Two plays this season epitomize the confusion and frustration in the Nationals’ clubhouse over the interpretation of a new rule. One occurred on Saturday in Atlanta when Nate McLouth snagged a flyball in right field but dropped it when transferring it to his throwing hand, and as a result, umpires ruled it wasn’t a catch. The other play occurred in Thursday’s horrid 8-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals when Danny Espinosa tried to turn a double play at second base but after snaring the throw from Ian Desmond dropped the ball as he tried to throw to first base.
Both times the runner was called safe and the fielder was awarded an error. Neither had a large impact on the game, but both times observers were left wondering: What is considered a catch anymore? Across the league, the clarified language of what constitutes a catch and how it will be enforced this season has become already become a much-debated topic.
The Texas Rangers have been the most vocal about their displeasure after twice players appeared to make a catch but were dinged for the lack of a clean transfer to the throwing hand. Recently, when trying to turn a double play, catcher J.P. Arencibia bobbled the ball when transferring to his throwing hand after catching a throw from the pitcher. The ball never hit the ground but the runner at home was called safe. Or recently, too, Indians outfielder Elliot Johnson made a running catch in right field, took two steps, hit the wall but dropped the ball when transferring to his throwing hand. Again, umpires ruled the runner safe.
So what is the definition of a catch now? The following is the definition of a catch according to Section 2 of the Major League Baseball rule book:
A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.
As instant replay was instituted this season, MLB clarified how the rule would be applied in the form of a memo distributed to umpires and teams before the season started. Some Nationals players say they didn’t know about the rule. But worse: They fundamentally disagree with the way it will be enforced this season. The words “secure possession” — in bold and italics for emphasis — are key. This is where the interpretation has changed because of instant replay.
“What we have instructed clubs and players is that Umpires and/or Replay Officials will consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch,” an MLB spokesman said in an email. “An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand.”
The last sentence is what is causing confusion and frustration with players, managers and coaches. “Secure possession” is determined by an umpire’s judgement. But now that there’s a stricter interpretation, umpires have to see a clear standard be met: secure possession/complete control and the voluntary/intentional release of the ball.
Some Nationals players declined to talk about the rule, but the frustration and confusion was apparent. Some were willing to share their thoughts.
“They’re kind of trying to reinvent the wheel a little bit — with everything it seems,” right fielder Jayson Werth said earlier this week. “… My opinion on it is it’s unnecessary. We’ve been playing this game for a long time a certain way and now all of a sudden in the last couples years we’ve got a ton of rule changes.”
Like Werth and others players, McLouth said he didn’t know about the stricter interpretation of the rule before the season. He said he finds that “unacceptable” and it bothers him. The interpretation itself is “changing baseball,” he said.
“If you try to make the transfer, in the infield even more so, but in the outfield when you try to make that transfer with runners on base and get rid of the ball quickly,” McLouth said. “Sometimes that happens when you try to get rid of it quick and sometimes you don’t properly grab the ball in your glove and just falls out of your hand. But you’ve caught the ball that’s why it’s called a transfer, because you’re transferring it from one area to another. It’s always been that way.”
McLouth said an additional downside to the new interpretation is that players will be more deliberate with throws after snaring balls. Now when making a running catch and needing to throw the ball in for a tagging runner, McLouth may be extra cautious and, as a result, slower on the throw.
“You want to catch the ball first,” he said. “You want one out. And that’s why I said it’s kind of changing baseball. That will probably be in the back of people’s heads now. Just have to get used to it.”
The rule is still confusing to some.
“In one of our first games, I came in on a ball and caught it on the run,” Werth said. “Low, kind of went into the lights. Running full speed and I caught it. As soon as I caught it, I just transferred it, flipped it into second. Nobody was on base. It was just catch and flip. I did not know of the interpretation of that rule. Going into the season, I don’t think anybody knew about it.”
In Thursday’s play, Espinosa thought he caught the ball but lost it on the transfer. Williams came out to talk with the umpires, who told him that Espinosa didn’t have control of the ball. The Nationals’ video staff told him the same.
“It didn’t look like he had a whole lot of control,” Williams said. “They’ve been looking at that. I asked the umpire. The ball went up so it tells me he had control of it and it was coming out of his hand as he coming up. But we understand the rule.”
Earlier in the week, Williams said he is telling players to be more careful about securing the baseball.
“Regardless what I think or what anybody else thinks, it’s a rule,” he said. “We have to teach our guys, ‘Hey listen, you have to secure the baseball.’ We’ve had it called against us. We’ve seen it on TV. It’s a rule. We’ve got to corral the baseball. As Tony [Tarasco] said yesterday, ‘Catch the [darn] ball.’ That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to catch it and transfer it to the bare hand and make the throw.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Lehigh Valley 4, Syracuse 0: Ryan Tatusko allowed two runs over six innings and Manny Delcarmen allowed two runs on three hits in the seventh. Brian Goodwin, Jhonatan Solano and Will Rhymes had Syracuse’s only hits.
Syracuse 3, Lehigh Valley 0: Aaron Laffey fired five scoreless innings and struck out six. Warner Madrigal and Aaron Barrett each fired scoreless innings. Brock Peterson, Brandon Laird and Jose Lozada each drove in a run.
Myrtle Beach 9, Potomac 2: Pedro Encarnacion allowed four runs on four walks and seven hits over 4 1/3 innings. Travis Henke allowed five more runs. Brandon Miller went 1 for 3 with an RBI and a walk.
Hagerstown 13, Lakewood 3: Austin Voth allowed one run over four innings and Wander Suero allowed one earned run over the final five. On rehab, Denard Span went 1 for 3 with a walk, scored two runs and drove in a run. He played five innings of center field. Estarlin Martinez and Craig Manuel each had three hits. John Wooten finished 2 for 5 with four RBI. Drew Ward drove in three runs.