Friday, October 10, 2008

Voluntary Release II: The Controversial Call That Wasn't

This is a summary of the issues surrounding the play I first wrote about right after it happened on Monday night. This also provides an overview of the somewhat controversial and elusive rule interpretation of voluntary release that doesn't seem to have received the attention it deserves. Since I've already covered some of the issues here, this is a slightly abridged version of an article I wrote for

The play, of course, involved the Angels' botched squeeze play in the top of the 9th of game four of the American League Division Series, a game the Red Sox eventually won 3-2 to advance to their ALCS matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays. With the scored tied 2-2, Reggie Willits on third base with one out, and Erick Aybar at the plate, the Angels attempted to squeeze home the go-ahead run. But, Aybar whiffed at a Manny Delcarmen offering, and Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek ran Willits back to third base. Just before Willits reached third, Varitek lunged and tagged him, falling to the ground in the process.

With the ball securely and firmly (remember those words) in Varitek's glove, he tagged Willits while he was clearly off the base. But, in the process of making the tag, Varitek's momentum caused him to fall to the ground on his left elbow. As soon as said elbow hit the ground, the ball squirted out of his glove, but umpire Tim Welke had already called Willits out. However, Welke had momentarily taken his eyes off the ball, focusing instead on the spot where the tag had occurred, and didn't actually see the ball come out of Varitek's glove. He immediately turned his head, though, and, witnessing the ball on the ground, reinforced his call by indicating the runner was out again. Angels' manager Mike Scioscia came out to argue, but was rebuked by Welke, and surprisingly didn't seem to put up much of a fight. Welke, despite the fact he didn't actually witness Varitek lose control of the ball, inexplicably didn't ask for help on the play.

I explained the concept of voluntary release, to some extent, in Monday's post. In the Official Rules of Major League Baseball, Rule 2.00 covers the definition of terms. Since I already provided the rule book's definition of "catch" and "tag" there, I'm not going to repeat them in this post.

People seem to want to use football analogies when discussing this play, but the voluntary release requirement means football analogies don't apply. There's no "a ground can't cause a fumble", nor does how many feet you get down have any relevance. The only thing that matters is whether or not the fielder is able to release the ball, from his glove or hand, voluntarily and intentionally. Most often, this involves removing the ball from the glove with the throwing hand. Voluntary release is the reason why, when an infielder loses control of the ball while in the act of removing it from his glove in turning a double play, the out still counts. The act of pulling the ball out of the glove is voluntary release.

The question here is whether or not voluntary release applies to the tag play. The definitions in the rule book refers to the concept as a requirement of the catch but says nothing about it in the definition of the tag. Since Varitek held the ball securely and firmly in his glove at the time of the tag, this one is pretty cut and dried, right? Not necessarily. In addition to the rule book, there exists a much more detailed manual, titled "Rules of Professional Baseball: A Comprehensive Re-Organization and Clarification", written by former minor league umpires and Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School instructors Chris Jaksa and Rick Roder, to deal with the countless vagaries in said rule book. This manual is widely used in umpire instruction at the professional and amateur levels.

The manual clarifies the definition of a tag in Rule 2.00 of the Official Rules, which fails to deal with action that occurs after the tag, with the following interpretation (from the 2008 edition, which is slightly different from the wording I provided on Monday):

"Catch" and "tag" are similar concepts. A tag [2.00] occurs when the ball is live and a fielder has the ball in his hand or glove (or both) and:

a. a base is touched by his person, or
b. a runner is touched by any part of the glove/ball, hand/ball, or glove/hand/ball combination.

Such fielder must have complete control of the ball during and after the touch. If the fielder bobbles or drops the ball during or after the touch of the base or runner, and the bobble or drop is due to his lack of control of himself or the ball, or due to contact with a runner, it is not a tag. A fielder shows complete control by:

a. regaining control of his own body after extenuating efforts to make a tag (especially in regard to a fall, dive, or a collision), and
b. showing that his release of the ball is (or will be) voluntary and intentional.

A fielder need not regain control of his body if he is able to voluntarily release the ball; the voluntary release alone is proof of complete control.

The two conditions of showing complete control are what's important here. Since Varitek fell and dropped the ball upon the impact of his elbow with the ground, he neither regained control of his own body nor showed voluntarily and intentional release of the ball. Therefore, he failed to satisfy the requirements of a tag. According to the Jaksa/Roder manual, that is.

So, at the very least, this leaves the issue in an extremely gray area. The interpretation offered by the Jaksa/Roder manual clearly indicates the call was incorrect. Varitek did not show complete control during and after the tag, so Willits should have been ruled safe. But, Steve Palermo, Major League supervisor of umpires, defended the call, although in very unconvincing fashion, choosing instead to refute the "ground can't cause a fumble" football analogy by saying, "That's the NFL. We don't have that in baseball. He had possession of the ball when he made the tag." Palermo's statement uses none of the important rule book terminology, so instead of clarifying, it leaves the issue still open to interpretation.

I'll briefly add my opinion on this here, something I didn't do in the Seamheads article. My inclination is to believe the Jaksa/Roder manual is correct, since the interpretation it offers intends to elaborate on and clarify what exists in the rule book. The same interpretation existed in the 1992 edition that I own a copy of, and 16 years later, the wording was slightly different, but the interpretation was the same. This leads me to believe this has been the accepted view of this issue for years, but since the rule book definition remains vague, it's possible even major league umpires are divided on this one.

The issue boils down to one specific and easily answerable question. Does the voluntary release requirement apply to a tag play as it does to a catch? If the answer is no, then Bill Welke was correct and the controversy is settled. If the answer is yes, then the call was wrong and that fact needs to be admitted. Major League Baseball has a recent history of coming clean in such situations. But, in this case, MLB officials appear to have dismissed this as a non-controversy when, in fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Obviously, as far as the Angels-Red Sox ALDS matchup is concerned, the answer to this question will have no effect on its outcome. However, it's important for the rest of us -- the fans, players, managers, coaches, and, most importantly, the umpires -- to know, so that this particular gray area becomes black or white in the future.

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