Interference is a large subject, so for convenience I've broken the topic into sections. This article covers the basics of offensive interference. In separate articles we cover the subjects of Batter's Interference, Defensive Interference (also called "catcher's interference"), Spectator Interference, and Umpire Interference.
Offensive interference is defined in in the rule book: Definitions (interference):
"Offensive interference is an act by the team at bat which interferes with, obstructs, impedes, hinders, or confuses any fielder attempting to make a play. If the umpire declares the batter, batter-runner, or a runner out for interference, all other runners shall return to the last base that was in the judgment of the umpire, legally touched at the time of the interference, unless otherwise provided by these rules."
Notice that the rule says interference is "an act by the team at bat." This is important, because it means that in addition to players on the field, you can also call interference on players in the dugout, as well as on coaches. (Spectators and others can also be called for interference. We discuss these cases in Spectator Interference.)
When offensive interference takes place, call the offender out; the ball is dead, and other runners (if any) return to the last base they acquired. "The last base acquired" is usually the time-of-pitch base, but in some cases it's not. We'll discuss this.
We're going to cover these topics:
- Important concept: The protected fielder
- Seeing interference
- Is it interference or just a train wreck
- Weak interference
- Interference with a thrown ball
- Mechanic for calling interference
Important Concept: The Protected Fielder
The rules of baseball protect a fielder making a play on a batted ball from interference by a base runner. This is one of the real fundamentals. The fielder gets the right-of-way. A fielder's protection begins the moment the ball is put in play and the fielder goes in motion to make a play on the ball; and the protection continues until the fielder makes a play or throw after fielding the ball.
Here's the rub. The rules protect only one fielder. Just one. In cases where two or more fielders are in motion on a batted ball, you have to decide which fielder is best able to make the play. That's the protected fielder. You have to see the sequence and mark to yourself which fielder you're protecting.
Okay, so a base runner has to give the right-of-way to a fielder playing on a batted ball. But consider this scenario: Batter hits a slow-roller up the first base line. Both the pitcher and the first baseman are closing on the ball. Let's say the pitcher has the best chance at the ball. The batter-runner moves off the baseline to avoid the pitcher fielding the ball, but in the process collides with the first baseman. What do we have? Interference? Train wreck (nothing)? Obstruction?
Probably obstruction, because the player who collided with the base runner is not the protected fielder. Here's the bottom line:
- If the protected fielder and base runner come together in such a way that the fielder is hindered or impeded, you probably have interference on the base runner.
- If an un-protected fielder and base runner come together in such a way that the base runner is hindered or impeded, you probably have obstruction on the fielder.
Understanding interference means really understanding the words "… obstructs, impedes, hinders, or confuses …." These words cover a lot of lot of ground, but a good start is looking at some scenarios:
1. Base runner is hit by a batted ball
This is an easy one. If a runner is touched by a batted ball, the ball is dead and the runner is out. This applies to the batter, too, once he's out of the batter's box. So if a base runner is hit by a batted ball, you have interference. No intent is required. The ball is dead, the offender is called out, and other runners return to their last touched base.
Note: There's an exception to the rule that a base runner is out for interference if hit by a batted ball. We discuss the exception at length in Runner Touched by Live Ball. But in a nutshell, a base runner that is hit by a batted ball is not out if the ball has just passed an infielder, or was touched by an infielder and deflected. We're talking about a ball that goes throught the legs or off the glove of an infielder and then hits the base runner. Of course, there's also and exception to the exception, but … well, read the article.
2. Base runner impedes a defensive player fielding a batted ball
If a base runner impedes a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball, or who is making a throw in continuation of fielding a batted ball, you have interference (5.09(b)(3)). Call the runner out. Award the batter first base (unless he is the one who interfered). Other runners may only advance on this play if forced by batter going to first.
If the interference is on a base runner (i.e., not the batter-runner), and the interference prevents the defense from completing a double play, you have two outs – one on the runner for interference, and the second on the batter-runner. The most common scenario is when a runner coming into second base interferes on the pivot, either with an illegal slide, or by other means hindering or impeding the opportunity to complete the double play (6.01(a)(6)). Call Time, announce the interference and call the base runner out; then, turn and point to the batter-runner and call him out as well.
The video shows an example: Interference is called on James Loney of the Mets, whose slide to break up a double play is ruled illegal. Loney is called out for interference on the play, and the batter-runner, Kevin Planecki, is also called out, completing a game-ending double play.
3. Interference in the running lane
There is a three-foot-wide running lane the last half (the last 45 feet) between home plate and first base. If you run outside this running lane while a play is being made from the vicinity of home plate (on a bunt, for example) you can be called out for interference. I said you "can" be called out for interference if running outside the lane. But not necessarily. We'll explain.
5.09(a)(11) is our rules reference, which reads in part:
"In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire's judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base ...."
This next video shows an example where the plate umpire (it's his call) calls Tampa Bay's Mikie Mahtook out for interference on a running lane violation. The throw, while not great, is "catchable," so the call is a good one.
