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Ask the Ump

"Hey, Blue, what’s the call?!?”

At a time when practically everyone, from loyal follower of youth baseball to adult weekend warrior, has an opinion about the men in blue, County Baseball introduces an interactive service that allows you, the spectator, and them, the arbiters of the game, to have the last word – or at least the next best thing, a place to register your dispute and obtain the correct answer.

“Ask the Ump” provides a long needed forum for discussing and clarifying some of the most vexing and frequently occurring game situations that leave baseball fans young and old scratching their heads – not to mention other popular forms of expression. Where you, the coach, player, parent, and league official want answers, New Jersey Baseball Magazine is now here to provide them.

Simply convey your question, observation, or knotty problem to County Baseball through our Contact Us page. We will respond quickly with the explanation you seek, along with our rules’ sources of information. To get you started, here are three of County Baseball's favorites:

Submit your play or situation to New Jersey Baseball Magazine

MLB Logo Play #10

Play: With two outs and a runner on 2nd base, the batter hits a fair ball into the left-center field gap. The shortstop takes the relay from the outfielder and throws to the catcher in an attempt to nail the runner trying to score. The catcher drifts up the 3rd base line, into the path of the base runner, to field the throw. He catches the ball and tags the runner, as the runner tries to avoid the tag. The home plate umpire rules obstruction against the catcher and awards the runner home plate. Is the runner out, or is the home plate umpire correct?

Ruling: The home plate umpire has made the correct ruling in this game situation.

This situation always presents umpires with a difficult decision, primarily because the high school rule differs from the major league rule. The National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) requires fielders, including the catcher, to allow base runners a clear path to the base, or in this case home plate, when they do not have possession of the ball.

The NFHS rule does not recognize fielders “in the act of fielding the ball” as does the Major League Baseball (MLB) rule. The MLB rule allows the covering umpire to exercise judgment “as to whether the fielder is in the act of fielding a ball,” whereas, the NFHS rule simply defines “an act by a fielder that hinders a runner” as obstruction.

MLB Logo Play #9

Play: The batter swings at a third strike and, as he does, the pitch hits him square in the chest. Is the batter entitled to first base in this situation?

Ruling: The batter is not entitled to first base. Any time a pitch hits a batter, whether it bounces in the dirt first or while in flight, the ball becomes dead immediately. Because the batter swings and misses, strike three is recorded and the batter is out.

This situation is analogous to a batter being hit by a pitch in the strike zone, when he does not swing.

MLB Logo Play #8

Play: With bases loaded and less than two outs, the batter hits a high pop fly along the third base line that the third baseman attempts to catch. He misses the ball entirely, whereupon it hits the ground and rolls into foul territory, where he eventually picks it up. If the umpire calls the infield fly, is the batter out?

Ruling: The correct umpiring technique in this situation is for the umpire to declare, “Infield fly, batter is out if fair.” The batted ball becomes fair or foul once an infielder touches it, either in fair territory or foul territory, prior to passing 1st or 3rd base, or it comes to rest without first being touched, either in fair or foul territory.

In this particular play, the batter is not out, because the ball fell untouched and rolled into foul territory, where the 3rd baseman fielded it.

MLB Logo Play #7

Play: After a hitter reaches base safely, the infielder fakes taking the ball to the pitcher, keeps the ball in his glove, and goes back to the base were the runner is located. The umpire signals the pitcher to get back on the mound. The pitcher then gets on the mound, and, as he starts his pitching motion, the runner starts to take the lead and the fielder tags the runner out. In one scenario the umpire calls time-out after the play in which the hitter reaches base safely , and in another scenario the umpire does not call time-out, but still signals the pitcher to get back on the mound.

Ruling: The hidden ball trick poses a situation that brings some complexity to the interpretation of a rule that is often misunderstood, but otherwise clearly stated in the rule book.

The hidden ball trick has existed for as long as codified pitching rules have appeared in the official rules of baseball. No rule book addresses the hidden ball trick per se. Baseball rules address illegal acts by the pitcher and the penalties that the umpire may assess if and when a pitcher commits those acts.

In particular, as one example, an illegal act occurs if, at the high school level, the pitcher "places his feet on or astride the pitcher's plate, or positions himself within approximately five feet of the pitcher's plate without having the ball."

The Official Rules of Major League Baseball defines a balk as "the pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher's plate or, while off the plate he feints a pitch."

