In the bottom of the ninth inning in Thursday night's game against the Angels, Athletics pitcher Dan Otero and first baseman Brandon Moss both attempted to field a chopper hit by Erick Aybar halfway up the first-base line:
While Dan Otero had the ball and appeared to apply the tag on Aybar in the collision, home plate umpire Greg Gibson awarded Aybar first base. The Athletics ultimately protested the play.
First of all, ignore any temptation to believe Aybar should be out because he ran on the inside of the first base line. In general, a batter can take any path he likes to the next base until an attempt to tag him is being made or some other rule prevents it. The rule you are tempted to cite, Rule 6.05(k), reads "A batter is out when--"
Because on this play, the ball was not being "fielded to first base" (i.e., thrown to first base, because the umpire must judge there was "interfere[nce] with the fielder taking the throw at first base]), rule 6.05(k) is inapplicable and the running lane is irrelevant.
Next, let's look at the definition of obstruction, contained in Rule 2.00:
Now look at Rule 7.09(j) interference, where "It is interference by a batter or a runner when--"
Don't look at this rule as a way to call Aybar out. Aybar should be out for the simple reason that he was tagged by Dan Otero while not in contact with a base he was entitled to. Rather, Rule 7.09(j) creates the possibility that "two or more fielders [can] attempt to field a batted ball."
The rule only requires the umpire to decide if he is trying to determine if a batter is out pursuant to Rule 7.09(j). We don't care about Rule 7.09(j), we only care about whether Brandon Moss can be said to have been in the act of fielding a batted ball, because obstruction is only applicable if a fielder is not in the act of fielding. Both Dan Otero and Brandon Moss can be the act of fielding a batted ball, so neither should be called for obstruction.
Addressing a counterpoint: Brandon Moss can be called for obstruction because obstruction does not require contact
I just want to look at one more wrinkle in the obstruction rule. Obstruction does not require contact between a fielder and a runner, rather obstruction is "the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner." I would guess that Aybar was impended at the moment pictured below, when he begins to put on the brakes to avoid a collision with Brandon Moss, who is at that particular moment on a line between Aybar and first base:
Rule 7.06(a) addresses the result of obstruction of the batter-runner (the batter running to first base after putting a batted ball in play):
Here, obstruction, if it is called at all, could be called at the moment pictured, with the ball still in mid-air. However, this forgets the point made above, according to Rule 7.09(j), "two or more fielders [can] attempt to field a batted ball." And obstruction should never be called when a fielder is in the act of fielding a batted ball. This indeed only bolsters the point, because look closely at the comment to the definition of obstruction:
A fielder that attempts to field a ball and misses can be said to have been in the "act of fielding" the ball until the attempt does not succeed. That is, he does not actually have to succeed in fielding the ball to have been in the "act of fielding."
Here, when obstruction was most likely called, neither Otero's or Moss's attempt to field the ball was resolved. Both can be said to have been in the act of fielding the ball, and therefore neither should have been called for obstruction. Indeed, the play should have continued at least until this point:
Dan Otero has the ball in glove, but Aybar is now headed toward Dan Otero, and his progress is impeded by Otero. However, Otero is in possession of the ball. Obstruction cannot be called on a fielder who is in possession of the ball. Again, I believe Greg Gibson called obstruction at the first moment and not the second.
Grant a protest?
Greg Gibson will have to file a report regarding his reasoning for the recall, including judgment decisions therein. If he simply states that he did not believe Brandon Moss was in the act of fielding when he called obstruction, the protest will be denied, because that is simply an awful judgment decision that won't be reversed.
If instead, however, he writes that he believes that both fielders were in the act of fielding, but he adjudged Otero was the only one who was permitted to make a play on the ball based on the "shall determine who is entitled to the benefit of this rule" language in Rule 7.09(k), that simply is not a correct application of the rules, because Rule 7.09(k) is not applicable to calling obstruction, but only applicable to awarding an out if there is no other method of awarding an out.
At that point, however, MLB would have to determine if the outcome of the game was potentially affected by the call. Here's Rule 4.19:
The A's did have to use three relievers in the bottom of the ninth inning and who knows what John McDonald does next with no one on base. The A's got out of the inning, but may not have faced five batters that inning, and might not have needed Fernando Abad or Ryan Cook. Ryan Cook might not be pitching in a second separate inning against Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Howie Kendrick. An out there massively affects the chances that the A's win the game at that point.
It's a thin reed, but a protest may be possible if Greg Gibson and the umpiring crew did misapply the rules, rather than simply make a terrible call.
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