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Saturday, November 17, 2012
Infield flies and taking a knee

I have written recently about baseball's Infield Fly Rule, including a general defense of, and rationale for, the rule itself. I plan to come back to it more fully in the spring, after I get through some current and future projects. I want to write a fuller piece on the cost/benefit analysis underlying the IFR and why that cost/benefit balancing both justifies IFR and why, given that balance of costs and benefits, the infield fly situation is unique not only in baseball but in all sports. There simply is no other situation like it.

This will expand on The Atlantic piece. In that essay, I identified four features of the infield fly situation that justify a special rule: 1) The fielding team has a strong incentive to intentionally not do what they are ordinarily expected to do in the game (catch the ball); 2) the fielding team gains a substantial benefit or advantage by intentionally not doing what is ordinarily expected (this is the prong I want to flesh out in economic terms of optimal outcomes, costs incurred, and benefits gained for each team); 3)the play is slow-developing and not fast-moving, so the player has time to think and control what he does; and 4) even doing what is ordinarily expected of them, the opposing players are powerless to stop the play from developing or to prevent the team from gaining this overwhelming advantage.

As I said, I believe the infield fly is the only situation in all of sport that possesses all four features. But in conversations with friends and readers, one situation keeps getting brought up: The kneel down (or "Victory Formation") at the end of football games.

The players on both teams know the game is over and that the kneeldown is coming and the defense won't do anything to challenge the play (although the play is alive and the defense could contest it, even if the practice is frowned upon). The defense's only hope in this situation is to somehow get a turnover; taking a knee is designed to avoid that risk by only snapping the ball to the quarterback and not having a handoff or other exchange that may go wrong.

Taking a knee shares all four features of the infield fly: 1) the offensive team is not trying do what we ordinarily expect--move the football forward--and is intentionally losing a couple of yards in exchange for running out the clock and avoiding the risk of a turnover; 2) the offensive team gains a substantial benefit (time runs off the clock, no turnover), imposes a substantial cost on the defensive team (time running out, no opportunity to make a play), and offers no benefit at all to the defensive team; 3) the offensive team entirely controls the situation; and 4) the defensive team can do nothing to stop the kneeldown and the running of the clock (it could try to be aggressive on the snap and force a turnover, but, again, that is frowned upon).

If the kneeldown does contain all four features, it means that I am wrong about the uniqueness of the infield fly. The question is what to do; here are some options:

1)  Eliminate the Infield Fly Rule. If the situation is not unique and if there are similar situations that do not enjoy a special rule, maybe (as a number of readers have argued to me) that special rule is unwarranted here. I like the IFR, so this is the least acceptable option for me.

2) Outlaw taking a knee. My colleague Alex Pearl suggests a requirement that a team at least make an effort to move the ball forward, even if just by a quarterback sneak; by keeping the play truly live, it gives the defense a chance to force a turnover or otherwise make a play. The problem is that this adds more plays in which players are going to be hitting one another; given the genuine need to do something concussions and other injuries, the sport should not be looking for more hitting. Plus, such a rule requires a tricky determination of intent--how hard does the team have to try to move forward, since lots of plays go nowhere.

3) Recognize the effect of the clock in a timed sport such as football, as opposed to baseball. Football is not all or always about gaining the maximum yardage; in many situations a team runs plays that are likely to gain less yardage, but with the benefit of winding down the clock and bringing them closer to the end of the game and the win. In taking a knee, the offensive teams loses yards but gains in time. In other words, we're tweaking how we understand what a team ordinarily is expected to do on a play; it is not only about gaining yardage, but also about managing the clock. The response is that running a play still is different than taking a knee because of prong 4--the ability of the defense to oppose the kneeldown. So running out the clock by simply handing the ball off and running into the line is OK because teams are still running true plays, trying to gain yardage, and the defense has a real chance to force a mistake. But simply taking a knee is different.

4) Adjust my four features to add a fifth--the game must still be genuinely contested. A team takes a knee only when the outcome is, at least as a practical matter, no longer in dispute.



#2 rules as the difference. If the infielder drops the ball, two outs instead of one, but no one is at risk for injury.

#4 is also viable--you can find several examples of a team taking a knee in their opponent's "Red Zone"--but does a two-point lead on your own 40 count as "the result is mostly known"? (A fumble/immediate-down takes some time, followed by a ca. 53-yard FG attempt. The combination is unlikely, which is why Pisarcik is Legend.)

The key difference being what you mentioned--a timed sport v. baseball. There are many routes to continuity and change after an IFR is called/not called. The possibilities are much more limited by the Constraint of the Clock, so the optimization frontier for the team impacted negatively is less possible.

Blogger Ken Houghton -- 11/17/2012 2:41 PM  

I really like your reasoning, but I ultimately believe I disagree.

I think the example of the kneel down is problematic in a few respects. On point one especially but touching on the others, this seems an incorrect or arbitrary description. We should ordinarily expect that an offense is doing its best to continually put its team in the best position to win. This includes running the ball in a play that is unlikely to gain great yardage much less score but that puts the team in a position to score later on. It also includes running to force a trailing opponent to use valuable time outs to stop the clock. It also includes taking a safety rather than give an opponent very good field position for a touchdown opportunity. It also includes (last one, but I think these are progressively important) a defense that intercepts a ball late in a game thrown by a trailing team's offense falling down rather than advancing the ball and risking a fumble.

