Baseball’s New Strategy: Drop the Ball on Purpose

This year, in an attempt to clarify the difference between a catch and a transfer on plays around the base base bag, MLB informed teams that a clean transfer from glove to hand was now going to be a required element in making a legal catch. No longer could a player argue that the ball was dropped on the exchange between glove and hand in order to retire the lead runner in a double play attempt. To be credited with the first out, the player has to move the ball from his glove to his hand without losing possession of the ball. As an example, this play occurred last week.

Last year and for pretty much every year before it, that play is ruled an out at second base, as Zobrist received the ball into his glove before the runner got to the bag, and only dropped it when attempting to throw to first base for the second out. This year, that is not an out, and even after the Rays challenged the decision on the field, they were denied on appeal. The next day, MLB issued an official statement in the wake of the play:

“Umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. 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.”

I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that, at second base, this interpretation of the rule makes decent sense. There is very little difference in time between when a second baseman or shortstop receives the ball and when they are taking it out of their glove to try and turn a double play; the best middle infielders make this move as close to one action as possible. It is very difficult for an umpire to determine in real time whether a ball was dropped on the catch or on the transfer, and we don’t to have every dropped ball at second base reviewed, so drawing a clear line on what is and what is not a catch should help umpires and reduce the need for future replays on dropped transfers at second base.

However, this rule isn’t just being applied to second base; it’s being applied everywhere, including the outfield. And the unintended consequences of defining an outfield catch as including the transfer of the ball from glove to hand have been on full display over the first few weeks of the season.

First, there was Josh Hamilton.

He clearly catches the ball in his glove before dropping it as he moves it from his glove to his hand. It is ruled a catch on the field, and the runner at second base returns to the bag in order to avoid a double play. Lloyd McClendon challenges the ruling, and during the video, the announcers spend most of the delay explaining to the viewers why this was a catch and will not be overturned; he had possession of the ball in his glove, and the drop didn’t occur until he tried to move it to his hand. However, the umpires did overturn the call, because under the 2014 definition, Hamilton’s transfer was considered part of the catch itself, and he did not retain possession of the ball through the transfer.

Then, there was Elliot Johnson.

This one is even more fun, because Johnson takes multiple steps after the ball enters his glove, crashed into the wall, and still maintains possession. He then spins to make a throw back into the infield but drops the ball while trying to retrieve it from his glove; the ruling is no catch, and on appeal, the ruling is confirmed. The fact that Johnson traveled with the ball in his glove is not enough to make it a catch; the play is ruled a hit because Johnson didn’t make the transfer cleanly, even though the transfer occurred after making several steps with the ball in his glove.

Finally, there was Dustin Ackley. Twice. In the same game.

On the first play, Ackley makes a sliding catch, then drops the ball as he stands up to make a throw. Seeing the apparent catch, Josh Donaldson turned and ran back to first base. Brandon Moss, the hitter, passed Donaldson on the bases, as he was able to watch Ackley drop the ball and continued running; once the ruling was made that it was not a catch, Moss was called out anyway for passing the lead runner.

On the second play, Yoenis Cespedes jogged off the field before reaching first base after he saw the ball land in Ackley’s glove. The Mariners picked up the ball, threw it in to first base, and Cespedes was officially retired 7-6-3.

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.

As we see in the Elliot Johnson play, a player can catch the ball in his glove, run in a direction for several steps, and still be ruled to have not caught the ball if he drops the ball on the transfer to his hand. This definition of an outfield catch opens up a huge can of worms, because this definition has now created the exact play that the infield fly rule was designed to eliminate.

Runners at 1st and 2nd, less than 2 outs, fly ball or line drive hit to left field. This is a pretty common occurrence in MLB; using Baseball Savant’s PITCHF/x search tool, I pulled up a list of 58 such plays from 2013. Using the even cooler only-plays-with-video tag, I found a fantastic example of a play where the left fielder now holds all power over the baserunners.

