Thursday, April 21, 2022

Angel's Devil in the Details on Ball Four Hand-Mouth Award

When Angel Hernandez, arguably the most scrutinized umpire in Major League Baseball these days, called Toronto's Yusei Kikuchi for an automatic ball after the Blue Jays pitcher licked his fingers while on the rubber, he correctly awarded Red Sox batter JD Martinez first base on ball four, a move that drew widespread attention and criticism for a "technical" call.

With none out and none on in the bottom of the 2nd inning, Kikuchi stepped onto the pitcher's plate as he waited for Martinez to become ready in the batter's box. While still in contact with the rubber, Kikuchi then put his hand to his mouth and returned his hand to the baseball resting in his glove, before quickly attempting to disengage the rubber.

But 1B Umpire Angel Hernandez recognized an infraction of the rules and accordingly called a ball—the fourth of Martinez's at-bat—resulting in a 3-2 walk without ball four physically being thrown in Boston. The penalty for a first offense is a warning, and any subsequent violations result in an automatic ball. Replays indicate Kikuchi was warned for this same infraction an inning earlier; thus, the subsequent violation resulted in a ball added to the count.

Hernandez enforced Official Baseball Rule 6.02(c)(1)—the first of MLB's nine "pitching prohibitions"—which states that a pitcher shall not, "While in the 18-foot circle surrounding the pitcher’s plate, touch the ball after touching their mouth or lips, or touch their mouth or lips while in contact with the pitcher’s plate. The pitcher must clearly wipe the fingers of their pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher’s plate."

The exception to this rule is that a pitcher may blow on a cold hand if both teams agree to it prior to the game, but this exception does not extend to the licking of fingers. Accordingly, this rule was properly enforced. It is not often seen because pitchers will often either 1) go to their mouth while not on the rubber (legal), and/or 2) clearly wipe their free hand on their pants leg or other part of the uniform in accordance with OBR 6.02(c)(1). Hernandez is serving as interim crew chief while Sam Holbrook is absent.


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