Official Rules: 2.00 Definition of Terms
A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.
Italics are mine. You think you know what a catch is? Here's a play from Monday night, with Rangers catcher J.P. Arencibia trying to turn a 1-2-3 double play. He appears to catch the ball and then drop it while making the transfer to his throwing hand. Home plate umpire Paul Schreiber initially called the baserunner out. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon appealed the play and after a four-minute instant replay delay, the call was overturned and Dustin Ackley ruled safe. Rangers manager Ron Washington came out to argue and was ejected.
The new definition of a catch emphasizes secure possession. A fielder must display secure possession when transferring the ball to his throwing hand. In the past, when a fielder dropped the ball after making a catch or turning a double play, it was almost always ruled an out. Last season, there's no doubt Arencibia's play would have been ruled as an out at home, as Schreiber initially called it. The controversy here isn't just that instant replay changed the call but that umpires -- and players and managers -- are still trying to adjust to this new definition of a catch.
Here's a play from a Mariners game Saturday, as Ackley drops the ball while making the transfer. Here's another one from the same game: Ackley appears to make a diving catch in left-center only to again drop the ball on the transfer.
Here's where things got really confusing, however: By the new emphasis of secure possession, neither play was a catch. On both plays, however, an A's baserunner was called out because of the confusion over whether a catch was made. On the first one, the batter, Yoenis Cespedes, left the field thinking Ackley had made the catch. On the second, the runner on first, Josh Donaldson, wasn't sure what happened and returned to first base. While it was ruled that Ackley hadn't made the catch, Brandon Moss, the batter, was called out for passing Donaldson on the basepath.
The secure possession rule was invoked for infielders turning double plays or even the Arencibia type of play at home. But Donaldson explained to MLB.com's Jane Lee why the outfield catch creates havoc for baserunners:
"You have to go halfway, and you're going to have to watch it the entire time, and you might see guys get thrown out at the leading base because they can't get too far away from the other bag for the sheer fact they have to watch it the entire time. And some of these outfielders have really good arms, so them throwing it 120 feet is no problem."
This leads to another potential problem, as Dave Cameron wrote Monday on FanGraphs: Outfielders could possibly gain an advantage by purposely "dropping" the ball while making the transfer:
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.
A crafty left fielder could potentially turn a routine fly ball into a double play. Now, it may not be that easy to pull off the play Dave describes with Trumbo. The definition of a rule states, "In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional." In other words, if dropping the ball on the transfer looks intentional, it's still a catch.
But that doesn't help the baserunner who is caught in no man's land. Instant replay only adds to the possible confusing outcome of a play.
It seems that baseball is going to have to address the outfield catch/transfer play. It may be that the ruling on the field has to stand and is not subject to review -- this at least gives the baserunner a chance to see what the umpire has called, thus avoiding plays like the Donaldson/Moss mess.