The Legality and Physics of Pence’s Triple-Hit

The score was still within a manageable two runs when Hunter Pence “settled” into the box with the bases loaded in the third inning of last nights’ game seven win for the Giants. Joe Kelly, just in the game for Kyle Lohse, threw him a 94.5 mph two-seamer that bored in on the bat handle — just your typical bat-breaking, weak-ground-ball inducing heat in on the hands. Of course, you might have seen the slow-motion replay of what happened:


Thanks to SBNation for the GIF.

Yup, that’s a baseball hit twice — or three times even. And that’s a baseball that found center field grass and plated three Giants and blew the ball game open. But should it have been a hit? Was it illegal? And even if the rule concerning it as a hit was nigh-unenforceable in the moment, did the third hit fake out Pete Kozma at short? Did Pence, as some Cardinals are complaining, get an unfair boost from the extreme physics of the situation?

One at a time.

Should it have been a hit? Rule six of the official Major League Baseball rulebook has a rule that is relevant here:

6.05
A batter is out when —

(h) After hitting or bunting a fair ball, his bat hits the ball a second time in fair territory. The ball is dead and no runners may advance. If the batter-runner drops his bat and the ball rolls against the bat in fair territory and, in the umpire?s judgment, there was no intention to interfere with the course of the ball, the ball is alive and in play;
Rule 6.05(h) Comment: If a bat breaks and part of it is in fair territory and is hit by a batted ball or part of it hits a runner or fielder, play shall continue and no interference be called. If batted ball hits part of broken bat in foul territory, it is a foul ball.

Completely clear. Except of course what constitutes a broken bat. Is Pence’s bat broken the minute the handle spits out a splinter? Then yes, the hit should be legal. It was just a part of the broken bat touching the ball in fair territory (probably). But if Pence’s bat was still judged to be ‘whole,’ then it was an illegal hit and he should have been out.

In this particular case, there’s no way to heap on this umpire for making a bad call. After all, you’re asking him to make a philosophical decision — when is a bat truly ‘broken’ — after a play that only became clear once the slow-mo camera was applied.

But did the triple hit fake out Kozma? He can clearly be seen breaking the wrong way on the pitch before scrambling to his left after the bounding ball. But it seems impossible that Kozma was reacting to the first hit, which was milliseconds before the second and third hits. Baseball physicist Alan Nathan broke it down to me as nobody can:

I have a hard time believing that Kozma could actually see the initial trajectory after the first impact. It happened too fast. However, what Kozma did see is that the ball hit off the middle of the bat, which usually leads to a ball that is pulled. Hence his initial reaction moving to his right. Notice that the ball is barely moving after the first impact. Under normal conditions, this would have been a dribbler to the infield. The actual trajectory was different, as the final impact occurred at the end of the bat. The final impact was rather solid. Not only did that change the initial velocity vector, with the ball now moving to the left of Kozma, but it had a large amount of sidespin in it, causing it to slice away from Kozma and just out of his reach.

So another ‘yes and no’ answer. Yes, it’s possible that the double-hit faked Kozma out. But it wasn’t that he was reacting to the actual vector of the ball — he was just reading the fact that a righty had put barrel on a ball on the inside part of the plate. Little did he know that the righty would also put the end of the bat on the same ball.

Did that constitute an unfair advantage to Pence? Hard to say what’s unfair. It seems sort of like a rarer version of the ball hitting the bag and flying over the defender — stuff happens. So really this was just your typical broken-bat hit. After all, as Nathan says, it’s “not so unusual to get a well-hit ball from a broken bat” because often the “fracture does not even occur until after the ball leaves the bat,” or the break happens “in the handle, far from the impact location, so that the barrel end of the bat is not affected by the break until after the ball has left the bat.”

Since broken-bat hits happen, is there a chance this particular version of the broken-bat hit happens more than we expect? Nathan has seen it before, in a classic double-tap hit from Troy Tulowitzki, and wonders if there have been others out there — “we might never have seen this without the high-speed video, which is not often set up.”

