Watch this play, from an Indians-Padres game in Cleveland last week:
Indians outfielder Elliot Johnson made what appeared to be a nice running catch against the right-field wall. But after colliding with the wall and recovering all with the ball entrenched in his glove Johnson dropped the ball while transferring it to his throwing hand. And due to a new MLB rule that says a catch is not completed until a ball is moved cleanly from glove to hand, it was deemed a hit and upheld on replay.
The new rule came in part in anticipation of replay challenges on relay throws in the middle infield, in which players somewhat frequently drop the ball in the rapid transition. But since, as written, it applies to all catches, it means outfielders must also successfully transfer the ball to their bare hand before they re credited with a catch.
Dave Cameron at Fangraphs points out that the rule could be exploited by some enterprising team.
With less than two outs, baserunners know to go halfway to the next base on fly balls to the outfield, allowing them to retreat if an outfielder catches the ball and advance if he doesn t.
So with runners on first and second or the bases loaded and less than two outs, an outfielder could, in theory, catch a fly ball, take several steps toward the infield as the baserunners begin retreating, then drop the ball out of his glove.
An accurate throw to third, in that situation, would force out the runner from second. And if the outfielder makes the play and then doesn t close enough to the infield, the third baseman should be able to relay the ball to second in time for a double play.
MLB rules state that a batter is out if an infielder intentionally drops a fair fly ball or line drive, with first, first and second, first and third, or first, second and third base occupied before two are out. The ball is dead and runner or runners shall return to their original base or bases essentially, an extension of the infield fly rule.
But even if that same clause applies to outfielders, it d be difficult for officials to prove a fly ball was dropped intentionally if the outfielder was a good enough actor as with flopping in soccer. And though Cameron s post suggests that managers might not want to exploit any obvious oversight in the rules, managers are paid to help their team win games, not to uphold the integrity of baseball in instances where the rulebook has failed to.
The league needs to clarify the new secured possession rule, as it pertains to outfielders, as quickly as possible. There s too much at stake for teams to not try to take advantage of it, especially if the only downside to dropping the ball intentionally is the batter being ruled out, the same result as if the outfielder had maintained possession.