The situation becomes somewhat complicated because you state that the home plate umpire "signals the pitcher to get back on the mound." A competent umpire may declare the defense or offense to "play" if, in his judgment, one team or the other is delaying the game for any reason. However, no umpiring mechanic exists that calls for the pitcher to "get back on the mound."

The rule restriction, at both the high school and MLB levels, against the pitcher taking a position on or astride the pitcher's plate without the ball, prevents the defense from gaining an unfair advantage by virtue of the deception that makes the hidden ball trick effective.

In the first scenario there is no infraction, and therefore no penalty, because the umpire called "time," thereby causing the ball to be dead. In the second scenario, the proper umpiring mechanic is not used, resulting in the pitcher being directed by the umpire to commit an illegal act. In this case, the play would have to be disallowed, with no balk being assessed against the defense and no out being registered against the offense.

Provided the pitcher satisfies the requirements specified in the aforementioned rules, an infielder in possession of a live ball may tag out a base runner who ventures off his base before the pitcher assumes a legal pitching position on the mound. If the defense delays the game while waiting for a base runner to wander off his base, a competent umpire will direct the defense to "play" or "play ball."

By directing a pitcher to "get back on the mound" an umpire might be inadvertently depriving the defense of an element of surprise that is not prohibited in the rules. If, on the other hand, the defense continues to delay by failing to return the ball to the pitcher, then a competent umpire will penalize the defense for delaying the game.

The rules do not specifically prohibit the defense from using the hidden ball trick. However, the circumstances under which it may be used are regulated by pitching requirements that prevent the defense from gaining an unfair advantage. Provided the defense complies with those requirements, it may attempt to catch a base runner off guard and record a possible out.

MLB Logo Play #6

Play: With bases loaded, can a batter fake that he has been hit by an inside pitch in order to deceive the fielding team, so the runner from 3rd can score? -Dean

Ruling: This is strictly a judgment situation that the home plate umpire must decide immediately. If the umpire sees that the batter has been hit by a pitched ball, he must call “Time” and award bases as per rule. If, on the other hand, the umpire believes that the batter was NOT hit by the pitch, then he may simply call “Ball” and the ball remains live. Naturally, if it’s ball four, the runner from 3rd would be forced home and the run would score.

The situation you pose is interesting because the batter would have to be – not pun intended – painfully obvious that he was faking a hit-by-pitch. By rule, the home plate umpire may interpret intent to deceive; but, in reality, this would be an extremely rare case. A competent umpire behind the plate would more than likely just require the batter to remain in the batter’s box and record a “ball” on the pitch.

The batter must make a reasonable attempt to avoid being hit by a pitch, otherwise the umpire will require the batter to remain at bat.

MLB Logo Play #5

Play: The pitch bounces in the dirt in front of home plate. If the batter swings and hits the ball fair before the catcher catches it, is it a fair ball?

Ruling: As long as the batter has not stepped outside the batter’s box to make contact with the pitch, the pitch is struck legally. The ball is hit fair or foul as in any pitch that is hit by the batter. It makes no difference if the batter strikes the pitched ball in flight or after it bounces on its way to the plate.

The definition of a pitch makes no distinction between a pitched ball that bounces in the dirt before arriving at the plate or remains in flight as it crosses home plate. The National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) Rule Book defines a pitch as “A live ball delivered to the batter.” The Major League Rule Book defines a pitch as “a ball delivered to the batter by the pitcher.”

MLB Logo Play #4

Play: Runners on 1st and 2nd with 2 outs. The batter hits a slow roller to the second baseman. The runner from 1st slows down to avoid being hit by the batted ball. In the process of trying to avoid being hit by the ball, the runner blocks the second baseman’s path to the ball. If the second baseman bumps into the runner while trying to field the ball, is there interference? If so, who gets charged with the interference? -Steve

Ruling: When the infielder is making the first play on a ground ball, base runners must yield the right-of-way. Base runners have a certain amount of freedom in these cases to run slightly outside a direct line to the base, so as to avoid interfering with the fielder’s right to make a play.

Often you see a base runner run in front of an infielder who is beginning his approach to the ball. This is not interference if the infielder is positioned far enough away from the base runner that he (the infielder) has an unimpeded path to make the play.

If, on the other hand, as in the case you cite, the runner “blocks the second baseman’s path to the ball,” the covering umpire may rule interference on the runner. If a fielder who is not making a play on the ball gets in the way of a base runner, the covering umpire may rule obstruction against the defense. This part is key to the situation that you raise – the fielder must be making a play on the ball in order to rule possible interference against a member of the offense.