Maybe there have been other triple-hits out there then. And maybe they, too, have thrown off defenders. They probably also flew right through the middle of the gray area in that rule. But none have done so on such a great stage, pulled off by one of the most awkward players in baseball, at such a crucial time. So, Hunter Pence, we thank you for what might end up being your signature moment.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


72 Responses to “The Legality and Physics of Pence’s Triple-Hit”

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  1. BABIP says:

    Pence is the goofiest dude in baseball…its just hilarious watching him…but he is a good player.

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    • Rick Reusch-Roll says:

      If he keeps choking up in the interest of hack-slapping, then he has become a demonstrably below-average corner OF.

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      • shier says:

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      • Scott says:

        Wow, broken English spam is the best kind.

        +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. TX Ball Scout says:

    No doubt it faked out Kozma. Rough inning for that guy!

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  3. Evan says:

    Another thing to note about the rule – Was the ball in fair territory when he hit it the 2nd/3rd time?

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      yeah that’s why I stuck that “probably” in there. I mean, I think the third hit was past the base and fair, but he second one?

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    • Corey says:

      How could it not be? The plate is in fair territory, the foul lines protrude from the back of the plate, and he makes contact the 2nd and 3rd times out front of his body. The only question is how far back in the box does Pence stand? But even if he’s at the very back it doesn’t seem likely to me that the 3rd hit didn’t occur over the middle of the plate if not out front of the plate. That said, this clearly isn’t what the rule is trying to prevent.

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  4. rustydude says:

    The gif of that triple hit is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in baseball.

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  5. Marty says:

    The Cardinals complaining about a missed call is rather hilarious, eh?

    Probably pretty damn near impossible for even the ump to tell that is a double-hit in real time. Just a lucky hit if you ask me.

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    • Jonathan says:

      This is the other thing. I’m all for piling on an ump after an egregiously blown call, but this? Honestly, I didn’t even notice the third hit the first time through the gif (Figured it just kind of rolled along the barrel). It would take some level of inhuman perception to have caught this and made a decision of it on the spot.

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    • Steve says:

      Seems like the ump got it right anyway. Of course that is a “broken bat”. I don’t really see the grey area with respect to that aspect. The bat….IS BROKEN.

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    • Sam P says:

      I don’t think it was complaining in the sense that the umpire should have made a call – more along the lines of it being an incredibly rare and unlucky play at an extremely important moment. I don’t think that can be argued against.

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      • KDL says:

        Same statement applies re:Cardinals fans whining/feeling bad…

        See: Holliday throwing ball 10 feet in front of himself in NLDS and Harper thrown out at 3rd.
        See: The same “infield fly” play alluded to above, but with the new parameters for whining you’ve set up. It was certainly a “rare and unlucky play” (note: I happen to think the call was defensible).

        Call it baseball karma. Weird stuff benefits you sometimes…but it’s gonna bite you in the ass later, too. And when you’re unwilling to accept the quirky luck as quirky luck…please don’t complain about it when it goes the other way, “best” fans in baseball.

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  6. Jonathan says:

    Are some of the Cards actually complaining about this or just isolated fans? Haven’t seen anything, but that’d be pretty big sour grapes right there.

    The thing shattered on impact. The rule says broken, not split in half. Was the bat broken? I’ll answer your question with another question: would you send another hitter out with that bat by the time the second hit occurred? No? Then it was broken.

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      Cards fans are some of the most bitter, whiny people you will ever meet. Arrogant and boastful too. Fans over Iike 35 are what the media tells you cards fans are: respectful, gracious, humble, and appreciative. Under 35 they’re arrogant, ignorant, bitter, and whiny. The younger ones love to say “we’re the best fans in baseball, everyone says so” too. The younger cards fans have almost single handedly made me hate the cardinals.