If we are to take your four-point test and apply it to football, it seems we must start making a lot of judgment calls restricting these types of plays among others (my apologies for the redundancy, but this is a new point): An offensive team running the ball and falling down in bounds late in the game on 3rd and 20 to force the opponent to use a time out; A team taking a safety on purpose; A defense that is winning late in the game not advancing an interception because of the risk of fumble. My problem with the four-point test is not so much that it will have to be applied to so many other situations potentially, but that I don't find the IFR to be such a problem. It is a bang-bang, during the regular course of play event that happens to create both a situation of advantage (IFF executed properly) for one team as well as the time to execute it. This happens a lot in all sports. Should we prohibit fast breaks in basketball if enough of the defense is not able to contest the play? Should we force a football team on offense, up by one point, with one minute to play, and with no opponent time outs to score a touchdown when they would rather run out the clock and disallow the opposing team's offense from getting the ball back (reference: NY Giants versus NE Patriots in last year's Super Bowl)?

Blogger Steve Winkler -- 11/17/2012 3:58 PM  

As I pointed out in the comments to the earlier Atlantic piece, this situation is not actually unique, even in baseball. The earlier version of the dropped third strike rule presented the same issues, and was modified to essentially the modern rule at, not coincidentally, about the same time as the infield fly rule was instituted. The correlation is explained by advances in fielding gloves making plays routine which previously had been anything but. See my comment to the Atlantic piece for the longer version.

For another example, consider the concept of the "draw". In American sports a "draw" is the same thing as a "tie". This is not the case in cricket. In cricket a "tie" means the same thing it does in America, and is rare. A "draw" is very different: the result when a game reaches its pre-assigned time limit but the innings have not been completed. It is like a tie in that neither side is victorious, but quite unlike a tie, the score in a draw is irrelevant.

Early baseball had the concept of a draw. A game was played until one side had 21 runs and both had batted the same number of innings. If the game was called due to rain or darkness before this was achieved, the result was a draw. About a quarter of games played in 1856 were draws. In 1857 the rule was changed to more or less the modern rule: nine innings, with the game counting even if called before then, so long as five innings have been played.

Why the change? Playing for a draw is a perfectly legitimate strategy in cricket, but was legislated out of baseball so effectively that Americans don't even understand the concept anymore. The difference is that when you play for a draw in cricket, you still have to play the game: defend the wicket, hit the ball, and avoid being put out. This wasn't the case in baseball of the 1850s, where the concepts of called strikes and balls where not yet developed. The batting team could stall by simply refusing to swing at pitches. The fielding team could stall by refusing to catch balls. This make a mockery of the game: worse, it was dull.

The change mostly eliminated the incentive, but not entirely. There were games where a team--usually the fielding team--went into stall mode after giving up the lead and as darkness fell. The practice was criticized as unsportsmanlike, but it was hard to legislate against.

Nor has it entirely gone away today. The modern practice of suspended games to be resumed later has taken away most of the situations, but not all. Suppose it is the top of the fifth inning. The home team got plastered in the early innings and is far behind. A storm front is on the way, and is expected to drop a deluge on the field in about twenty minutes. At this point the visiting team has a strong incentive to get itself put out as quickly as possible, while the home team has an incentive delay this. In the modern context, the pitcher's incentive is to take as long as possible between pitches, while the batter wants to swing at and miss every pitch. In the 1850s and '60s context, the fielders would be intentionally dropping balls, including the catcher on third strikes.

As a final point, it might be instructive compare and contrast taking a knee in American football with declaring one's innings closed in cricket. They are by no means the same, but they share some logical aspects.

Anonymous Richard Hershberger -- 11/17/2012 11:12 PM  


A few thoughts:

First, the argument that in an IFR situation the fielding team is intentionally not doing what it is expected to depends on one's perspective. If we isolate a particular fly ball, then yes, the player is expected to catch it. But on the more macro-level, the defense is expected to try to collect 3 outs in an inning as quickly as possible. From that viewpoint, dropping the pop fly in order to double up a runner on first is in fact consistent with the defense's mission, and thus is what we would ordinarily expect a rational defense to do absent a specific rule to the contrary.

Second, one could argue that the offense is not completely powerless to stop an IFR play from developing. Indeed, the batter could have avoided hitting a pop fly, just as fans frequently criticize batters for grounding into double plays with runners on base (obviously, there are nevertheless significant differences between the IFR and standard double play). One thought would be to see if there is any sabrmetric research discussing whether players generally have the ability to control their infield fly ball percentage (or IFFB%), or if it is truly random.

Finally, your fourth proposed factor (the game must still be genuinely contested) would not cover the relatively common occurrence of a QB taking a knee at the end of the first half in order to run the clock out and get to halftime.

Blogger Nathaniel Grow -- 11/18/2012 9:23 AM  

I think you are missing quite a few examples:

A) Baseball: A team is up by a fairly large margin, say 12-0, as a heavy rain starts to fall in the 4th inning. The team is incented to make outs as quickly as possible, in an attempt to end the game earlier.

B) Basketball: Fouling at the end of the game -- intentionally giving the other team points in order to regain possession of the ball.

C) Football: Ahead by 2 late in the game, teams will allow the other team who are already in certain FG position to score a touchdown, quickly, in order to conserve time on the clock.

D) Ahead by 6 late in the game, a tam

Probably more that I haven't considered

Anonymous Bart -- 11/20/2012 12:06 AM  

Ken: I was at the Pisarcik game. That shows precisely why the quarterback should take a knee.

Nathaniel: I doubt any player would ever try to hit a fly ball on the infield. It is not a play in which anything good can happen (unless the fielder drops the ball), as distinct from bunting or hitting behind a runner on base or trying to hit the ball on the ground.

Bart: In the first two situations, we don't have the same imbalance of costs and benefits. As to the first: If my opponent wants to make outs, that works to my benefit. As to the second, the team that was fouled can defeat the strategy by making the damn free throws

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 11/20/2012 10:27 PM  

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