“Interference” refers to the offense, “obstruction” refers to the defense. Also, “interference” may be ruled against anyone connected with the offense, not only base runners. If a fielder who, in the umpire’s judgment, is not making a play feints or bluffs making a play in an attempt to deceive a base runner, the umpire may rule obstruction against the fielder.

Finally, these situations require subjectivity on the part of the umpire. In that sense the rule is not ironclad. The rule is clearly stated in the rule book, but it allows for the umpire to exercise discretion in making the call in most cases. -NJB

MLB Logo Play #3

Play: With two strikes on the batter, the pitcher delivers a curve ball that drops into the dirt as it crosses home plate, and the catcher catches the ball on a short hop. The batter does not swing at the ball. The umpire calls the batter out, looking at a called third strike. How is this possible, since the ball bounced in the dirt?

Ruling: A pitched ball is a strike when it passes through any part of the strike zone. The fact that a pitched ball may bounce in the dirt has no bearing on this aspect of the definition of a strike. If any part of the pitched ball PASSES THROUGH THE BATTER’S STRIKE ZONE, it is a strike, whether the ball is caught by the catcher in flight or on a bounce.

The popular belief that a pitched ball which bounces in the dirt cannot be a strike pertains to a pitched ball that bounces in the dirt BEFORE it crosses home plate. In order for a pitched ball to be a called strike, it must pass through the batter’s strike zone IN FLIGHT. Clearly, a sharply thrown curve ball may in fact cross over home plate, pass through the strike zone in flight, and drop into the dirt before it reaches the catcher’s mitt. This is the case in the above play, and it is a distinction that coaches, players, and spectators should keep in mind.

MLB Logo Play #2

Play: The batter tries to avoid being hit by an inside pitch, but the ball strikes his hand which is holding the bat. The pitched ball is not in the strike zone and the batter does not swing the bat. Is this ruled a hit batter, or a foul ball?

Ruling: This is a hit batter, by definition.
The batter is entitled to first base when he or his clothing is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit. The ball is dead immediately and runners may advance only if forced by the batter’s entitlement to first base.

Variations on this play occur frequently, and coaches and spectators should be aware of them. For example, If the batter is hit by a pitch, that he does not try to hit, but he is hit by the pitch IN THE STRIKE ZONE, it is ruled a strike and the batter does not advance to first base. The ball is dead immediately and runners may not advance.

Another common occurrence is the batter being hit by a pitch that is not a strike, and the batter MAKES NO ATTEMPT TO AVOID BEING HIT by the ball. In this case, the pitch is ruled a ball, and the batter is not entitled to first base. Again, the ball dead immediately and runners may not advance.

MLB Logo Play #1

Play: The center fielder, playing deep, runs far to his right to track down a hard-hit line drive in the gap, which is over his head. While still running, he gloves the ball with an acrobatic, backhanded catch. Still in the act of running, he takes five more strides, loses his balance, stumbles forward, and falls to the ground. The fall jars the ball loose. Should this be ruled a legal catch?

Ruling: No. This is not a legal catch!
Most rule books, at all levels of baseball, rely on the major league rule book’s definition of a ‘catch.’ First, the fielder must secure possession of the ball; second, the fielder must hold the ball long enough to prove that release of the ball is voluntary and intentional. In the above play, the center fielder does not have complete control of the ball and therefore does not complete the catch.

The fielder must satisfy both criteria in order for a catch to be legal - gain possession of the ball AND demonstrate release of the ball through a voluntary act.

Although the center fielder in the above play deserves a round of applause for his effort, he fails to complete a legal catch, by definition.

Submit your play, question or situation to New Jersey Baseball Magazine


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New Jersey Baseball & New Jersey Baseball Online are your original source for stories about the human interest side of baseball. Coverage ranges from travel team baseball and showcase tournaments to girls’ softball and women’s fast pitch to recruits and prospects; performance enhancing drugs and substances, such as steroids and human growth hormone (HGH); health & nutrition; sportsmanship; the best batting cages & baseball training academies, such as Frozen Ropes, The Hit Doctor, Zoned, Extra Innings, Batters Box, & Dave Gallagher Baseball Academy, women in baseball, youth baseball baseball history,, sports officiating and umpiring, field maintenance, men’s amateur baseball, and many others. NJB is also your first and best source for baseball rules and interpretations through its unique Ask The Ump feature.

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