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  7. Mike L. says:

    This is rare since most big leaguers know how to hold a wood bat so it hits the ball with the grain, not perpendicular and therefore less resistant to bending. Pence squared it up despite getting jammed, but the ball was deadened like a bunt due to the bat snapping under bending stress. Thus, his batspeed was greater than the velocity of the ball, amazingly catching up twice with the snap-back action to induce a wicked spin…like a sliced golf shot. Awesome film and gif.

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  8. Mr Punch says:

    The (first) rule goes primarily to intent – it prevents a batter from bunting the ball to the ground and then golfing it over a charging infielder. (This is like understanding the infield fly rule – consider what it’s intended to prevent.) Since everything Pence did was entirely straightforward, the hit stands.

    Every game in Tropicana Field has more outrageous stuff than this happening.

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    • Mark says:

      Not to get all Antonin Scalia, but the intent of this rule is pretty clearly as you describe it. Expanded replay on safe/out, fair/foul? Sure. Expanded replay with increasingly sophisticated high-speed cameras to determine whether the bat contacted the ball for a few extra milliseconds? No. Thank. You.

      P.S. I down-voted you accidentally, but I’m obviously in agreement.

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    • Jamie says:

      I mostly disagree with this assessment. I don’t think that the “intent” of a rule should really come into play. Doing so is an attempt to get into the mind(s) of other people, which I believe is generally not a good plan. Going just by how the rule is written seems to me the way it should be enforced.
      Though I would say that since the bat was already broken the 2nd and 3rd time he hit the ball, the hit should clearly stand. Though again, without replay one would never catch this, and I would not support replay on something like this.

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      • Mark says:

        The way the rule is written, as Eno spelled out above, by no means makes it clear this should have stood as a hit. I agree that pretending to be deferent to the intent of the dead is a recipe for self-serving garbage. But this is a case where we can acknowledge an unforeseen ambiguity in a rule, while avoiding the rabbit hole that ambiguity presents.

        Did Pence’s bat make contact with the ball more than once in fair territory? Yes, very obviously (with the benefit of a high-speed camera!).

        Is there any conceivable universe in which this rule was meant to be applied to such a scenario? Not so much.

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      • B N says:

        I’m dead on the opposite side of this argument. The intent of a rule is far more important than its semantics. For example, the infield fly rule was intended to prevent fielders getting easy double/triple plays by dropping the ball. As such, you should only be calling an IF fly if the fielder could get an advantage by intentionally dropping the ball (e.g. routine fly, man on base).

        Another obvious example, such as getting hit by a pitch: “If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.” By the letter of the rule, if you had bad shadows and couldn’t pick up the ball, you stayed completely still, and it hit you straight in the face… it’s a ball. Why is it a ball? Because you made no attempt to avoid it. But any ump in his right mind would call that a HBP, because obviously it was not the INTENT to allow pitchers to bean people who couldn’t see the ball coming.

        The rulebook is full of these sort of issues. If you forget the intent of the rules, you might as well just throw out the rulebook.

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      • David K says:

        “Another obvious example, such as getting hit by a pitch: “If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.” By the letter of the rule, if you had bad shadows and couldn’t pick up the ball, you stayed completely still, and it hit you straight in the face… it’s a ball. Why is it a ball? Because you made no attempt to avoid it. But any ump in his right mind would call that a HBP, because obviously it was not the INTENT to allow pitchers to bean people who couldn’t see the ball coming”

        Great example, and it appears the rule was written poorly. maybe it should have been written something like “if, in the umpire’s judgement, the batter made no attempt to avoid being touched when he should have been able to do so, it shall be called a ball.” No doubt folks here will probably find some holes in my wording, but I’m pretty sure this was the intent of the rule, and would prevent the possible interpretation brought up by B N.

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  9. dustygator says:

    If this was a regular season game, they wouldn’t have had those 3000fps cameras out there that captured the freakish triple contact. There’s no way any umpire could’ve saw what happened in real time.

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    • MikeS says:

      Exactly. I bet this happens a few dozen times a year and nobody bats an eye.

