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Why Jose Altuve’s Game 4 home run was called an out for fan interference

Even though it might not have actually been fan interference.

League Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Astros star Jose Altuve almost had a game-tying two-run home run in the first inning of ALCS Game 4 against the Red Sox on Wednesday night. Then Mookie Betts almost caught it with a leaping catch. But it might have been fan interference. Until, wait, it was actually it was a home run. No, never mind. It was actually fan interference and Altuve was out.

Wait what?

Let’s catch up. If you weren’t watching, here’s what happened in right field of Minute Maid Park.

Betts leaped to make what could have been a magnificent catch, a fan touched his glove, and he didn’t catch it. The ball left the park, but then crew chief Joe West called it an out due to fan interference. These are the things we know for sure.

After an official review in New York, the call stood. It wasn’t confirmed, because there wasn’t enough evidence to either overturn or confirm, but it stood and Altuve was out. Joe West’s initial call of out because of interference helped the Red Sox in this situation, because if his first instinct was the opposite that call probably would have stood due to the same lack of evidence.

Now, here’s MLB’s spectator interference rule:

(e) Spectator Interference

When there is spectator interference with any thrown or batted ball, the ball shall be dead at the moment of interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as in his opinion will nullify the act of interference.

APPROVED RULING: If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out.

An especially pertinent passage in this section of the rulebook explains,

No interference shall be allowed when a fielder reaches over a fence, railing, rope or into a stand to catch a ball. He does so at his own risk. However, should a spectator reach out on the playing field side of such fence, railing or rope, and plainly prevent the fielder from catching the ball, then the batsman should be called out for the spectator’s interference.

It’s unclear in this situation whether the fan “clearly” prevented Betts from catching the ball. In the video, and the reason West may have made his original decision, it appears as if the fan’s hand closed Betts’ glove as he was about to catch the ball, thereby preventing the catch from being completed despite Betts having it perfectly lined up.

The thing under even more debate than whether the fan made a difference in the catch itself is whether Betts was in the stands. As the rule states above, it’s not interference if the fielder is in the stands. The league normally would have had a better angle to make that judgement call, except for the presence of a leaning security guard who blocked that view.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch was visibly annoyed (if not outright upset) at the call during a mid-game interview, questioning how the decision was made to have the call stand and the fact that it was an out for sure. He said of the assumption it would have been caught,

“I’m not sure if Mookie makes that catch. He’s a great athlete, but how it’s an assumed out is unbelievable.”

Kate Upton, wife of Astros ace Justin Verlander, had some thoughts on this one and she’s not necessarily wrong. It’s the lack of that angle that makes it impossible to know whether Betts broke the imaginary barrier between field and fan or not.

This is a call that would have made the other team and its fans angry no matter who came out on top here. There are unanswerable questions thanks to the lack of definitive angles and the way the call was made in the first place (The Joe Show never fails to deliver, as many know). It could have been clear fan interference, it could not have been.

That makes it one of the most exciting, debatable, and for some frustrating moments of the postseason so far. If the Astros go on to lose the game there’s going to be a lot of unhappy people in Houston who want better answers from the league and the umpires about why the call went Boston’s way. If they win ... well that will probably still be the case.

The fan responsible knows he’s on thin ice with the crowd though, and already has an exit strategy.

Good job reading the room, bad choice of hats and where to put your hands when there’s a fly ball near your section. No one makes winning decisions all the time.