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Anatomy of a Catch

  • by Jim Tosches
  • 4 min read

With the advent of instant replay in all sports, what appears to be one thing to the naked eye may be something different entirely. A catch bobbled at the last second, or not deemed a catch on the field, can have massive implications on the outcome of a game. As the seasons change, I think it’s only fair that we have a little sit-down about the birds and the bees to better understand “anatomy” and how certain things work. Today, we’re going to look at the catch and transfer rules.

One of the side effects of the expanded use of instant replay was a change in the way umpires view a catch and transfer while turning double plays. The scrutiny of replay caused the blue to put an emphasis on a few words in the rule book that says a catch is not a catch until the player “holds the ball long enough to prove he has complete control of it.” 

As a result, fielders losing the ball on the transfer resulted in “safe” calls when traditionally they were called “out” because of the misplaced emphasis on “holding the ball long enough.” The larger problem here is that the infielder’s job is to “turn” the double play in an instant – the shortest possible time – which is at odds with the rule book language calling for the lapse of time as validation for the catch.  Since instant replay gives us the ability to deconstruct a play frame-by-frame if you will, something the human eye cannot do, the best way to conceptually understand what’s going on is to deconstruct the rules regarding a catch.

However straightforward the definition of a catch is, “getting secure possession of the ball in the hand or glove”, there are three components to legally catching the baseball that most baseball fans don’t realize: securing the ball, holding it until the continued action of the play is complete, and lastly, making a movement to begin the next play. I think we all understand what it means to hold the ball securely so let’s go straight to part two. 

Since a body in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by another force, a catch cannot be called a catch until inertia runs its course. This means that if a ball comes loose as a fielder is rolling over following a dive or running into another object, a catch is not complete. Too often the “time” argument is used to argue a catch, they “they held it long enough”, but the true judge has to do with the action. Did he maintain control until the play was over, and began doing something else?

After the fielder catches the ball, rolls over, etc., he has to do something else, most likely throw the ball. The key rule book language is “voluntary and intentional” release, that is, if the ball comes loose because of his own action to do something after catching the ball. 

The problem on the double play turn is that there is no step two, no continued action. The fielder goes from step one directly past Go and on to step 3, voluntary action to relay the ball to first.  This speeds up the play, which happens so fast that it is very difficult for an umpire to see, especially when he has so much to look at.  

A double play might seem routine but the umpire has to do the following: 

  1. Confirm that that fielder has secure possession
  2. Check that the fielder is touching the base at the same time as possession
  3. Make a safe or out call
  4. Evaluate the legality of the slide 
  5. Keep watching the ball in hand for voluntary release.  

That’s a lot of moving parts, but if it’s a two man umpire crew (amateur or low-level pro), the umpire then has to quickly turn and take a few steps towards first for the play there as well. This can easily trip up a professional umpire as it did in the first game of the 2013 World Series. 

There was a play at second base where the fielder dropped the ball without ever having possession but the runner was ruled out. The problem was the umpire was looking at the base for contact and safe/out yet everyone else in the park, with a wider focal point that could see the whole play, realized the runner was safe. The umpire crew got together, without instant replay, and reversed the call.

What typically happens is that as the fielder takes the ball out of his glove, he loses grip and the ball comes out in a manner that is not related to the trajectory of the initial throw he is receiving. Let’s say the second baseman is taking a throw from the hole: if he loses control taking the ball out of his glove, the ball usually winds up going backwards in the direction in which he was cocking his arm for the throw. 

This change of direction is usually the evidence that the ball came loose on the transfer.  If it comes out straight to the ground or floats around the fielder’s hands, this indicates a drop or a bobble. Going back to the language of “voluntary and intentional,” if it’s the first case, we can judge that the ball came out with the intent to make a throw so we can call an out based on a nanosecond of possession.  

This nanosecond comes into conflict with the idea of “holding the ball long enough”, so after a brief period of changing how these plays are ruled on the field, the World Umpires Association quickly updated the protocol for MLB umpires, adding language that says the fielder “does not have to successfully remove the ball from his glove” in order for it to be ruled a catch.  This added step changed the way this play has been evaluated since the beginning of time so kudos to the league for quickly fixing the problem.

Oh, and here’s a great example of what is not a catch – clunking Canseco (click here).