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May 15, 2003

Breaking Balls

Infield Fly Madness

by Derek Zumsteg

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One of baseball's most-mocked rules is the Infield Fly rule. Bad comedians making fun of baseball will say they understand quantum mechanics but don't understand infield flies. Announcers frequently get it wrong, fielders don't use it to their advantage, baserunners sometimes get confused by it. In fact, the only people who seem to consistently know what's going on are the umpires.

There are two parts to this: An infield fly, as defined in Rule 2, and the infield fly rule, where in certain situations, the batter is declared out when he hits an infield fly, to remove the force play. With zero or one out and runners on first and second, or first, second, and third, when a ball is popped up, and the umpire declares the ball an infield fly, the batter is out no matter what happens. This is 6.05 (e): No force is on, so the infield can't slyly let the ball tick off a glove and try to force the runners into a double or triple play. The runners can frolic about how ever they like--tagging up to try and run if it's caught, or running on the chance it will drop--but they usually just stand on the bag and wait for the next batter to come up. Sometimes, though, things go wrong.

Tuesday night, we got to see a great example in the Giants-Expos game.

With the bases loaded and one out, Barry Bonds hit an infield pop-up. Infield fly rule was called, so Bonds was out, leaving the runners free to advance at their own risk. The Expos let the ball drop. Giant Neifi Perez took off from third, apparently believing it to be a force play. The Expos touch home, get what they think is a force, and with the inning over in their minds, they stand around, wondering why the ump hasn't called an out. The ump still makes no call. A seemingly tentative Perez steps on home, the run scores.

But that's besides the point. They botched it, and it's a case where the players failed to know, or act on their knowledge of, the rulebook. This has caused some interesting discussion among BP authors, and some good ideas.

If everyone on the bases acts intelligently, the team at bat can't be doubled off. This is why the rule doesn't apply with only a runner at first: If the runner stays put, the most the other team can get from the play is one out.

Teams could try to exploit this knowledge. They can play the game Perez did, advancing when they have the chance. But the fielders could also take advantage in some situations: Under 6.05 (l), if there's an infield fly and the infield fly rule does not apply (for this example, say only one runner on first) and if the ball falls untouched, the batter is not out--so the infield can let it fall and throw to second for the force. They may even turn a double play by retiring the batter, who might already be walking back to the dugout. I say go for it, but I'm also a guy who advocates stealing signs. Even if you don't get the double play, it's worth it if the guy on first is speedy and the batter is a much worse baserunner, because you would reduce the chance the batting team scores.

Some announcers will say that what a fielder should do in an infield fly rule situation is let the ball drop off the back of their mitt to start a double play on the force. Unfortunately there are two problems with this theory.

  • It will never work if the runners are paying attention. The batter's already out, and so there's no force in effect. Assuming men on first and second, and the fielders actually believed this theory, and the runners are similarly misinformed, the fielders would throw to second to not get an out as the runner started from first on the drop, and then back to first to not get an out on the batter, who was out when the infield fly was called. The runner, turning to walk back to the dugout only to find a base coach screaming at him, runs to second and would be safe, same as Neifi was.

  • It's against the rules. The umpire calls infield fly when the ball has reached the apex of its flight. His audible call should be: "Infield fly, batter's out." If a fielder allows the routine pop-up to tick off his mitt, the umpire will declare the hit a dead ball, with the runners given no chance to advance and the fielders given no chance to record a second or third out. The only way the ball stays live is if the hit lands untouched by any fielder (it's the same logic an official scorer will use to call a muffed pop-up an error but a pop-up lost in the sun that falls untouched a hit, by the way). The ball hit in the Giants-Expos game was the latter, an untouched pop-up that landed between three fielders.

As SABR dude Mark Armour wrote:

I think the misconception arises because the situation is so unusual. I suspect most players, even the Expos who screwed it up, could tell you "most" of the infield fly rule. Heck, the umpire screamed "infield fly" no more than 10 feet from the events, and I am sure they all heard him. Everyone knows the batter is out. The tricky part is what happens when the ball is not caught. It's ALWAYS caught, so they likely never think about that. The tricky part is that the force is off since the batter is out. It's just like if Bonds had squibbed a ball two feet in front of the plate, Barrett had pounced on the ball and tagged Bonds. Now what? He sees Perez coming towards him, he needs to tag him, not step on home. It is obvious in this situation, but in Tuesday's game they had brain lock because they might have never run into this before.

What you'd probably need to do is rehearse calling each other off and then letting it drop to the ground. The batter's still dead, but I would bet that many runners, on seeing a ball drop, would at least start off-base just on instinct, given the infield fly is the kind of exercise players might tend to roll their eyes over during drills. If you're quick and have this down in practice, you catch the runners sleeping and apply a tag, start a rundown...even throw the ball into the stands and let them all advance (for advanced teams only).

There's more interesting stuff that happens around this. Rule 6.05(a) states that an attempted bunt cannot be an infield fly, so you could let those fall and start the double, triple play against baserunners who are standing around working their wad of chaw. Mark, annoyingly, reports that this has happened.

I have mixed feelings about the infield fly rule. I think that while it's stupid that teams might get doubled up easily, I'm against needless complexity in the rules (in the same way I'm against Pennzoil for airing those terrible ads with the old guy who shakes the bottle of Vigoroso 75 before some carnal loving from a woman of his approximate age, who is either his wife or married to another poor guy, and then shakes the bottle of Oil for Older Cars while looking at his vintage car with an eye gleaming with anticipation of some well-lubricated man-machine loving). At the same time, I understand that without the infield fly rule, these pop-ups would become routine double and triple plays...is that better? I don't know that I'd rather see that.

But as long as the IFR's around, it'd be cool to see teams exploit this until everyone gets the rule drummed into their head, starting the cycle over again.

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