The Nationals’ Protest Case

In a win-or-go-home game that finishes 9-8, there are going to be a lot of important moments. Big plays made or not made by players. Important decisions made or not made by managers. Huge calls made or not made by umpires. We never want to focus on the umpires if at all possible because it takes away from the more important and more entertaining aspects of the game. At some point, however, it’s impossible to omit them from the conversation.

In the top of the fifth inning of last night’s deciding Division Series game between the Cubs and Nationals, the visiting team had runners on first and second base. With two outs and an 0-2 count, Max Scherzer threw Javy Baez a pitch in the dirt. Baez swung and missed for strike three, but the ball got past Matt Wieters, allowing Baez to run to first base. During Baez’s backswing, his bat made contact with Wieters’ helmet.

Here’s what the play looked like in real time:

Wieters ran after the ball and then threw wildly to first. The throw evaded not one but two Nationals infielders before right fielder Bryce Harper finally retrieved it. In the meantime, Addison Russell scored from third, increasing the Cubs’ lead to 6-4. The Cubs would add another run that inning, ultimately holding off the Nationals 9-8 to win the game and series.

There’s some debate over whether Baez should have been called out after making contact with Wieters. Had Baez been ruled out, the game would have unfolded differently. Instead of exiting the inning down 7-4, the Nationals would have headed to the bottom of the fifth trailing by just a run. Matt Wieters and Dusty Baker both talked to umpire Jerry Layne about the play, prompting Layne to discuss it with the rest of his crew before allowing the play to stand. While Baker never officially protested the call, there are legitimate reasons — which Jeff Long first brought to my attention — to believe that the umpires might have blown it.

Here is the rule in question, found under 6.03, titled Batter Illegal Action, with the relevant rule being (a)(3). The batter should be ruled out if:

(3) He interferes with the catcher’s fielding or throwing by stepping out of the batter’s box or making any other movement that hinders the catcher’s play at home base.

This is followed by a comment, as follows:

If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard he carries the bat all the way around and, in the umpire’s judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of him on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play.

We know Baez’s backswing hit Wieters. It was sufficiently obvious that the umpires wouldn’t have missed it. The way the rule above is written, that would seem to be the only relevant matter. The judgment of the umpire is relevant only to the degree that he has determined that the catcher has been impacted.

So Baez should be out and the inning over, right? Well, the umpires saw it differently. From Adam Kilgore’s piece in the Washington Post:

“Backswing interference is a play where a guy is stealing or there’s a play being made a runner hindering the catch,” Layne said afterward. “It was a wild pitch and went past him. That is no longer in that particular description, in my judgment. In my judgment, the passed ball changed the whole rule around to where, in my judgment, it had nothing to do with everything. Therefore, it didn’t have any effect on it. In my judgment.”

[…]

“When the ball gets past him, all right, in my judgment he didn’t have any more opportunity after he had a chance to field the ball,” Layne said. “There was no further play that could have been made on it. The graze of the helmet didn’t have anything to do, in my judgment, with anything at all, with that particular play. I understand, it’s pretty much my judgment. I got together and found everybody was in agreement. That’s what we went with.”

Again, given the way the rule above is written, there’s no room for the type of personal discretion Layne cites here. There’s another rule that would permit a judgment call, however, and it appears to be the more relevant one in this case. (H/T Better Rule Book.)

This is 6.01(a)(1):

6.01 Interference, Obstruction, and Catcher Collisions

(a) (7.09) Batter or Runner Interference

It is interference by a batter or a runner when:

(1) After a third strike that is not caught by the catcher, the batter-runner clearly hinders the catcher in his attempt to field the ball. Such batter-runner is out, the ball is dead, and all other runners return to the bases they occupied at the time of the pitch;

This particular rule actually uses language that specifically addresses the situation we had last night (after a called third strike), identifies the relevant parties (batter-runner and catcher), and directs umpires to utilize their judgment (clearly hinders) to determine if the play was affected. Jerry Layne and the umpires used the appropriate rule, and they were correct to use their judgment.

As for whether that judgment was correct, that’s a separate matter. Here’s the moment of contact in slower motion:

The rulebook specifically uses the word clearly, and this modification of the word hinder ensures that there should be little doubt about whether the potential interference had an effect. Incidental contact that exerts little bearing on the play is definitely not to be considered interference under this rule. That said, there’s a really good argument to be made that what we see here does count as interference of some sort. Wieters’ head is moved significantly by the blow from the bat. With even just a quarter-second more time, Wieters would have gotten to the ball sooner and potentially made a better throw — or, at least, a throw that doesn’t get past both Nationals infielders.