      To my mind, it’s like a lucky bounce or losing a ball in the lights. 1.5 million pitches a year. Stuff happens.

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  10. Alex says:

    If there is any possible interpretation of this rule that says Pence was out, then the rule needs to be re-written. The rule prevents batters from interfering with the defense by hitting the ball a second time once its fair–e.g., golfing a ball rolling near the foul line. There’s even an exception for unintentional interference on a weird play! Pence made one natural swinging motion and by a freak stroke of luck hit the ball multiple times. How in any rational understanding of the game is that interference? How can you possibly think it is an interpretational issue or that there was a possible “bad call”? You’re simply getting bogged down in the crystallization of the rule in words, and not what it is actually trying to accomplish.

    Suggested additional comment to the rule: “If a batter unintentionally hits the ball multiple times during a natural swinging motion [need some identifier for what a “swing” is–probably located in the rules somewhere], he is not out and play shall continue.”

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  11. roscoe says:

    but how was it scored a double?

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  12. the fume says:

    That’s absolutely crazy how that bat appears to reform into a whole bat before it hits the ball the 2nd time. And the bat is broken so viciously I wouldn’t think there was enough on the ball to get it to the pitcher’s mound.

    Also, I wonder how fast that splinter that hit him in the chest/jersey was going, glad it didn’t get him in the face.

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  13. Chris says:

    From my own experiences playing baseball, I know one of the things I was best at was my initial first step on batted balls. This also made up for my lack of speed.

    One thing I would always find myself doing was taking a first step whether contact was even made or if there was a foul tip. That first step was usually based on whether or not the batter swung early or late. Do professionals also do this? I don’t know, but if Kozma does this, then he was certainly faked out by the Hunter Pence hit.

    Do I think it should still be a hit? Yes.

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  14. Steve says:

    The lesson from this play? Baseball is awesome.

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    • Robbie G. says:

      And/or maybe that there really is no excuse for baseball not utilizing available technologies and failing to adopt instant replay?

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      • Steve says:

        Perhaps, but I was just talking about the idea that you can watch thousands of games and still see something you’ve never seen before that OF COURSE happens in the biggest spot in the game on the biggest stage possible.

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      • Paul Thomas says:

        Not sure what this play has to do with instant replay. Instant replay would just have confirmed that the clearly correct call was, in fact, clearly correct.

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  15. All I can say after watching the GIF and hearing the Cardinals yap is, KARMA: “Infield Fly! Infield Fly! Infield Fly!…”

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  16. Spencer says:

    David Ross hit a double against the Rockies earlier in the season that started to Dexter Fowler’s left then broke off about 70 feet to his right. I’ve seen balls tail when hit to corners, but I’ve never seen a ball move like that to center. I don’t think the bat broke – it was hit very solidly – but the movement of Pence’s hit was similar in a way. Maybe Ross hit the ball twice also.

    http://www.talkingchop.com/2012/9/4/3291196/david-ross-and-the-magical-double

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    • reillocity says:

      I imagine if you practiced something like this repetitively you could hit what amounts to a slice to CF if you pulled your hands hard into your body from far away as you swung and contacted the ball with the bat head slightly behind the handle – you’re basically mimicking a forced slice of a golf ball at this point (outside-in swing path with an open club face). It isn’t how baseball players are trained to hit so that explains why it looks so unusual when we do see that kind of thing. Perhaps by loading up the bat with pine tar (as Pence’s seemed to be) you might be able to impart more slice spin on the ball.

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      • Alan Nathan says:

        Actually, it is much easier to slice the ball to CF and it is done all the time. It is done by having the bat hit the lower half of the bat, with the bat head tilted downward. Hitting on the lower half gives natural backspin, but with the bat tilted down, so is the spin axis in such a way that the ball slices. I have looked at Trackman as well as HITf/x/Hittracker tracking data and find that a slice to CF is pretty common.

