One of the most fundamental aspects of the game of baseball is the catch. While the act of making a catch is apparently quite simple, there are a subtleties and a couple of nuances that should get our attention. Let's walk through it, starting with a look at the rule book definition of a catch.
The definition lists two essential criteria for a catch to be legal: First, the fielder must gain "secure possession in hand or glove of a ball in flight." The fielder must hold the ball long enough to "prove that he has complete control of the ball." Then, second, his release of the ball must be "voluntary and intentional."
Put more simply, a fielder must demonstrate secure control and voluntary release. Without both of these, you do not have a legal catch.
When is a catch not a catch?
The rule book definition of a catch also lists situations that may look like a catch (to some), but in fact are not a catch:
- If you "catch" the ball with a cap, any of your equipment (except the glove, of course), in the uniform pocket (go figure!), or any other part of the uniform, this is not a catch. In fact, it's an infraction that get's the batter a three-base award [ 5.06(b)(4)(B) ].
- It is not a catch if immediately after securing the ball you collide with a player or a fence, or if you fall to the ground, and the ball is dislodged.
- It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball, then deflects it against a member of the offensive team or an umpire, and then is secured by himself or another defensive player. That said, if you touch a fly ball and deflect it directly to another fielder who then secures the ball, that is a catch.
- It is not a catch if, on a third strike, a pitched ball strikes the umpire and is then caught by the catcher on the rebound.
- It is not a catch if on a third strike a pitched ball lodges in the catcher's clothing or gear.
Some subtleties about the catch
- On the transfer. If a fielder drops the ball "while in the act of making a throw following the catch," this is a legitimate catch. This is often referred to as dropping the ball "on the transfer." This is a judgment call, but is typically called pretty liberally if it appears there was the intention to throw the ball.
- Fly ball deflected. As touched on above, if a fielder touches a fly ball and that ball is juggled and/or deflected to another fielder, who then catches the ball, this is a legal catch.
- Runner tagging up. For the purposes of judging if a base runner properly tags up before advancing on a caught fly ball, the runner may advance the moment a fly ball is first touched. This comes into play in cases where a fly ball is juggled before being securely caught. This prevents fielders from intentionally juggling a fly ball to hold runners on base while moving closer to the infield.
- Reaching into out-of-play territory. A fielder may reach over a fence, railing, rope, or other demarcation of out of play to make a catch. However, when reaching into out-of-play territory there can be no interference called if a spectator impedes the fielder's opportunity to make the catch. (Contrast this with the situation where a spectator reaches into the field of play causing specator interference.)
- Reaching into the dugout. A fielder may reach into (but not step into) a dugout to make a catch. To be a legal catch, the fielder "must have one or both feet on or over the playing surface (including the lip of the dugout) and neither foot on the ground inside the dugout or in any other out-of-play area."
- Third strike legally caught by catcher. "Leagally caught" means the pitched or tipped ball first strikes the catcher's glove and then is caught by the catcher.
- Intentionally dropped fly ball. If a fielder intentionally drops a fly ball or a line drive (after touching it) when runners are on base such that there is a force out at any base, the batter is out and other runner return. This rule does not apply if the ball drops untouched (unless infield fly is in play).
- Fielder falls into dead ball territory. If after making a legal catch a fielder falls into dead ball territory (over a railing or fence and into stands or other dead ball area), the catch is legal but the ball is dead and all runners advance one base.
- Members of team at bat must give right of way. Players and coaches, including those in dugout and bullpen, must clear away from any area required by a fielder to make a catch. Any hinderance is interference and results in the batter being called out and runners, if any, returned to their base last occupied at the time the interference occurred.
Two important recent OBR updates regarding the catch
Since 2014, Major League Baseball has made two rule changes that affect interpreting and ruling on the catch.
Catch and carry
In 2016, MLB revised Rule 5.06(b)(3)(C) (including the Comment) to remove the opportunity for "catch-and-carry" into dead-ball territory. The rule formerly allowed a player who made a catch on the run in fair territory, but whose momentum then carried him into dead-ball territory, to have a legal catch so long as the player did not fall in dead-ball territory. This is no longer the case. The rule now states that any player who "after haivng made a legal catch, should step or fall into any out-of-play area, the ball is dead ...." There is a one-base award for all runners on base, and for the batter it is a foul ball.
This ruling has little effect in the Major Leagues, whose fields are entirely enclosed, except for falling over the railing into the seats. However, this can have a large impact on amateur leagues that follow OBR, whose ball fields are frequently not fully enclosed and whose "out-of-play" boundaries may be arbitrary (e.g., fence line extended).
The "flip" toss
In 2014, Major League Baseball revised wording in rule book definition catch. The issue involves the "flip" – that move in which a fielder gloves a ball and then flips it from his glove to another fielder without ever touching it with a throwing hand. You normally see this when middle infielders are turning a double play.
By not ever touching the ball, there is no opportunity to evidence "secure control" nor "voluntary release," despite the flip being a voluntary act. The 2014 revision, then, removed the requirement to secure the ball with the "throwing hand" and recognizes the validity of the "flip."