A Dumb Rule Almost Ruined the World Series

The Nationals won last night thanks to a great outing from Stephen Strasburg and a big home run from Anthony Rendon in the seventh inning. But just before Rendon’s homer, this play happened, per our Play Log:

Trea Turner grounded out to pitcher.

That description is a little lacking. How about this:

Turner was called out for interference. Dave Martinez got mad at the umpires. Trea Turner got mad that Joe Torre wasn’t doing anything. There was a delay, and at its end, Turner was still out. Rendon hit a homer that reminded everyone of Rasheed Wallace and the Nationals forced a Game 7, but the play and the rule deserve some scrutiny.

We should first address the rule we are talking about. Turner’s offense was not your standard interference call under Rule 6, as that type of interference requires intent like on this rather famous play:

As Joe Torre detailed in a postgame interview, Turner was ruled out under 5.09(a)12 of the Official Baseball Rules, which states that a batter is out if:

In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of ) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of ) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of ) the three-foot line or inside (to the left of ) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball;

Let’s take a closer look at the play:

Clearly, Turner is not where he’s supposed to be the entire way up the line. As for whether he interfered with the throw, that’s pretty clear, too:

For more on the rule, check out this video where umpire Ted Barrett lays it out:

I think the video does a good job explaining the rule, but a couple things jumped out at me. The first is the intent of the rule. Barrett explains that 5.09(a)12 is designed to give the catcher just out in front of home plate a clear lane in which to throw. No matter how accurate the application of the rule might have been with regard to Turner last night, the rule wasn’t made for situations where the ball is 20 feet from the plate and the fielder has a clear lane to throw out the runner. The rule also required Turner to not run in a straight line to first base, which is bizarre. A right-handed hitter’s natural, most direct path is apparently against the rules and requires significant deviation. Turner isn’t the only runner to take this path to first. Here’s another play from last night.

At best, Turner’s interference was a side-effect of the intended rule. There’s also an “at worst,” though. Barrett also explains that the runner is allowed to go into the field of play in order to touch first base. This is where things get murky. There’s a comment on the rule that provides an explanation of sorts:

The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-foot lane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is permitted to exit the threefoot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.

Precisely what that means is open to interpretation. Does it mean that if a batter has been out of the lane, like Turner, but then gets close to the base, he’s in the clear? Or, does the player have to be in the correct lane the entire time and can only deviate at the end if he wants protection from the exception. Let’s take a look at a few examples. Back in 2015, Raul Mondesi laid down a bunt. This is what happened:

It’s important to note that for a play to be interference, the fielder has to make a throw and the throw needs to be interfered with. If the fielder makes a really bad throw and it sails over everyone’s head or goes really wide, there is no interference. A few years ago, Joe Girardi argued a call when a Dellin Betances throw went way over the runner and he was told interference would have been called if the throw had hit the runner. It’s worth noting that this application of the rule could also go against the stated intent of providing a clear throwing lane. In the Mondesi play above, the throw goes right at the runner; Matt Shoemaker said after the game that he hit Mondesi with the throw. Here’s another angle:

Mondesi was called safe and Angels manager Mike Scoscia protested the call. He explained he wasn’t protesting because of the umpire’s judgment, but because of the interpretation of the rule:

“It’s very clear,” Scioscia said. “Phil Cuzzi had Mondesi running inside the line in jeopardy the whole way, and stated that it was OK because he was stepping back towards the bag, which is wrong. You’re only OK if you start in the lane and step back in…You’re in jeopardy the whole way if you run inside, whether you get to the bag or not. So the question wasn’t if the throw impeded him, or if he impeded the throw. The question wasn’t if he was running inside. It’s, what I believe, is his misinterpretation of the rule, given the guidelines that he gave me.

Scoscia’s argument was that the umpire basically admitted that Mondesi interfered and was running inside the baseline the whole way but because he was lunging for the bag at the end, the umpire decided that he was allowed to be where he was. Scoscia’s protest was denied by Joe Torre without a public explanation.
Speaking of Torre, it is possible that last night brought to mind for him this play from 1998 ALCS:

You can watch the full video including Joe Torre coming out of the dugout to argue the call. Bob Costas indicated Travis Fryman was allowed to to be where he was. After the game, the umpires explained why the call of no interference was correct. From Murray Chass’ New York Times piece the day after:

The Yankees blamed Hendry for not calling Fryman out for interference, but Jim Evans, the crew chief, explained that no matter what Fryman’s path to first was, the ball hit him as he stepped on or was about to step on the base and he was entitled to be in fair territory when he reached the base because the base was in fair territory.

In 1998, Fryman was allowed to do exactly what Turner did. In 2016, Raul Mondesi was allowed to do what Turner did, and when a protest was filed because the Angels didn’t believe Mondesi was supposed to do what Turner did, the protest was denied. We could point to the glove-touching last night, but that’s not a requirement under the rule. We don’t know exactly why the 2016 protest was denied, but there was no clarification of the rule at the time. When Turner “interfered,” he was in a space he was allowed to be in. It’s not clear whether his previous infraction of running inside the line (even on a straight line from the plate where his body was not blocking a clean throw) precluded him from gaining the protection in the final three feet. If last night’s call is correct, are the calls on Fryman and Mondesi invalid absent some other rule change or clarification? The inconsistent application of unclear rules should never be the focal point of any game, let alone Game 6 of the World Series. Rendon saved the Nats and the sport last night, but that won’t always be the case.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

I don’t know if the rule is dumb or the call was dumb, but the whole thing made no sense. Essentially the Astros were rewarded for making a lousy defensive play. If Gurriel hadn’t had to reach for the throw, it wouldn’t have been in time and Turner would have been safe. And if Gurriel hadn’t dropped his glove, there would have been no interference and again Turner would have been safe. But because the throw was off and Gurriel dropped his glove, Turner was called out.

Blastings! Thrilledge
4 years ago

Not only that, but even if the throw was on line and in time, the runner from first ends up at second. The bad throw earns the Astros the bonus of moving the runner back to first base!

This is Chase Utley sliding “into” second in the 2015 NLCS , breaking the shortstop’s leg, and being awarded the base despite never touching it level of stupid.

4 years ago

Utley didn’t slide into the base, he slid into Ruben Tejada. He sailed clear over the base because he started his slide a couple feet in front of it. It was a Burfict Crime.

4 years ago

It would have been stupid to call Utley out on that play, because the shortstop never touched the bag either.

4 years ago

That’s called the “neighborhood play.” Before the Utley rule, infielders were allowed to do that in order to avoid to better avoid injuries by sliding runners. It served the same purpose as the Utley rule, which has now replaced it.

4 years ago

How do you figure that? If the throw was on line and in time, he would’ve caught the ball for the out. The only reason his glove came off was due to the runner hitting it. Even with the throw as it was, if the runner had been in foul territory where he was supposed to be, the ball would’ve been caught, and it would’ve been an infield hit at best.

4 years ago

The glove had nothing to do with it. It’s interference simply because the fielder had to touch the runner in order to make an attempt to catch the ball.