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  17. Bad Bill says:

    Some clarification of that comment to Rule 6.05(h) is probably needed, but I don’t think it’s applicable to this situation anyway. Pence hit the ball three times with a bat that was still in his grasp. It wasn’t a “part” of the bat in fair territory that made contact with the ball; it was the bat. The fact that there was a chunk of it missing doesn’t change that. (Indeed, at the molecular level, any contact of bat with pitch probably removes a “chunk” from the bat. It’s just so small as to be inconsequential.)

    In my opinion it would be in order to issue another “comment” on this rule, to the effect that if the batter is holding a piece of the bat, rather than an intact bat, when that piece makes contact with a batted ball, Rule 6.05(h) applies exactly as it would with an intact bat. Obviously this comment would be binding on future occurrences but would not be retroactive to this one, which stands as called. Berkman’s position, seen in that light, is entirely reasonable.

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    • Keith says:

      The rule clealy looks like it was intended to prevent second attempts at contact on a ball in play. I doubt Berkman is interpreting the semantics like you have (which you’ve done fairly on that basis), but if so, that’s a blinding disregard for spirit of the law. Just reading the rule, intent to create secondary contact is the only difference between me tossing my bat at the ball and a broken bat doing it for me. Otherwise “h” is an arbitrary exception.

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      • Alvaro says:

        Exaclty, iuspositivism is so last century, the intent or spirit of the law has to play the major part in its interpretation.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        Intent seems to matter to me because if we agree that it was illegal but that wasn’t the intent, then baseball can easily add another comment to the rule concerning this situation.

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    • Paul Thomas says:

      You need some remedial set theory, methinks. The entire bat or any subset thereof is “a part” of the bat. The rule does not say “a minor part” of the bat or “less than half” of the bat, or anything else that would imply that “part” means “proper subset” rather than just “subset”. Indeed, adopting your theory (that “part” means “proper subset”) would mean that the rule would leave entirely unanswered the question of what happens when a bat breaks but more or less holds together, all of it is in fair territory, and it is then contacted by a baseball.

      Of course, your position is even less tenable given that it is, in fact, clear that substantially less than the whole bat contacted the ball (since a large chunk had broken off prior to the second contact).

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      • Bad Bill says:

        I know more about set theory than you’ll ever learn in a lifetime.

        This play is in the books. The question is whether a comment to the rule is need for clarity the next time something like it happens. If you don’t have anything constructive to add on that, get out of the conversation.

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      • MAC says:

        Way to be a turd in the the otherwise fun-loving sports punchbowl, Paul.

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  18. Poppinthekap says:

    What really would be interesting is whether or not a play like this would be reviewable if MLB ever decided to start using replay review.

    But Bud probably won’t ever let that happen so we don’t need to be concerned about it…

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  19. Steve says:

    How in the world can anyone consider this an illegal hit? Its a freak occurance.

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    • Cardinal Moran says:

      Because Pence stepped to the plate intending to cheat the game. He consciously and with pre-meditation swung at a pitch he couldn’t hit well, broke his bat, and then triple-contacted it into a swerving motion around the Cardinals rookie shortstop who had his vision partially blocked by a gigantic baserunner (Pablo Sandoval) advancing on contact in front of him. Totally illegal!

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  20. Sabean Wannabe says:

    I sit in the third row of the upper deck right behind home plate. Comparing that hit to a golf slice is exactly right. It took off from the bat and then just suddenly shot to the right. I’m not sure Kozma gets it even if he initially doesn’t break the wrong way.

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    • reillocity says:

      It’s semi-amusing (at least to this non-Cardinals fan) that Pence just happens to be wearing a glove on his left hand but none on his right, just as 99% of righthanded-swinging pro golfers do.

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  21. Bip says:

    I say the bat is broken there. Because even a bat that is cracked so subtly as to be visually indistinguishable from a whole one is not usable, I think the definition of “broken” should be enforced loosely to reflect this. I say this play is nothing more than a very interesting hit.

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  22. Ben says:

    It’s pretty clear from 0:46 in the video (from the article linked) that the spin from the mutlti-hit had at least as much to do with Kozma’s misread as the multi-hit itself. It breaks really hard, way more so than your average blooper.