When we said that you're not necessarily out for interference when running outside the running lane, we're calling attention to a few wrinkles in the rule. Here are the important points to remember when judging interference on a running lane violation:
- First, let's define the running lane: A three-foot-wide lane occupying the last half of the distance to first base. The lines marking the running lane are part of the running lane.
- When is a runner out of the running lane?The batter-runner is out of the running lane when, during the last half of the distance to first base, one of the runner's feet (or both, for that matter) is entirely outside the running lane at the time that the interference potentially (but again, not necessarily) occurs.
- A throw must be made. If the catcher, for example, comes up with a bunted ball and sets up to throw to first, but then stops and doesn't throw because the runner (in his view) is in the way, you cannot have interference.
- The throw must be a catchable throw. Using the same example, if the catcher comes up with a bunted ball and then throws wild to first base because (in his view) the runner was in the way, you cannot have interference.
- Note the language of the rule: "… interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base." Points #3 and #4, above, rest on this most important point: that is, if there is interference, the interference is on the fielder receiving the ball at first base and not on the fielder throwing the ball from the vicinity of home plate. This is very important when applying the rule. You're going to get managers arguing that the runner caused a fielder to throw wild, or not throw at all, but these are not valid arguments.
- Two exceptions. There are two exceptions (wrinkles, really) in 5.09(a)(11). First, the runner is permitted to leave the running lane to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball. We know this already from what we've learned thus far about interference – that the fielder has the right of way in fielding a batted ball. Second, noticing that first base itself (the bag) is outside the running lane, the runner is permitted by rule to step out of the running lane for the purpose of touching first base.
So all of this rather begs the question: when do you have interference on a running lane violation? Well, the most common scenario is when you have the runner outside the running lane and the fielder's throw to first base is on line, but the throw hits the runner in the back (or head) causing the ball to drop uncaught. This is not the only scenario, of course, but it's probably the most common one. Kill the ball, call the batter-runner out for interference, and return all runners (if any) to their last obtained base.
Note: High school (FED) rules differ somewhat. Whereas OBR requires that the throw from the vicinity of home plate be a "catchable throw" in order to have interference, FED rules do not have this requirement. Any throw to first base from the vicinity of home plate to retire a runner who is outside the running lane create legitimate grounds for calling running lane interference. (See FED Rule 8-4-1-g.)
4. Bat hits the ball a second time
Our rules reference is 5.09(a)(8), and the rule (and its commentary) covers several scenarios. Following are the key points:
- Bat hits the ball in fair territory. If you hit or bunt a fair ball and then the bat strikes the ball a second time in fair territory, this is interference and the batter is out, the ball is dead, and runners (if any) return to their last touched base. This applies whether the bat is still in the batter's hand or if the bat was dropped in fair territory and strikes the ball on the ground. This is tricky, though; see #2.
- Ball hits bat. If you hit or bunt a fair ball, drop your bat, and then the ball rolls into and strikes the bat, you have nothing so long as there was not an intentional attempt to interfere with the course of the ball. Live ballo; play on. (Comparing #1 and #2, note that you have to judge whether the bat hit the ball, or the ball hit the bat. Good luck with that.)
- Ball hits bat in batter's box. If you hit or bunt a ball and the ball immediately bounces back and strikes the bat while the batter is still in the batter's box, this is a foul ball (just as if the ball struck the batter). Of course, the ball is dead and runners, if in motion, must return to their last touched base.
- Part of broken bat hits ball. If you break your bat on a fair batted ball and the ball strikes part of the bat, or if part of the bat strikes a fielder, you have nothing. Play on.
- Batter-runner intentionally .... If batter or base runner intentionally deflects the course of a batted ball (or thrown ball, for that matter), this is interference and the batter or runner is out, ball is dead, and runners return. This applies whether the ball was over fair territory or foul.
5. Base runner "confuses" the fielder
What-the-what? Confuses the fielder? Sounds strange, but this is actually a very important part of the interference rule. Members of the "team at bat" (that means coaches and players in the dugout as well as players on the field) cannot scream, yell or shout in an attempt to impede a fielder's play on a batted ball (or thrown ball, for that matter).
You can think up lots of scenarios. For example, let's say there's one out and a runner on first (R1). Batter hits a weak grounder to the shortstop. Easy double-play, right? Well, on sliding into second, R1 shouts "that's three outs," and the second baseman pulls up, drops the ball and starts heading for the dugout. Well, you might say the second baseman (F4) is a moron for not knowing his situation and falling for the trick (and you'd be right). That said, it's still interference.
A better example has the batter hit a towering fly ball to the infield. Third baseman (F6) is moving to his left, settling under the ball. Two outs, so the runner on second (R2) is moving on the hit and as he passes near F6 (who is focused on the ball, of course), he shouts "I've got it, I've got it," pretending he's the shortstop (F5) calling F6 off. So the ball drops to the ground untouched on the trickery. "Time. That's interference!"
