Bull Durham, Elliot Johnson, and the non-catch catch

Jason Miller

"A good friend of mine used to say, 'This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.' ...Think about that for a while."

- Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh

The catch which became an error which became a hit in right field yesterday struck me as a bad call because it violated my sense that baseball at its best is a simple game. Some of its clearest and simplest aspects are that it involves hitting the ball, catching the ball, and throwing the ball. And each of these is supposed to be separate from the other.

Here's the play, in case you haven't seen it already:

The call yesterday felt wrong because the application of the new rule conflates two separate functions of the game—catching the ball and throwing the ball. By the time Johnson had closed his glove over the ball, run several strides with the ball lodged securely in his glove, hit the wall and kept the ball in the same place in his glove, and then rotated his body back toward the field with the ball still securely in his glove, his glove work was finished. He had caught the ball.

Now he had to throw it back in to the infield, and so he had to transfer the ball to his throwing hand. And that’s when he dropped the ball. If he had dropped it and picked it up and dropped it again allowing the runner on first to advance, it would have been thought of as a mistake involving the throwing aspect of the game—that is, it would have been properly thought of as a throwing error. But because he simply mishandled the initial transfer from glove to hand his mistake somehow came to be seen as a fumbled catch, which meant that it was now to be viewed like a play in which the ball had simply hit Johnson’s glove and bounced off it, a traditional form of poor glove work.

This, I think, is why the new rule concerning what constitutes a catch is so unsettling. It upends what seems like a natural aspect of the game.

And keep in mind that the official scorer was also disconcerted by the new rule. Initially he ruled the play an error, and the play was carried as an error on the scoreboard for about an inning or so. Then it was changed to a hit. I can sympathize with the scorer, for after Johnson had rotated his body back toward the infield every hard part of the play was over. The right fielder had caught the ball on the run, done so in a difficult afternoon sun field, and kept the ball secure through and after hitting the wall and turning back toward the infield. If Johnson handled any part of his job in a manner that fell below major league standards of competence, it was the part that involved the fairly simple act of transferring the ball from his glove to his throwing hand.

But now the scorer had to account for the fact that the batter was on second instead of being out. And it didn’t seem fair to blame it on the pitcher. So he must have focused on that fumbled transfer from glove to throwing hand and said that it was the one part of the whole play—from the time the pitch was thrown to the time the runner ended up on second—which fell below major league standards of adequate performance. So he ruled the play an error. But then he must have taken into account that the overall play by Johnson was reasonably difficult and nicely handled and that it was unfair to pin the blame on him. So he changed the ruling to a hit, which, of course, was unfair to the pitcher.

Perhaps the worst aspect of what happened yesterday is that it just seemed to be at variance with the way the game is supposed to work, because it made catching the ball seem like something other than what it actually looks like. Baseball rules are supposed to keep things as simple and comprehensible as reasonably possible. This rule and yesterday’s ruling fail to meet this standard.

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