As to whether Layne applied the correct rule, that appears to be the case. There’s nothing replay or a protest could have or should have done to change the result of the play. As to whether Layne correctly interpreted the rule, concluding that Wieters wasn’t clearly hindered by the shot to the head, that’s up for debate. It was an important play in an important game, and Layne and the rest of the crew might have missed one here. Unless replay is fundamentally changed to allow review of judgment calls, however — and even then, the play probably doesn’t get overturned — there is nothing egregious about the call last night.

We hoped you liked reading The Nationals’ Protest Case by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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gbmontgo
Member
gbmontgo

“The judgment of the umpire is relevant only to the degree that he has determined that the catcher has been impacted.”

This is not what the rule says. It says that the judgment of the umpire is only relevant as to whether the striking was unintentional or intentional.

In the instant case, the striking was clearly unintentional and thus 6.03(a)(3) and its commentary should apply.

My reading of the rule is that 6.01(a)(1) only applies when, in the judgment of the umpire, the striking is intentional. The usage of the phrase “(not interference)” is the guidepost here, because 6.01(a)(1) is an interference rule. That parenthetical tells you that if the striking is unintentional, it’s not interference, and thus 6.03(a)(1) is the rule to apply.

Otherwise, the commentary to rule 6.03(a)(3) has no meaning.

Johnny Dickshot
Member
Johnny Dickshot

This guy’s got it. He surely wanted to write “is surplusage” rather than “has no meaning” in the last sentence, but decided to reduce the legalese…

WARrior
Member
Member
WARrior

6.01 says it’s interference if the striking clearly interferes with the catcher’s making a play. So if 6.01 is to apply, Baez is out and the inning is over. Layne thinks the striking didn’t interfere, which means that 6.03 applies, and it was strike 3. The inning is also over.

Apparently Layne wants to argue that there was interference, so that 6.03 doesn’t apply, but not enough interference to make any difference. But if there isn’t enough to make a difference, it isn’t interference, and 6.03 should apply.

WARrior
Member
Member
WARrior

I should modify my post. I think Layne’s argument is that 6.03 doesn’t apply because it doesn’t fit some special case, where baserunners are on the move. He isn’t arguing that 6.03 doesn’t apply because there is interference. But the bottom line is that his call hinges on not applying 6.03, which from the passages I’ve seen quoted does apply.

To what gbmontgo said, I’d only add that the way Layne has argued, neither rule applies. He’s basically saying there was no interference and no (official) unintentional contact.

David
Member
David

Yes, it’s not about how the play was impacted, it’s about protecting the catcher from getting hit with the bat.

Oneear
Member
Member
Oneear

Watch Wieters once the ball gets past him. He leans forward into the path of the bat, trying to see where the ball was. One could argue that the catcher initiated the contact.

MGL
Member

You could argue that, but, the relevant rule doesn’t address that so it’s not relevant to the decision by the umpire. If it were relevant, the comment to 6.03.a.3 would say something like, “And, also in the judgment of the umpire, the catcher did not initiate the contact.”

Oneear
Member
Member
Oneear

True. I was addressing David’s point.

Cheeseball
Member
Member
Cheeseball

gbmontgo and Ryan DC have pretty much resolved this question as far as I’m concerned. Great work on clarifying this, gents.

Mike Ozga
Member
Mike Ozga

that’s not at all true, please see my comment about the PBUC interpretation on the rule

Calvo
Member
Calvo

My understanding of 6.03(a)(3) is that, whether intentional or unintentional, the batters action has to interfere with the catcher by “hindering” his ability to make the play at home base.

If his action is, in the umps judgment, intentional interference, then the batter is out. It the action is unintentional, than the call is a strike and the ball is dead.

Baez’s unintentional contact did not hinder the catchers ability to field the pitch.

Once *that* play (fielding the pitch) is over, 6.01 kicks in (fielding the pass ball). If you believe that Baez swing clearly hindered the catchers ability to make that play, then you make the call.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

The comment in the official rules specifically says that this situation–catcher unintentionally hit on backswing–is not to be called interference, so the definition of interference is irrelevant.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

You are pointing out the part of the rule that was not well thought out. IMO it would be worse to enforce an afterthought of a rule, than to make a judgement call. I expect this rule will be addressed at some point. The fact that there is considerable debate is a good indication that the rule is bad or at least poorly written.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

The fact that there is considerable debate doesn’t mean anything more than some people lack reading comprehension.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I see you have crossed over in to full troll mode. Take a deep breath and relax. Nobody needs to go there.

