I got into an argument over MLB’s new (old?) interpretation of what is a catch when Elliot Johnson “caught” a fly ball, took two steps, came up against the outfield wall and then dropped the ball as he attempted to throw the ball into the infield. It wasn’t ruled an out because the “definition of a catch” apparently includes a transfer, even for an outfielder who has taken multiple steps with the ball secured in his glove. It was a civil conversation with Sirius XM’s Mike Ferrin, but he and I had to agree to disagree on the topic. Then I brought up this question, which I haven’t seen an answer to just yet.
@MikeFerrinSXM What if CF catches the ball and runs in with a runner caught between 2-3? He runs 40 ft and then bobbles it. Is that a hit?
— Craig Lyndall (@WFNYCraig) April 9, 2014
I wasn’t smart enough to take the argument to the next logical step, but thankfully Dave Cameron at FanGraphs is. While Cameron agrees while that the rule interpretation makes loads of sense at second base, the issue isn’t quite so clear when it comes to outfielders. The money passage from Cameron says it all.
At this point, it shouldn’t be too hard to spot the problem with using the same definition of a catch in the outfield as it is at second base; the drop at second base has no real impact on the runner’s decision making. The batter is sprinting down the first base line to try and beat out the double play, and probably will rarely even know the ball is dropped on the double play attempt. The runner going into second base is almost always sliding into the bag, and the dropped transfer does not result in the ball rolling far enough away for an advancement to third base. Until the play is over and the runners find out who is safe and who is out, they don’t really care too much about what the fielders are doing.
That is absolutely not true with runners and outfielders, however; the decision of whether to advance or return to base is entirely dependent on whether the outfielder is ruled to have safely caught the ball. Runners are taught to get enough of a lead off the base to maximize their potential advancement in case the ball is not caught while still retaining their ability to return to their previous base if it is. When the ball enters the glove, the runner returns to their prior base in order to avoid a potential double play. Only now, the ball entering the glove is no longer the determining factor of whether or not the catch was made; that is now the ball moving from the glove to the hand.
Enter Elliot Johnson. I never thought I’d have much opportunity to write that prior to the start of the Indians season. But if a catch determination isn’t made until the transfer of the ball to the throwing hand and Elliot Johnson’s two steps before maintaining possession of the ball into the outfield wall aren’t enough, then to quote the Indians, “What if?”
What if Johnson hits the wall and instead of looking to throw starts sprinting toward the infield where the runners are assuming it’s a catch. As he’s running in, he “bobbles” the ball on transfer thus rendering the “catch” not a catch at all. It’s an extreme example, but you kind of open yourself up to it, don’t you? As FanGraphs points out, this opens the game up to the exact thing that the infield fly rule was designed to eliminate.