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Just in time, Baseball revises transfer rule

An early-season travesty is revised back to historical norms.

Dustin Bradford

Baseball has changed the transfer rule back again, reports Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, and not a moment too soon.

One of the oddest rules changes baseball has made in recent years was this past offseason's emphasis on "clean" transfers. In the past, a ball that was cleanly secured in the glove, whether in the infield or the outfield, was an out. If the player subsequently juggled the ball in moving it from his glove hand to his throwing hand, that in no way changed the fact that he had caught the ball in the first place. For reasons best known only to Bud Selig's toupee and his magic parrot-head umbrella, along with implementing instant replay this offseason, Major League Baseball changed the way the transfer play had been called since approximately the Civil War.

It worked out very badly. Throughout the early going this season, batters have been called safe on plays in which they were clearly out simply because the ball squirted out of the fielder's hands at some point after the fact:

This was as much a travesty as the old rule that said that a ball which left the park fair but landed foul was not a home run, the selective application of which cost Babe Ruth a few homers from his career totals and once inspired Ty Cobb to a nigh-homicidal (and justifiable) attack on an umpire late in his career. In 2014, for the first time in the history of the game, a clean catch was not necessarily an out.

According to Rosenthal, this will now no longer be the case:

A catch, forceout or tag will be considered legal if a fielder has control of the ball in his glove, but drops the ball after opening his glove to transfer the ball to his throwing hard, sources said. No longer will the fielder be required to successfully get the ball into his throwing hand.

Well, hallelujah. Baseball, an institution in some ways more conservative than the GOP, acted quickly to fix an obvious problem. Actually, there is some small precedent for this. From time to time, Baseball has become obsessed with the balk rule, probably because no one really understands it. In the 1971-1972 offseason, the Rules Committee decided to enforce a full one-second stop on pitchers' deliveries, something that resulted in a huge uptick in the number of balks that April. In 1970, a total of 128 balks were called in the majors; in 1971 the total dropped to 97, or .025 per nine innings. That April, the rate doubled to .05 per nine innings under the new rule, and the rule was dropped.

Because a basic rule of the universe is that no one ever learns anything, Baseball tried it again for 1988. In 1987 there were 356 balks. In 1988 there were 924. A's pitcher Dave Stewart had a particularly difficult time adjusting to the rule and set a single-season record with 16, even though the rule was aborted not long into the season. If you look at his career statistics, you'll see that his career total was 23 and he never had more than three in any other season. In 1989, major league balks were down to 407.

So, Major League Baseball can act without a cattle prod from time to time, when it's crushingly obvious that it must do so. Intriguingly, the Oakland A's playing in sewage up to their knees apparently does not qualify as "crushingly obvious," and there are probably a dozen other issues that should rise to that level if you really think about it, but for today, Baseball gets a pat on the head and a cookie -- and it doesn't even have to worry about what happens when it moves the cookie out of its glove hand.