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Why MLB's catch rules are now stricter than the NFL's

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
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ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 14: Manager Ron Washington of the Texas Rangers is ejected after arguing a play that was under review with Ted Barrett and and Paul Schrieber (R) in the 6th inning against the Seattle Mariners at Globe Life Park in Arlington on April 14, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Brandon Moss hadn't given much thought to the new emphasis on glove-to-hand transfers until he was awarded a hit on the technicality, which was great until he crossed paths with teammate Josh Donaldson, who, turned out, was going the wrong way between first and second base.

Eventually, Moss, who watched Seattle's Dustin Ackley make a wonderful catch on a fly ball in left-center field, and Donaldson, who saw the same play, wound up together at first base.

"What happened?" Donaldson asked Moss, who was supposed to be out, in the dugout, anywhere but at first base, because everybody in the ballpark saw Ackley catch the baseball.

Except somewhere between his glove and his hand, between what was a clear catch and the need to heave the ball back toward the infield, Ackley lost his grip on the ball.

So Donaldson, not having seen that part, was returning to first base, and Moss, after the initial disappointment of the catch, noted an umpire signaling he was safe, and therefore was plodding toward second when, inconveniently, Donaldson charged past him in the opposite direction.

This was Saturday in Seattle. And in a period of baseball in which the game is getting comfortable with expanded replay and new guidelines governing the conduct of baserunners and catchers at home plate, we've also got a suddenly strict interpretation of when a baseball goes from secured to unsecured, which makes for maybe a few too many moving parts for everybody.

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Brandon Moss, right, and Josh Donaldson had their own run-in with the transfer rule. (AP)

"In our opinion," Moss said, apparently speaking for the Oakland A's, "it makes the games more confusing.

"For a hundred years we've known if a guy has caught a ball or not."

Moss granted the new enforcement of transfer – from glove to hand – rules are intended to eliminate the gray areas of possession and exchange (particularly during double plays turned at second base), just like the new replay system is designed to offer more clarity. But after living through several iffy transfer calls and seeing replays of others in other games, Moss isn't so sure.

"In all honesty," he said, "they're creating more gray area."

Last Wednesday in Cleveland, Indians outfielder Elliot Johnson made a catch that survived several steps and a collision with the right-field fence, but not the exchange or the rigidity of the transfer rule. We're learning that receiving and securing a pass in the NFL is a looser proposition than catching a fly ball in the major leagues. At least Anquan Boldin got credit for a catch without having to throw the ball back to Colin Kaepernick.

Besides, Johnson told reporters in Cleveland, he got, "Two feet in and possession of the ball."

"Can we get some common sense?" he asked.

It's going around. On Monday night in Texas, Rangers catcher J.P. Arencibia received a throw from pitcher Pedro Figueroa for a force play at home. He caught the ball, drew back his mitt, stepped away from the plate, and then juggled the ball on the exchange. Upon Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon's challenge, no out was recorded. Rangers manager Ron Washington was ejected for arguing.

"We've got to do something about it," Washington told reporters in Arlington, Texas. "I understand the rule and I understand their interpretation of it. I just don’t agree with it."

Said Arencibia: "I think it's not baseball."

Through two weeks, we've seen about a dozen or so of these calls, some borderline, others just ridiculously overthought. Or under-thought.

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Josh Hamilton lost an out earlier this season on a bungled transfer. (Getty Images)

"It doesn't make too much sense," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "when you have the ball with your glove closed around it and it's not a catch."

The Angels lost an out when outfielder Josh Hamilton misplayed the transfer, also successfully challenged by McClendon.

The umpires are following the letter of the rule, as ordered in the offseason by MLB, which recently issued a statement on why all of these catches are not really catches. It read: "Umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand."

While actual possession of the ball has long haunted the pivot-man at second base, and it seems second basemen and shortstops were the targets of the fresh emphasis on catch-transfer-throw, the rule has ensnared every position. A's manager Bob Melvin even challenged a tipped strike-three transfer by Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki, arguing the at-bat should continue, which, by the letter of the law, is rational enough. Umpires ruled otherwise.

During a team meeting before Monday night's game in Anaheim, Melvin reminded his players they must finish every play, and keep one eye on whatever transfer might be going on out there, and, presumably, guess correctly in case of a replay overturn. In the very game Moss and Donaldson became entangled between first and second, Yoenis Cespedes lined out to Ackley in left, peeled off the first-base line and – when Ackley again whiffed the transfer – was out, 7 to 6 to 3.

"We've had some stuff going on that's not too good," Melvin said. "You have to acclimate quickly because it looks like it's here to stay."

Maybe it is, and maybe MLB will recognize the literal interpretation of its rule is nullifying the actual point of playing defense, which is to catch the baseball. On the baseball field, under the new guideline, umpires are seeing dropped balls. In real life, many of those balls are caught long before they are dropped, are outs long before they are not.

"When it happened to me," Moss said, "I hit that ball well. Ackley made a great play. In my mind he caught it. All the truth of the matter is he caught that ball. He made an outstanding play and caught that ball."

We should leave it at that.

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