Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Ozuna Hits Smith on Backswing - What Can a Catcher Do?

For the second time in less than a year, Braves batter Marcell Ozuna's backswing on a fly ball hit Dodgers catcher Will Smith in the mask. HP Umpire Alan Porter quickly stepped in to guide Smith away while an on-deck batter grabbed Ozuna, but we ask if rules-wise, there was anything illegal or ejectable about the play? What can a catcher do to lessen the likelihood of this contact?

First and foremost, it's important to note that no ejectable action occurred. Ozuna unintentionally made contact with Smith on the backswing—as acknowledged by Smith during postgame comments as unintentional. Had this been deemed an intentional act, it would be an ejection for unsporting conduct in striking an opponent on purpose.

Second, with no runners on base and no play at home plate, this is not backswing interference. The only scenario in which backswing interference occurs is when the catcher is prevented from catching a pitch with runner(s) on base, the catcher is attempting to throw out said runners, the pitch is a third strike, or there is a play to be made at home plate. Note that in high school, the NFHS rule is dead ball, batter out for follow-through interference no matter if a runner is retired or not.

Official Baseball Rule 6.03(a)(4) Comment: "If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard they carry the bat all the way around and, in the umpire’s judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of them on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play."

Third, Ozuna is not out for being outside the batter's box and hitting a ball because...his foot was touching the back line of the batter's box, which is considered in. That's found in OBR 6.03(a)(1): "A batter is out for illegal action when they hit a ball with one or both feet on the ground entirely outside the batter's box."

Finally, we mathematically prove that catcher Smith had mere inches to work with in regard to positioning at the back of the catcher's box due to the batter's arm length and bat length, as well as the 5' 8½" catcher's box that just barely evades the Ozuna's arm + bat length...and that would require Smith to crouch on the back line of the catcher's box—because no human being is only 2½" inches thick.


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