane.
Related PostMLB Ejection 090 - Chris Segal (3; Jeff Banister) (7/8/18).

Nelson calls Heyward for RLI at first base.
In 2017, Jeff Nelson called Cubs batter-runner Jayson Heyward out for runner's lane interference after Heyward was hit by a throw as he touched first base, preventing Giants first baseman Brandon Belt from fielding a throw from pitcher Matt Moore. Again, the rule has nothing to do with the runner actually touching first base or not, the only consideration, provided that the runner is illegally not within the runner's lane, is whether or not the runner's actions prevented the fielder from fielding a throw that could "reasonably retire the runner."

Video as follows:
Alternate Link: Bellinger reaches safely as RLI no-call leads to first run of game (FOX)


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