Baseball Oddity Files: Cubs Bungle Dropped Third Strike, Thanks to Umpire Error

Matt Garza probably thought he was through the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Reds when Miguel Cairo stepped into the batters box. He definitely thought he was after Cairo waved at a slider in the dirt with two strikes. But then all of this happened. In the box score and the play logs, it goes down as a simple dropped third strike, but clearly there is more to the story. Let’s break down perhaps the most “Chicago Cubs” play of the season so far.

Thanks to the commenters drew and Rick for pointing out a rule that I missed. Check out an update after the conclusion of the original story.

The key here appears to be that nobody on the Cubs was actually watching the home plate umpire, or if they were, they didn’t pay attention to the right things. The ump did signal that Cairo failed to check his swing, right here at 0:06 in the video.

It would be easy to interpret this signal as an out call, but this signal only means that Cairo swung. The umpire never gave an “out” signal with a closed fist, and as a result the ball is still live. Cairo never realized this either, and as the umpires doesn’t have the responsibility of notifying everybody that the ball is live, the mass confusion eventually resulted in everybody heading towards their respective dugouts.

When Cairo started walking towards the dugout, the camera crew and announcers assumed the inning was over. The MLB Rulebook is very specific about the rules for abandoning the bases. Specifically, we find the pertinent information in Rule 7.08:

7.08
Any runner is out when —
(a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runners baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely; or (2) after touching first base, he leaves the baseline, obviously abandoning his effort to touch the next base;
Rule 7.08(a) Comment: Any runner after reaching first base who leaves the baseline heading for his dugout or his position believing that there is no further play, may be declared out if the umpire judges the act of the runner to be considered abandoning his efforts to run the bases. Even though an out is called, the ball remains in play in regard to any other runner. (Boldface emphasis mine)

There was no tag attempt, so Cairo can’t be declared out of his baseline. And since Cairo had not touched first base, at least according to the strictest of rulebook definitions, he can’t be called out for abandoning the bases. If he had reached the dugout, leaving the field of play, then he would be out, I assume (although I can’t seem to find anywhere specifically indicating this in the rulebook — I can’t imagine the catcher would have to chase him into the dugout, would he?).

The fact that Cairo didn’t run immediately allowed him the opportunity to run to first and for Ramon Hernandez, the runner on first, to head to second. With the second baseman and shortstop headed to the dugout, Hernandez had plenty of time to make it to second before the force applied, and of course nobody was getting Cairo at first either.

Luckily for the Cubs, Garza managed to strike Drew Stubbs out on the next play, and there was no damage. The Cubs certainly managed to shoot themselves in the foot on more than one occasion in this game — all seven of the Reds runs were unearned. This one was just one of many odd plays in arguably the sloppiest game of the year.

— UPDATE, 4:10 ET—

At least, I would assume that this was how the umpires would defend their ruling last night. However, they appear to have missed rule number 6.09b.

Rule 6.09(b) Comment: A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle surrounding home plate.

So it turns out my interpretation of the above play is incorrect, and the umpires got it wrong. I would imagine that they interpreted the play as in Rule 7.08. Personally, I really would’ve liked to hear the argument between Cubs’ manager Mike Quade and the home plate umpire and hear the justification for the ruling on the field.




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35 Responses to “Baseball Oddity Files: Cubs Bungle Dropped Third Strike, Thanks to Umpire Error”

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  1. Robert D says:

    Didn’t this happen with AJ Pierzynski in the playoffs a few years back? I could’ve sworn they changed the rule to note that as soon as a batter starts to head toward the dugout after a third strike call, they’re declared out. Am I going crazy or can anyone else check my sanity and remember that?

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  2. drew says:

    Rule 6.09(b) Comment: A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and
    who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle
    surrounding home plate.

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  3. Rick says:

    As the Cubs announcers pointed out last night, this situation actually is cited in the rulebook, rule 6.09b:

    6.09
    The batter becomes a runner when –
    (a) He hits a fair ball;
    (b) The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out;
    Rule 6.09(b) Comment: A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle surrounding home plate.

    Cairo should have been declared out once he reached the grass. I’m a Reds fan, but assuming the comment is binding, this one is pretty clear.

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  4. Robert D says:

    Phew. Thanks guys. Thought I was going crazy there. Was having a hard time finding that rule.

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  5. Redsauce says:

    Shouldn’t the runner from 3rd have been called out for getting more than 3feet out of the baseline as well? Don’t have the rules in front of me, but he looks pretty clearly out of the baseline.

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    • Rick says:

      That wasn’t a runner…. that was the 3rd base coach. It was pretty crazy. The Cubs were already leaving the field and Drew Stubbs was half way out to CF too..

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      • Redsauce says:

        Ah, thanks for clearing that up for me.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Then shouldn’t the third base coach have been called out?

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      • bigyaz says:

        Even if it were a runner he would not be out. The 3-foot rule only applies when you leave the baseline to avoid a tag. Baserunners make their own baselines.

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      • Redsauce says:

        Actually, according to “(2) after touching first base, he leaves the baseline, obviously abandoning his effort to touch the next base;”, this implies that you don’t have to be avoiding a tag to get called out.

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      • jorgath says:

        The baseline for running to first is clearly established (forget the rule number) so as to allow the catcher the ability to throw a dropped third strike to first. It’s what that extra line outside the foul line on the first base side is for – the runner is supposed to go OUTSIDE that line.

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  6. Jack Moore says:

    Thanks for pointing out that rule, guys. I’ll put an addendum to the post now.

