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Catch or Drop? Investigating the rule that helped the A’s on Wednesday

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Did Ketel Marte make the catch, or drop it too soon?

Arizona Diamondbacks v Oakland Athletics
He unintentionally dropped it immediately following this snapshot
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s had a weird play go their way on Wednesday, helping them to a victory over the Arizona D’Backs.

The A’s pitching staff also threw a shutout, and Oakland scored in another inning unrelated to this particular fluke, so the controversial call didn’t really affect the outcome of the game. However, it still played a big role in the afternoon, directly leading to three early runs in a 4-0 win. Furthermore, it’s an interesting precedent to keep in mind for the future, as the tables could turn next time and it could be the A’s on the wrong side of it.

The play in question came with two outs and two runners on base. Mark Canha hit a deep fly to center field, and CF Ketel Marte made a running catch. But Marte’s momentum carried him into a hard collision with the wall, and when he bounced off and took a step back toward the diamond, the ball squirted out of the webbing of his glove. It was ruled a drop, both runners scored, and Canha was safe (at third).

If Marte had held on and completed the catch, then the inning would have been over. Instead, two runs crossed the plate, Oakland kept batting, and Canha was later driven home for a third run.

The drop call went to replay review, and the umpires upheld it. Here’s Rule 5.09(a)(1), with a couple relevant sentences emphasized:

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. 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. If the fielder has made the Rule 5.09(a)(1) to 5.09(a)(7) 41 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.

There are two different concepts laid out in that pair of sentences. The first is that the wall can cause a fumble. The second is that proof of the catch necessarily includes that the release of the ball is voluntary and intentional, unless the fielder is transferring to make a throw, which Marte clearly wasn’t — his other hand wasn’t near his glove, and anyway he thought the inning was over.

In situations like these, it’s interesting to see what the other side has to say. At The Athletic, D’Backs writer Zach Buchanan generally agrees that the call was correct according to the written rule, though with a suggestion that if folks don’t like how this played out then rulebooks can always be changed for the future. Buchanan cites Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, who also agreed with the umps.

On the other hand, the SB Nation community AZ Snakepit didn’t see it the same way in their game recap. The debate continued in the comments section, on the argument that Marte held the ball long enough and that his collision and subsequent juggle didn’t satisfy the “simultaneous or immediately following” portion of the rule. Marte himself also thinks it should have counted, though in his comments in Buchanan’s article the center fielder overestimates how long he held it and how many steps he took.

Personally, with full acknowledgement of my bias, I’m more convinced by Buchanan. The way the rule is written, I think the umps got it right.

Regarding the first clause about the wall collision, if the rulebook is bothering to separate between simultaneous and immediate, then “one or two steps” probably has to qualify. How much less immediately could the collision follow, before it becomes simultaneous? He hit the fence with such uncontrollable force that his cleat left a divot in the padding, and he banged up his arm and spent the next few minutes shaking it around. The whole sequence, from initial catch to crash to drop, spanned less than two seconds.

But even if the collision wasn’t immediate enough, the second clause still kicks in. His drop was clearly not voluntary or intentional, nor was he transferring to his other hand to make a throw. It just squirted out of his glove. There’s no requirement for number of steps, or making a “football move,” you just can’t accidentally drop it, period. Presumably there would be some reasonable time limit for the third out of an inning, as surely it wouldn’t matter if the fielder tripped on second base on his way back to the dugout, but apparently that line isn’t measured in one or two extra steps away from the wall.

Of course, the real test will come if and when this play happens the other direction, with an A’s defender dropping the ball. Will we feel differently then than we do now? But at the very least, unlike with some other odd calls we’ve seen this year, I can see a clear basis for why it was called the way it was. It’s right there in the rulebook.

That leads us to the final question: Should this be the rule? The game is in the books and nothing we say here can change it, so in all honesty, if you had the power to rewrite the rules moving forward, do you think this should have been a catch? And is there any specific tweak you’d make to the guidelines that would cover it?

Follow-up question: Even if you think this spiritually should have been a catch, would it be worth over-litigating the rules on this topic like the NFL does? Or just leave it alone, and accept that a weird thing like this will happen now and then and hopefully it all evens out in the long run and doesn’t happen in Game 7 of a postseason series?

Vote in the poll below!

Poll

Should Ketel Marte’s catch have counted?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Yes, that should be a catch even under the current rules
    (17 votes)
  • 42%
    It SHOULD be a catch, but under the current rules the umps got it right and he dropped it
    (80 votes)
  • 48%
    No, he dropped it and that’s how it should count
    (92 votes)
189 votes total Vote Now