MGL
Member

100% correct. As a lawyer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rule (or statute) be so crystal clear and unambiguous with respect to this exact situation.

jianadaren
Member
jianadaren

It also says that a strike should be assessed, the ball is dead, and no runners should advance.

The batter is not out for interference, but for having struck out and having estopped his opportunity to advance to first.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

To be blunt, your understanding of rule 6.03(a)(3) is not in fact what the rule states. If you wish to read more than the excerpt from the rule in Craig’s post, it’s on page 78 (as numbered on the bottom of each page) in the document at this link – http://mlb.mlb.com/documents/0/4/0/224919040/2017_Official_Baseball_Rules_dbt69t59.pdf

There’s no reference whatsoever to the contact on the follow-through needing to hinder the catcher. It’s a dead ball once that happens, full stop.

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

All of these analyses are incorrect.

6.03 applies to “batters”, whereas 6.01 applies to both “batters” as well as “runners”. Was Baez a “batter” or a “runner”? Rule 5.05(a)(2) states that “The batter becomes a runner when . . . The third strike called by the umpire is not caught . . . .” When the ball hit the dirt, Baez became a runner. At that moment, 6.03 no longer applies. Instead, the rules regarding runners will apply, including 6.01. After Baez became a runner, the bat hit Wieters. The only rule to apply is 6.01. The umpire then makes a judgment, as Craig describes.

The umpire reached the correct result. His explanation that 6.03 applies only to stolen-base attempts is confusing, but it is consistent with the correct interpretation that 6.03 applies only to “batters” and does not apply in a dropped-third strike situation where the batter is a runner.

The bottom line is that 6.03, despite the broad language that folks are quoting, does not apply to dropped-third strikes.

phpope
Member
phpope

But Rule 5.05(a)(2) Comment says “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 your conclusion that Baez was not longer a batter as soon as the ball hit the dirt cannot be correct, as the comment clearly contemplates some situations where the batter remains a batter for some period of time after a third strike is not caught.

More persuasively, the comment indicates the transition in the instance of a third strike not caught to occur when the batter initiates the process of running to first base. Which Baez only did after completing his swing and triggering 6.03.

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

I hear you, but the rule doesn’t say that a batter becomes a runner when he starts running to first. It has a different definition, which is that the batter becomes a runner when the catcher doesn’t catch the ball. That is what the rule says. The Comment lays out an exception to that rule; the Comment does not change the rule itself.

phpope
Member
phpope

I don’t think the comment changes the rule, but the comment provides context to interpret the language of the rule. The comment envisions 6.09(b) (I’m using the official MLB rule book numbering, http://mlb.mlb.com/documents/0/4/0/224919040/2017_Official_Baseball_Rules_dbt69t59.pdf) being triggered, and provides not for an exception, but an addendum addressing a specific possible subsequent action. If the batter becomes a runner as soon as the third strike is not caught, then the comment could not apply, as it only applies to a batter. So I think we have to interpret 6.09 as such.

I will say, that I think you’ve identified the actual critical question. Cheers.

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

They easily could have written the rule to say that on a DTS, the batter becomes a runner only after he breaks for first. Maybe that should be the rule, and to be sure it makes some sense, but that’s not what the rule says.

I think the Comment supports my reading. You’re taking the reference to “a batter” out of context. The Comment refers to “a batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught”. What does “his situation” mean? Poorly written, right? It means “a batter who does not realize that he is actually now a batter-runner”. The Comment is consistent with my interpretation of the text of the rule.

We could go back and forth, and who knows what the best answer is. Last night the umpire clearly seemed to think that the rule applies only to a SB situation and not a DTS, and I think there’s a lot of solid support for that view.

jwa05001
Member
jwa05001

It’s right there in black and white. As soon as the 3rd strike is called the batter is a runner. Regardless whether he realizes it or not, according to the rule he’s a runner.

jwa05001
Member
jwa05001

This should be the end of this discussion. Baez was a runner the second he swung and missed. 6.03 is a rule for batters. 6.01 is the only rule that could apply to Baez there.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

Except that here is an MLB umpire explaining that 6.03 (called 6.06 here because it’s the previous rulebook) applies to a batter hitting the ball on his backswing in an uncaught 3rd strike situation, so there’s no reason it wouldn’t also apply to a batter hitting the catcher on his backswing as well (given that the language in 6.03 is “unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball”).