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  7. Tim_the_Beaver says:

    what I find interesting about this clip is that:
    1) after the strikeout, Castillo almost appears to make a lunge to tag Cairo, but then decides not to. (perhaps he’s just regaining his balance, can’t quite tell)
    2) after the strikeout, Garza is looking between home plate and first base, wondering if they need to throw somebody out. but everybody is leaving the field, so, “meh”.

    for the 1000s of times you see catchers tag hitters out if the ball was questionably in the dirt, I’m surprised at this mental lapse.

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    • Bronnt says:

      Garza did appear to catch the need to tag Cairo, but decided, correctly (though he was probably unaware of the rule) that Cairo was out as he made zero attempt to head toward first base until he was halfway to the dugout. But you’re right, you can clearly see Garza hesitating as he steps off the mound, glancing from Castillo to Cairo, apparently only changing his mind after Cairo was out, by the rulebook.

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  8. JohnnyComeLately says:

    “Let’s break down perhaps the most “Chicago Cubs” play of the season so far.”

    Ugh. Sometimes it’s really really hard to be a Cubs fan.

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  9. bigyaz says:

    I taught my Little League catchers to automatically tag the batter or throw it down to first if there was ANY question about whether the third strike was caught. That’s basic baseball. How could Castillo make such a blunder?

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    • Harold says:

      Little League official rules do not allow advance on a dropped third strike although other organizations (Dizzy Dean, Usssa etc) do allow advance .

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  10. David says:

    I always thought the batter had to enter the dugout in this situation in order to be called for abandoning, but this doesn’t turn out to be the case. The wrong call was made here, but only just:

    “6.09 The batter becomes a runner when—…

    (b) The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is
    unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out;

    Rule 6.09(b) Comment: A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and
    who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle
    surrounding home plate.”

    Based on this comment, Cairo should have been called out as he was walking away. It makes me wonder about the home-shaped dirt surrounding the plate at Comerica Park…

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    That’s how I’ve always interpreted the rule … once the batter makes a move for the dugout, he’s out.

    I’ve rarely seen batters make a move toward the dugout and then run to first. More times I’ve seen batters take exception to being tagged as they’re heading to the dugout … as if it’s putting salt in the wound, especially if the tag has some umpf on it or if it comes from a catcher like AJ.

    Dropped 3rd strike is just a dumb rule anyway, but I’m biased. If a batter swings at a pitch that the catcher cannot catch, he should be forced to run to 1st out of shame and still be out on principle. But again, Im biased.

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  12. CircleChange11 says:

    In college especially you can seemingly tell the difference in catchers between the “sorry dude, gotta tag ya” and the “Ha Ha you’re out &@$&” type of tags. One is usually a tap on the leg wheras the other is a two-handed tag to the lower back, often inciting a “WTF?” type response from the batter or an outright “You wanna go?” response, which very often leads to an exciting next half of an inning.

    AJ often seems to take great pleasure in tagging the batter on a dropped 3rd, which just adds to his “charm”.

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  13. DJG2111 says:

    Even accounting for that last rule, can the runner claim that he did it intentionally? It wouldn’t shock me if a quick thinking player started walking towards the dugout and then slowly ambled towards first…

    As long as he realizes his situation, the comment should not apply.

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  14. Joe says:

    No reference to the AJ Pierzinski post season when the next batter hit that homer?

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  15. Matt says:

    Not a smart play by the rookie catcher, but pathetic umpiring too. These guys need to know the rules, and 6.09(b) clearly shows that this situation shouldn’t have been possible.

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  16. Albert says:

    Rule 6.09(b) came into play during a Yankees-Orioles game earlier this year. Jorge Posada struck out swinging and immediately headed for the dugout. Matt Wieters started after him, declined to follow him, and looked back at the umpire, who then called Posada out.

    The Orioles took exception to their catcher being made a fool of, and Russell Martin got drilled.

    Occurs at about the 16:00 mark of this video:
    http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=14109559

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    • Albert says:

      Whoops, Jake Fox was catching for the Orioles, not Wieters.

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    • fred says:

      Martin hitting 2 HR’s that day might have had more to do that beaning.

      The catcher wasn’t being made a fool of, Posada just walked back to the dugout, it’s not like he was trying to dodge a tag or anything. nor were Martin’s 2 HR’s showing up the pitcher (not like he stood and admired them)

      This is Schowalter trying to instill a scrappy attitude and wanting his team not to be intimidated by playing the big boys, and his pitcher not having a clue. Reminds me of some of the early bush league plays when Maddon started out with the then Devil Rays and his pitchers started drilling people at perceived ‘slights’ (which thankfully they have grown out of)

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      • Albert says:

        I’ve gotta disagree. It’s disrespectful not to run out groundouts, and it’s disrespectful to walk away from a tag like that. Posada’s a catcher, he knows he OUGHT to run to 1st, or at the very least get tagged.

        Dodging a tag, going hard into a base, running over a fielder – these are all part of playing the game the right way (avoiding injury as much as possible, of course). Walking away from a live ball isn’t.

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      • BlackOps says:

        Really? A guy concedes a dropped third strike/running to first and it’s disrespectful? Maybe he didn’t want to run to first for no reason because he’s old and his knees hurt. Sounds like a smart use of energy for a guy who doesn’t have much left.

        I mean really, seems like in almost every game a hitter will ignore the possibility of going to first and get tagged as he walks toward the dugout. Disrespectful? This is baseball, not tennis!

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