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Attempted steals of home provide umpires with plenty to watch — there’s not only the tag and touch of the plate, there’s a possibility for balks, interference and obstruction. (Photo Credit: Keith Johnston)

By George Demetriou

Grand larceny is a term used to designate theft that is large in magnitude. Grand larceny can be contrasted with petty larceny, theft that is of smaller magnitude or lesser severity. So we can say stealing second is petty theft and stealing home is grand larceny. Statistics indicate stealing the plate is a diminishing art. The practice is, sadly, a lot less common than it used to be. The record for steals of home in a season is eight, set by Ty Cobb in 1912. There are now years when that was the yearly total for all of MLB (2004, 2008, 2014, 2015).

On occasion a planned squeeze play can end up as a steal attempt. In either case, a variety of events can occur, most of which involve the violation of a rule. When those occur, it is essential for the umpires to get it right.

When a runner streaks for the plate, umpire antennas should be up for balks and for contact between catcher and batter. A pitcher using the set position might run through the stop and a pitcher winding up could interrupt his motion; however, accelerating the windup motion is not a balk.

The catcher cannot deprive the batter of an opportunity to hit the pitch. It does not matter if the batter intends to take the pitch; contact is not necessary. Examples are the catcher stepping on or in front of home during delivery, putting his glove in the path of the bat or touching the batter or his bat. If those happen, the ball is delayed dead and play continues. If the batter reaches first base and all other runners advance at least one base, the interference is ignored. If interference is called, the coach of the offense may elect to decline the penalty and accept the results of the play.

Under NCAA and pro rules, if the interference occurs while a runner on third is trying to score by means of a steal and the ball is not batted (most likely), the batter is awarded first base, the pitcher is charged with a balk and all runners advance one base. Under NFHS rules, there is no balk. The batter is awarded first and any runners who were attempting to advance or are forced to advance are awarded one base (NFHS 8-1-1e, 8.1.1L, 8.3.1B; NCAA 8-2e2, 8-3p; pro 6.01c Cmt., 6.01g).

As for the batter, he carries the burden of avoiding interfering with the play. Simply freezing is not good enough if the umpire judges the lack of movement was contrived to interfere. If the batter had sufficient time to get out of the way and could have gotten out of the way, but doesn’t, interference could be ruled. For interference to be called, the batter’s action or lack of action must alter the play.

With a steal in progress the batter is entitled to wait on the pitch — he doesn’t lose his right to swing at it. Once that opportunity has passed, though, he cannot hold his ground to make it more difficult for the catcher to tag the runner.

If the batter interferes, the ball is delayed dead, except in the case where a throw is batted (pitcher stepping off the pitching plate and then throwing home), which causes the ball to be immediately dead. The runner is out unless there are two outs. In that case the batter is out and the run does not score (NFHS 5-1-1b, 7-3-5c, 8-4-2L, 7.3.5G; NCAA 7-11f Exc. 1, 7-11v, 8-5L; pro 5.09b8, 6.01a3).

Squeeze plays, either suicide or safety (delayed), are also prime opportunities for contact between the catcher and batter. When that occurs, the umpire must adjudicate the contact.

It is interference if the catcher catches the pitch before the batter has an opportunity to swing at it. It does not matter if the batter intends to take the pitch. Contact is not necessary; catching the pitch before it reaches the back edge of the plate is an act of interference and the ball is immediately dead.

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In NCAA and pro, the batter is awarded first base, the pitcher is charged with a balk and all runners advance one base. Under NFHS rules, there is no balk. The batter is awarded first and any runners who were attempting to advance or are forced to advance are awarded one base (NFHS 8-1-1e, 8.1.1L, 8.3.1B; NCAA 8-2e Exc., 8-3p; pro 5.05b3 Cmt).

If the batter merely stands in the batter’s box as the play develops, he is not guilty of interference unless he, in the umpire’s judgment, makes some movement to intentionally interfere. The batter is entitled to swing at the pitch and, as long as he has the opportunity to do so, he is allowed to stand his ground. However, once the ball has passed the plate, any unnatural movement by the batter which complicates the catcher’s play at home can be construed to be interference. The burden is on the batter to avoid interfering with the play. Any movement must be an effort to get out of as opposed to into the play. But even unintentional interference is interference.

If interference is called and there are two outs, the batter is out and the run does not score. With less than two outs, the runner, instead of the batter, is called out (NFHS 7-3-5 Pen.; NCAA 7-11f AR 1-3; pro 6.01a3)

A runner streaking for the plate on a squeeze could possibly be hit by the pitch. Many years ago, pitchers would do that to break up the play, thus the rule exists to discourage a pitcher from intentionally hitting a runner. If a legal pitch hits a runner trying to score, it is an immediate dead ball and runners advance. In NCAA only, runners not attempting to advance remain at the base they occupied at the time of the pitch unless forced (NFHS 5-1-1a, 8-3-1a; NCAA 6-4b Exc.; pro 5.09a14).

Another possible, but rare, scenario is when the pitcher recognizes the squeeze is on, legally disengages the rubber and throws (as opposed to pitches) to the plate in an effort to retire the runner. The batter then of course must vacate the area and not interfere. If the batter hits the throw or otherwise gets in the way of the catcher, the ball is dead, interference is called and the runner is out unless there are two outs. In that case the batter is out and the run does not score (NFHS 5-1-1b, 7-3-5c, 8-4-2L, 7.3.5G; NCAA 7-11v, 8-5L; pro 5.09b8, 6.01a3).

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