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/umpires/feature.jsp?feature=call5

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

His analysis does not consider the implications of the plain text of 5.05, so his analysis is incomplete and cannot be definitive. He is incorrect, just as lots of folks think that *all six* umpires last night were incorrect.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

So your contention is that backswing contact can be called whenever the batter hits the catcher on his follow-through EXCEPT on an uncaught third strike? (Because that is the only way the batter would become a runner without putting the ball in play.) That seems like a far less logical reading. And it still doesn’t explain why Baseball Rules Academy, the PBUC, and MLB’s own former Director of Umpire Administration all see it differently.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

I will admit that your reading is the only plausible argument for 6.01 being applied in this situation. But as far as we know, the language in the PBUC umpire manual is still: “If this infraction should occur in a situation where the batter would normally become a runner because of a third strike not caught, the ball shall be dead and the batter declared out.” This acknowledges that it is an exception to 5.05 and notes that the backswing rule is still in effect.

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

The PBUC manual supports my view. The PBUC must have thought that, without the language you just quoted, the rule is that a DTS automatically converts the batter to a runner. Otherwise, they would not have added the language you quoted. MLB doesn’t have that language, so we have to presume that the language doesn’t apply. On this issue, the minor leagues have a different rule than the major leagues. Nothing wrong with that.

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

Of course not. My contention is that, on a DTS, Rule 6.01 applies, not Rule 6.03. Rule 6.01 says that a batter-runner on a DTS is automatically out if he clearly hinders the catcher. So if the backswing on a DTS hinders the catcher, then the batter is out.

WARrior
Member
Member
WARrior

Rule 6.03 says once the batter initiates contact with the catcher, the ball is dead, and no runners can advance. So it doesn’t matter whether Baez is treated as a batter or a runner. When the bat struck Weiters, there was a third strike, followed by a dead ball.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

Well the third strike is dropped before the backswing hits the catcher, so BravoBravo is saying that according to 5.05 Baez becomes a runner and thus 6.03 cannot apply because the language of 6.03 only refers to a batter. Which is plausible, I just think that interpretation doesn’t make sense because it carves out a singular exception to 6.03 that goes totally unremarked upon. (Which is why I think the PBUC guidance is useful.)

Dr. Dave
Member
Member
Dr. Dave

I don’t think ‘plausible’ is the word I would use to describe the claim that the ball is dead if the batter hits the catcher in the head with a bat, but the ball is NOT dead if a *runner* hits the catcher in the head with a bat.

I agree that 6.03 pretty clearly applies here.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

Haha fair enough

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

Who is saying that “the ball is not dead if a runner hits the catcher in the head with a bat”? Under Rule 6.01, if that happens and the catcher is clearly hindered, then the runner is out and the ball is dead.

BravoBravo
Member
BravoBravo

I think I agree with Calvo that, assuming 6.03 applies (and I think it doesn’t), the rule plainly states that the catcher must be “hindered” in order for the batter to suffer any consequences described in the Comment. If the catcher is never hindered, then rule 6.03(a)(3) — and the Comment discussing it — never comes into play. You have to look at the Comment in the context of applying the hinderance rule — you can’t take the Comment out of context and look at it as a stand-alone rule.

The Comment merely discusses when hinderance will or will not result in a call of “interference”; it does not expand the rule to cover conduct that does not hinder the catcher. Comments explain the rules, not expand their scope. The Comment presumes that the catcher has in fact been hindered; if the catcher has not been hindered, then the Comment does not apply at all. In other words, when the Comment refers to a backswing that “unintentionally hits the catcher”, it’s talking about only such contact that results in the catcher being hindered, because that’s the entire context in which the Comment is being discussed.

All the Comment means is that if the catcher was hindered unintentionally by a backswing, then there’s no penalty to the batter but the ball should be dead because it’s unfair for the catcher to act on a live ball when he’s been hindered.

By contrast, if the catcher has not been hindered, then there’s no reason for the ball to be dead. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you’re actually hindered (such as a HBP that grazes the uniform), and sometimes it does matter whether you’re actually hindered (such as when an umpire maybe gets in an infielder’s way). Baez’s backswing falls into the latter category.

MGL
Member

You are 100% correct. It doesn’t take a Supreme Court Justice to easily see that. The umpire Layne was wrong. Dusty should have been able to protest (and win) and this article is terrible.

jianadaren
Member
jianadaren

Ok applying 6.03(a)(3) would impose a strike and a dead ball. That’s strike 3 and a dead ball with no runners advancing – batter is not out for interference, but is out for having struck out and having no avenue to advance.