In a game between the Braves and Marlins on 9/7/17, Ender Inciarte of the Braves slid into second base attempting a steal and ended up with a glove in his hands on second base. Not only did he acquire a glove, but also a ball secured neatly in the pocket. Dee Gordon, the second baseman covering on the play, caught the catcher’s throw and got the tag down on Inciarte, but Inciarte slid on top of the glove and it came off. This unusual play resulted in Inciarte being called SAFE at second base, which I find utterly ridiculous! Dee Gordon caught the ball and placed the tag before Inciarte reached the base. He essentially had the glove removed from his hand BY the runner. The most insane part about this whole situation is that it already happened once this season… TO INCIARTE! He stepped on Daniel Murphy’s glove with the ball in it sliding into second in a game against the Nationals on 5/19/17. He was also unsurprisingly called safe on the play. I was hopelessly curious as to whether or not the right call was made based on the rules. Strangely enough, digging deeper into this type of play only raised more questions for me! I’ll outline more about this play and my findings in this article.
I should acknowledge some details about this play first (videos of Gordon / Murphy). From what I saw, Inciarte’s slide was perfectly legal and fundamentally sound. He started the slide a tiny bit late and got a bit more air time than normal before hitting the dirt, but he didn’t appear to target the glove in any way. The instance earlier this season against the Nationals was also a normal popup slide that he started a normal distance from the base. One distinction between these two plays is how he knocked the glove off. He took Gordon’s glove off by wedging it between his knee and the dirt in front of the bag while he took Murphy’s glove by holding it down with his cleat on the base. Another difference is that the ball stayed firmly in the pocket of Gordon’s glove until it hit the base and popped out while Murphy’s glove ended up propped up on top of the base where the ball was in the glove but also touching the base. So while you could argue the ball came loose in either case, the ball was definitely secured at the moment of the tag and when the glove was dislodged in both plays. That got me thinking about tag plays in general where the ball is knocked loose.
The mlb rule book definition of a “tag” states that it is not counted if “simultaneously or immediately following his [the fielder’s] touching a base or a runner, the fielder drops the ball. In establishing the validity of the tag, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball”. This definition was no help in concluding whether or not Inciarte should have been out. First of all, the ball was still securely in Gordon’s glove even when it came off. Even if you argue Gordon “dropped” the ball along with the glove, the glove was removed by the runner, which in my opinion is not the same as dropping. The rule book has no way to differentiate this from a runner removing a fielder’s glove with his hands to make the ball drop. I interpret that Inciarte should have been out. Thinking beyond this specific, rare circumstance, I find the tag rule/definition is flawed in many other ways.
In normal cases where the ball is knocked out of the glove, the tag is applied properly, but the runner is safe because the ball leaves the glove AFTER the contact. Well, how long after the tag does the fielder have to maintain the ball? Is it the same as an outfield catch where it’s not technically counted until the player attempts to transfer to his throwing hand? What would happen if the runner collided with the fielder and knocks him to the ground where he then drops the ball? I spent the better part of an hour watching home plate collisions trying to find a good example of this happening. It was difficult to find specific plays like this because most of the time the catcher either hangs on or never secures the ball in the first place. One good one I found was when Ray Lankford ran over Darren Daulton to win a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on 4/21/91 (video). Daulton clearly had the ball in his glove and he didn’t drop the ball until he was on his back after getting hit. I can understand that it is near impossible for umpires to distinguish if the fielder has control of the ball unless he holds onto it until the end of the play, but it still seems arbitrary. The rule is incredibly vague with language like “immediately after” and “long enough to prove complete control”. It's just one of those things everyone on the field inherently knows.
After studying this rule wayyyy too much, I started to ask myself why this aspect of the rule even exists? How does it make sense to encourage runners going after fielder’s to get them to drop the ball? They've addressed the unnecessarily dangerous act of colliding with catchers at the plate, but not anywhere else. Albert Bell crushed Fernando Vina on a tag attempt and it was deemed a legal play (video). The fielder, once he has the ball in his glove, has no real control over whether or not the ball will be knocked out of his glove. I know this hardly has anything to do with these plays where fielders lose their gloves, but my point is just that the rule seems to put the fielder at a disadvantage.
Hopefully these plays and this article inspires more people to dig deeper into the tag play. The main point is that the tag rule has no clear precedent for gloves getting knocked off of fielders and is generally unclear. As long as the rule stays the same, Inciarte is free to snag as many gloves as he wants when he’s sliding through tags.
As usual, any feedback on this article is appreciated. Share your opinion by tweeting @wpb_podcast