Mark Trumbo makes a nice little diving catch — okay, likely diving only because he’s Mark Trumbo, but still — on a line drive to left, and then, he gets up and throws the ball back in to the infield. The runner on second who had gone halfway has already beaten the throw back in, however, and is safely standing on second base. We can’t see it in the video, but we can safely assume the runner on first base had also turned his back to Trumbo and ran back to first base after he saw Trumbo come up with the ball in his glove.

Under 2014 rules, when given a chance to do that again, Mark Trumbo should immediately stand up and take a step or two towards the infield with the ball in his glove. The only reasonable decision the runners can make at that point is to return to their prior base, because any further hesitation will result in a sure double play. Once Trumbo sees the runners retreating, he should immediately drop the ball on the transfer, pick the ball up, and throw it in to a shortstop positioned close enough to the second base bag to tag the runner on second once he realizes he now has to try and advance, and then easily flip the ball to the second baseman covering the bag to force out the runner from first trying to move up for a second time in the same play.

It’s not a guaranteed double play, but with both runners needing to turn their backs to the left fielder once they’ve committed to the ball being ruled a catch, it is quite likely that a team can regularly turn a one out play into a two out play. And there’s basically nothing the offense can do about it. The runners cannot hold on the basepaths to make sure the ball is transferred cleanly; if they do, they’re going to be so far off from their original base that the resulting in throw in will beat them easily. They can shorten the length they advance on a ball that may or may not be caught — turning the game into more of a station to station contest in the process — but even still, it’s basically impossible for a runner to return to first base while still maintaining a visual on the left fielder at the same time. Once the left fielder has convinced the runner on first base to return to the bag, he can confidently drop the ball knowing that he essentially has a guaranteed out at second, and if they trick the guy on second into getting caught off base too, hey, free out.

In the Brandon Moss video, you see Donaldson get back to first base, realize something is going on, and yell “what happened?” He doesn’t know — can’t know — what transpired after he turned and headed back to first base. The outfielders can see everything, the runners can see very little, and the information asymmetry gives the outfielders a ton of power in the process.

So far, we’ve seen the umpires confirm that Elliot Johnson taking two or three steps was not enough to confirm a catch, but we don’t actually know how many steps an umpire would require before it was reasonable to rule it a catch regardless of what happened afterwards. If some enterprising team wants to test the rule, they should actually tell their left fielder that, on any play with runners at first and second and less than two outs, he should run the ball all the way back in to the infield, and then drop the ball only once he’s a few feet from the second base bag. I cannot imagine a Major League umpiring crew going along with a clearly planned exploitation of an unintended consequence, but a manager could make a pretty great argument that the rule says absolutely nothing about how far a fielder can travel before the result of the transfer becomes irrelevant.

Perhaps Major League managers aren’t going to want to upset the apple cart, knowing that the league will see the problem with the outfield catch definition and make a better clarification for the 2015 season. This is most likely going to be a one season nuisance than a long term problem, as everyone watching these plays can see the problems with this definition of a catch, and I can’t see any way in which anyone would support this definition staying in place. There is likely too much red tape to change the definition in season, so we’re probably stuck with this all year, but I don’t know that any manager is going to want to be the guy to embarrass the league on a big stage by teaching his outfielders to exploit MLB’s bad rule.

But I kind of want to see it happen for the sheer theatre of it all. Besides, people always say they want shorter games; giving defenses the chance to snuff out rallies by running the ball in and dropping it at the runners feet would ensure that innings end faster and everyone goes home sooner. That’s probably not how the league envisioned shortening games, however.

Most likely, we’re in for a year of weird plays like the ones from last week, where runners don’t know whether to advance or not, and teams get free outs when their fielders screw up. It’s not a good system, but it’s the system we have in 2014. MLB, give us a better system next year. Or even next month, if you can cut through the red tape fast enough to admit that this unintended consequence is not what you had in mind.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Jason Kates
8 years ago

Wow. That’s a tough pill to swallow on some of those plays. Ackley’s were pretty instantaneous drops, but Johnson’s? Or Zobrist’s? Yikes.

I don't care what anyone
8 years ago
Reply to  Jason Kates