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  23. MGL says:

    Putting aside the spirit of the rule, why is no one arguing that the comment does not apply to this case?

    “If a bat breaks and part of it is in fair territory and is hit by a batted ball…”

    Clearly part of the broken bat was not hit by the ball. The bat hit the ball, the ball did not hit the bat. Again, putting aside the spirit of the rule, those are not the same things, any more than if my care hits a tree it is the same thing as the tree hitting my car.

    And if you want to invoke “intent,” clearly the intent of the comment is to create an exception when part of the bat lies in fair territory and the ball then strikes that piece. That was not the case here.

    If they really wanted to include cases like this in the exception comment, they simply could have and should have said, “if the broken bat and ball collide or contact one another,” or something like that. Or, “if the ball hits the bat or the bat hits the ball.”

    I am not arguing that this should or should not technically be an illegal hit or that the intent of the rule would except this particular incident, only that the words, “x is hit by y” is normally not the same thing as “y hit by x”. If you want it to be the same, you would use the word or words, “make contact,” or “struck by one another,” “collides,” or something like that.

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  24. MGL says:

    Sorry about the italics. It should have ended at the end of the rules comment.

    One more thing: In the GIF above, at least, it is not clear whether the bat hit the ball a third time. In fact, viewing the GIF, it looks like it did not. I forgot what it looked like in the “real” video on TV.

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    • Nate says:

      To my eyes, it is clear that the bat contacted the ball 3 distinct times. Not only does the ball changes speeds 3 times, but the spin of the ball changes 3 times.

      I’m certain we would agree that this detail means next to nothing.

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  25. CS says:

    The ball is not in fair territory either time he hits it, and he is still in the box, which is foul territory. It is damn near impossible to see that happen in live time and react to it, so it would be best to let the play happen, then get together and discuss it. The ball was hit twice in foul territory, so I believe it would be a foul ball. not 100% sure, but its either foul, or its a live ball and the result of the play is the result of the play.

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    • ArodinmyPujols says:

      As long as the creator of the gif kept the frames per second consistent (not even sure if gif creation websites offer varied FPS – you can obviously alter them if using Illustrator/Photoshop) you can see the ball speed up twice on the bat … from hit 2 and 3.

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  26. ArodinmyPujols says:

    anybody able to find a different angle on the Pence hit? I know with my MLB.tv subscription I get MANY angles of play at a time. Not sure if I am able to replay through all the angles again, or just watch the broadcast over again.

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  27. Patrick Oliver says:

    I agree Eno.
    Fair hit.

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  28. Michael says:

    I think everyone focusing on the bat breaking is missing the larger point. Don’t you think some sort of weird double hit like this might occur even if the bat doesn’t “break”? I think the spirit of the rule here should be similar to what is applied in tennis regarding double hits: http://www.usta.com/Improve-Your-Game/Rules/Rulings/Double_Hits/

    Basically, if it is one swinging motion, double hits are allowed there. I think this is completely different than the broken bat addendum to rule 6.05(h). Basically, it’s something that the rulebook needs to address but hasn’t as of yet, and in that case it’s basically up to the discretion of the umpire to maintain the best interests of the game.

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  29. Akeman says:

    Good for him, bad ‘break’ for us. I thought it was awesome concentration.

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  30. How says:

    Sounds like this rule is written with bunted balls in mind, prohibiting players from deliberately tossing their bat towards a bunted ball.

    There should be a rule stating that a player gets one offering/swing/attempt at a pitch. Any DELIBERATE attempt to play a live ball after initial contact results in an out.

    This has to be a hit, it is a single swing.

    I don’t see how anyone can point a finger at this play.

    The final score was 9-0. How many runs would the Cards like back? How about the whole 3rd inning – not just pence’s 3 runs – all 5 runs. take em.

    The Giants scored a run in the first inning and the cards were unable to put up a single run before they reached 27 outs.

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