Baseball has been America’s national pastime for well over a century and a half. Yet it still provides long-time spectators with events that they have never seen before – or will again. Sometimes, an instinctive move results in a juggling act.
In the 2017 MLB Rule Book, a catch is defined in the Definition of Terms section thusly:
A Catch is the act of the fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket, or any part of his uniform in getting possession.
While movies, television, and cartoons have made the ball-cap catch a standard trope of nonchalance, actual games of competitive baseball have never seen the move. Not simply because of its illegality, but because baseball players are in the business of making outs as easy as can be. Using any part of the uniform only adds to the degree of difficulty.
However, while no player would intentionally utilize their uniform or equipment to make a catch, the catcher, with the tools of their trade, are sometimes placed in a compromised position.
😱 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱
You've never seen this before… Griffin Barnes takes #1 on #SCTop10!
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) May 7, 2017
While the play we see is from NCAA action, the rules involving equipment remain the same. Seattle University’s Chase Wells attempts to reach base via the bunt off of Grand Canyon University’s Jake Repavich. However, the low pitch is popped straight up. Catcher Griffin Barnes quickly gets out of his crouch and instinctively takes off his mask. Unfortunately, the pop up was already on its way down.
As Barnes takes off his mask, the ball appears to hit his wrist and bound to his right. The catcher follows the ball and dives with mask still in hand. As he dives, he appears to drop the mask just at the moment he attempts to use his hand to grab the ball. Instead, the ball squirts back up in the air. Barnes finally is able to glove the ball, ending the juggling act.
In a comment to the definition, the rulebook further clarifies a legal catch:
A catch is legal if the ball is firmly held by any fielder, even though juggled, or held by another fielder before it touches the ground.
Wells was called out and video of the play received nationwide coverage on ESPN. But, was the call correct? Clearly, the rulebook specifies that as long as the ball does not hit the ground, the multiple bounces off the body are of no consequence. But the issue of the mask in hand is not so easily answered.
The play in real time is quick, about two seconds from bat on ball to ball in glove. The first “juggle” happens as Barnes whips off his mask. It is nearly impossible to tell on the video what the ball hits; even in slower motion, the whip action of Barnes’s arm obscures whether the ball hits mask or wrist. The second juggle is clearer in slower motion, as the mask is released and then Barnes attempts to make a barehanded grab.
Based upon the umpires quick call of the out, he was certain it did not hit the mask. It is likely that he utilized his ears in determining what the ball hit – a ball off the mask should sound different than a ball off the wrist. But in an MLB game with better video angles and super slow-mo, might a manager give a replay a shot? For, if the ball did hit the mask, the play becomes much more complicated.
Rule 5.06(b)(4)(B) states that:
Each runner including the batter-runner may, without liability to be put out, advance three bases, if a fielder deliberately touches a fair ball with his cap, mask, or any part of his uniform detached from its proper place on his person. The ball is in play and the batter may advance to home base at his peril.
While there is little doubt that the touching of the ball to the mask would have been inadvertent, the act of removing the mask was a deliberate action and the only call based on the rule book as written would have been to allow all the runners on base to score and to place the runner on third. Which would have been an even wackier outcome to the instinctual mask removal than the juggling act that occurred.