Umpires are tasked with making thousands of split-second decisions over the course of their careers. Some of those calls are obvious, while others aren’t so black and white. One of the more difficult and controversial calls an umpire must make is obstruction. Calling obstruction often leads to a runner either being awarded a base or an out coming off the board, or both. In contrast, failing to call obstruction puts the offense at a huge disadvantage and can lead to erroneous out calls. This is further highlighted in those crucial end-of-the-game situations, especially close plays at the plate in the last inning. Getting this call right is what separates good umpires from great umpires.
Obstruction has always been a hot topic, but it was thrown back into the spotlight due to the Women’s College World Series in 2017. Several calls, and non-calls, led to the NCAA re-examining the rule and ultimately changing it in 2018. One purpose of the new rule was to eliminate unnecessary collisions, especially at home plate, but also at the bases as more and more defenders were blocking bags without the ball. Eliminating umpire judgment and having the call become more consistently enforced were two other reasons for the rule change.
The rule change by the NCAA actually brought it closer to the rules in the other codes. All of them generally define obstruction as the act of a defensive player, not in possession of the ball or in the act of fielding a batted ball, impeding a batter’s attempt to make contact with a pitch or impeding the progress of a runner who is legally running the bases during a live ball. While the definition is pretty cut and dried, there are several things that can happen during a play that make it a very difficult call. There are several moving parts on any given play and an umpire must get into a position to see all of them in order to get this call correct.
Obstruction by the catcher on a pitched ball.
While that can be a difficult call to see or hear, it is generally easier to determine than obstruction that occurs on the basepath. The most important part for the umpire is positioning at the time of the pitch. The plate umpire must get set in the slot to get an unobstructed view of the entire strike zone and be able to see the pitch in its entirety from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove.
There will often be a second sound when the bat makes contact with the glove. That can be tough to determine on a foul ball off the catcher’s glove as the two sounds will occur nearly simultaneously. An umpire needs to determine if the bat hit the glove or if the second sound was simply the ball hitting the catcher’s glove. Generally, the sound of the bat hitting the glove is a different sound than the bat hitting the ball, and the umpire has to determine which sound was heard first. Sometimes, there will be more obvious clues that obstruction occurred such as the catcher recoiling her glove arm, the catcher’s glove getting knocked off or the bat being stopped from continuing its momentum because of the obstruction. Picking up on those clues separates good umpires from superior ones.
Obstruction on the bases.
There are more elements and moving parts on the bases, especially if there are multiple runners. The most important factor is positioning. An umpire must constantly move in order to see the entire play and keep all the elements — the ball, the fielder, the runner and the base/plate — in focus.
More than one umpire may be watching the play, depending on how many umpires are working the game and how many runners are on base. As seen in the photo that accompanies this column, the fielder is clearly blocking the base without the ball, preventing the runner from having any path to the base. The runner has already started her slide and has no access to the bag.
While contact in that situation isn’t necessary to rule obstruction, it makes the call much easier to make and sell. However, if the fielder impedes the runner’s progress at all, obstruction should be ruled since she doesn’t have the ball, nor is she making an initial play on the batted ball. If the runner’s RMBQ (rhythm, momentum, balance or quickness) is affected, even if there isn’t contact, obstruction should be called to protect the runner.
Obstruction can happen anywhere on the field and often happens in the middle of the basepath while the ball is in the outfield. Some fielders tend to watch the ball and ignore the runners around them. It is imperative that umpires focus on runners to ensure they aren’t obstructed while running the bases. Once the delayed dead ball signal is given, it is important to keep umpiring as several other plays can still happen while the ball is live. Umpires will also need to know what base awards, if any, to give once the play is over.
One of the toughest calls to make concerns obstruction at a base where a runner is thrown out. That tends to happen at home plate. In the past, fielders were taught to block the bag, catch the ball then tag the runner. Now, defensive players must catch the ball first. Umpires must get in proper position to make sure the fielder does not impede the progress of the runner to the bag or plate if she doesn’t have the ball first. The one exception is in NCAA, which states if a runner is clearly beaten by the throw, the runner may still be called out. The key in all codes is for umpires to let the play develop, see the entire play, then determine what happened.
One of the biggest myths is that a runner cannot be called out if obstruction is called. A runner who advances beyond the base she would have reached had obstruction not occurred is advancing at her own risk and is liable to be put out. If a runner creates interference after the obstruction, she is called out as interference takes precedence.
Another myth is a fielder may block the bag if a play is imminent. The rules have changed; no fielder may block the bag or plate without the ball.
Another part of the rule often misunderstood is what to do to a fielder who moves to catch a poorly thrown ball. Coaches often cite that their players have the right to go catch a ball. That is true, provided they do not impede the progress of a runner. A fielder has protection on a batted ball, but not on a thrown ball. Fielders may move through the path en route to catching the ball, provided they do not stop in the runner’s path or impede their progress.
There are a couple of misconceptions as well when it comes to contact. There does not have to be contact for there to be obstruction. Runners will often intentionally deviate their path in order to avoid contact. Also, contact in and of itself doesn’t equal obstruction. If a runner intentionally alters her path to create the contact, obstruction should not be called.
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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.
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