On the Pirates: Teams are learning the hard way what is and isn't an out

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This season has revealed situations where the neighborhood play isn't exactly a neighborhood play and blocking the plate isn't exactly blocking the plate. Now, players and managers must reckon with the fact that sometimes a catch isn't exactly a catch. ■ An increased emphasis on exactly at what point a ball is considered to have been caught has already affected several teams. Major League Baseball has stressed enforcement of rules governing the transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand, with unintended consequences.

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Asked about the interpretation, manager Clint Hurdle grinned and said, "Current hot topic?"

The rule is intended to clarify calls when middle infielders attempt to turn a double play. Previously, if the fielder covering second base caught the throw but dropped the ball while trying to quickly take it out of his glove and throw the batter out at first, he was awarded the out at second. He won't get the out that way now.

"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," MLB said in a widely reported statement. "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."

Hurdle said he received clarification of the emphasis on the rule prior to the season but has not heard anything since.

"It's been somewhat of a topic because it's never really been in question before," second baseman Neil Walker said. "As middle infielders, we talk about it quite a bit because double-play turns and things like that, you're not trying to hang around the bag."

The Tampa Bay Rays fell victim to the new interpretation when Ben Zobrist dropped a ball during a transfer while turning a double play. So did the Texas Rangers. Catcher J.P. Arencibia recorded a force-out at the plate, but couldn't grip the ball to throw to first for a double play. Manager Ron Washington was ejected for arguing that one.

The ruling has created collateral damage when applied to outfielders. The Oakland A's lost two runners in one game when they watched an outfielder make a catch and reacted accordingly, only to be put out when the outfielder dropped the ball on the transfer and threw them out.

Cleveland Indians outfielder Elliot Johnson displayed the length to which this new interpretation travels. He caught a fly ball on the warning track, took two steps, hit the wall and turned back toward the infield. Only then did he drop the ball while trying to take it out of his glove. The ruling of no catch withstood manager Terry Francona's challenge.

The application of the rule to outfielders has ramifications for runners, who can no longer assume that a ball that enters a glove is a catch and an out.

"It hasn't crossed my mind on fly balls or balls that are hit when I'm base-running," Walker said. "That's just another thing to put in the memory bank as far as things you have to remember with the new replay challenges and things like that."

The pitching side of shifts

The Pirates employed the fourth most defensive shifts in baseball in 2013, according to data compiled by The Hardball Times. They adjust their infielders according to batted-ball data, placing them where the batter is more likely to hit the ball rather than anchoring them to their traditional positions.

More than just spray charts, though, the shifts are predicated on the tendencies and strengths of the pitcher on the mound and how that pitcher's arsenal will combine with the batter's profile to produce balls in play.

"They're not going to change the pitching style for the shift," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "They're going to go about their business."

The aggressive strategy helped the Pirates rank in the top 10 in 2013 in the number of balls put in play that were turned into outs.

The Pirates will change the position of their infielders depending on the runners on base and the count against the batter, but also adapt throughout the game to fit what the pitcher has that night, Searage said. If, for example, Charlie Morton's sinker isn't sinking or Francisco Liriano's slider isn't moving, the shifts will change to accommodate what is working.

"There's always going to be in-game changes, some changes here and there, and we just keep an eye on that," Searage said. "Overall I think we've done a pretty good job in making those adjustments and also making the adjustments to the shift."

See Billy run ... and run

The series this week against the Cincinnati gives the Pirates four more games in which they must deal with Billy Hamilton, the Reds' lightning-fast leadoff batter.

In Wednesday's game against the Reds in Cincinnati, Francisco Liriano walked Hamilton to lead off the bottom of the first. Hamilton stole second, took third on a wild pitch and scored on another pitch that bounced away.

Hamilton reached again in the seventh inning. His speed -- he stole 13 bases in 13 games last season and stole 155 bases in the minors in 2012 -- caused catcher Tony Sanchez to call for a slide-step from Liriano. The batter, Joey Votto, homered.

"I got a little overzealous and knew Billy was going to go," Sanchez said. "It's just a lesson learned, a young catcher trying to do too much, letting Billy Hamilton get in my head."

Hamilton's speed has ripple effects. He'll see strikes, both because pitchers don't want to walk him and because he hasn't yet proved he can hit in the majors. If he gets on, Votto will see fastballs. Anything off-speed, and Hamilton is on second.

Return engagement

Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto makes his first start at PNC Park Tuesday (7:05 p.m., Root Sports) since he was serenaded off the mound in that memorable NL wild-card game. But before fans get too excited, this is the same Johnny Cueto who Wednesday beat the Pirates, 4-0, on a three-hitter while striking out 12.

ON THE WEB: Follow Bill Brink on Twitter @BrinkPG and also on the Pirates Blog at www.post-gazette.com.

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