As a side note, you can also have verbal obstruction; and, as with verbal interference, the infraction can be caused by players in the dugout as well as by players on the field.
6. Base coach interferes
Here's the scenario: Batter hits a monster to the gap in right-center field and he's busting to make it a triple. It's going to be close but the batter-runner should make it. Base coach is signalling to slide. The runner slides, but makes a bad slide and tumbles over third base and lands two steps beyond the base. Ball is arriving so the base coach grabs the runners arm and pushes him back toward the base, which the runner just reaches with an outstretched hand. He's safe, right?
Wrong. Check Rule 6.01(a)(8): The runner is out if "In the judgment of the umpire, the base coach at third base, or first base, by touching or holding the runner, physically assists that runner in returning to or leaving third base or first base."
Another example, again at third base, has a runner start for home on a passed ball, but seeing that the ball did not get very far, the third base coach yells "Back, back!" and grabs the runner's jersey to pull him back toward the base. That's interference. The runner is out.
Important: The mechanic for calling coach's interference is unusual. It is one of the uncommon interference calls that is a delayed dead ball; however, the runner is called out immediately, but play is allowed to continue. The reason you call the runner out, but don't kill the ball, is that you don't want to penalize the defense by preventing them from retiring other runners. Note that your calling the runner out but allowing play to continue may cause other runners, or even the defense, to become confused. That's not your problem. Players are responsible for situational awareness (including knowledge of the rules), so just watch the action, read and react.
Is it Interference or Just a Train Wreck?
There are occasionally situations that appear to be interference (or obstruction, for that matter), when the runner and the fielder are both doing exactly what they should be doing, but a developing play brings them together in such a way that you might (just might) have interference, or you might (just might) have obstruction, but in fact have nothing – just a train wreck. This probably happens most frequently at first base on a batted ball to the infield.
You need three ingredients for a train wreck. First, you need a close play. You get these at first base all the time. Second, you need a lot of speed. Again, being able to run through first base, you get peak speed right at the base. Third, you need an off-line throw.
These off-line throws cause a lot of headaches – not just at first base, but on plays at home as well. When judging this (Interference on the runner? Obstruction on the fielder? Nothing?), there are a lot of moving pieces and the action happens fast, and you just have to slow your brain down and process everything and make a call. Here are some of what you need to sort out:
- Where is the fielder before he has the ball. Could he be obstructing the runner? That is, did the fielder impede the runner before he had the ball? That's probably obstruction.
- If the fielder strays into the runner's path, is it in a legitimate attempt to catch an off-line throw? If so, that's probably a train wreck. If, on the other hand, the fielder moves into the runner's path and is calling for a throw in that position, you probably have obstruction.
- Where is the runner's path? Has he altered his path in a way that seems deliberately intended to impede the fielder's opportunity to make the play? If so, that could be interference.
These are tough calls that have to be made rather quickly. If you make a call, but then you immediately start second-guessing yourself. This is when you call time and conference with your partner. This gives you an opportunity to slow down and think about what happen, as well as to listen to your partner describe what he saw.
Let's start by pointing out that the term "weak interference" does not appear in the Official Baseball Rules. Don't bother looking. You won't find it.
That said, the concept of weak interference is valid and applied regularly on the baseball field. Not often, mind you. But it is.
The rules reference most commonly aligned with weak interference is in paragraph 3 of 6.03(a)(4) Comment – backswing interference – where the batter's followthrough comes around and strikes the catcher unintentionally. When this happens, you kill the ball but you don't call anyone out (unless the swing is strike three, of course). If any runners advanced on the play, they must return to their time-of-pitch base.
Weak interference is the only interference where nobody is called out. It's a "no-harm, no-foul" situation in which neither team gains an advantage. But remember, you must call "time" to kill the ball and you must not allow any runners to advance.
Another example of weak interference is when a player, like the on-deck batter, or a spectator, touches a live ball (but not a batted ball), when there are no runners on base. Just call "time" and get the ball back to the pitcher.
Interference With a Thrown Ball
Everything thus far pertains to a batted ball; what about when a runner is touched by a thrown ball? Again, we discuss this at length in the article Runner Touched by Live Ball. Here's the short version.
A base runner hit by a thrown ball is guilty of interference only if the runner intentionally touches the ball, or otherwise alters or deflects the course of the thrown ball. This doesn't happen very often, but be alert for it. There is one exception to the intentionality issue on a thrown ball, and that is when the batter-runner commits a running-lane violation and is hit by a ball throw from the vicinity of home plate. We discussed this scenario in #3, above.
So the bottom line is, runner hit by batted ball: interference, runner is out. Runner hit by thrown ball: nothing, play on. However, we've discussed several exceptions and wrinkles, so you must know your interference rules well.
The Mechanic for Calling Interference
When you see interference, call it immediately. There's often a lot of action going on when interference takes place, so you have to come up big, using a really loud voice, and call "TIME, That's interference." Then, pointing to the runner, You, you're out!" If there are runners on base, send them back to their last base legally touched before the interference.