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Sunday, February 24, 2013
The Economics of the Infield Fly Rule

My longer treatment of the infield fly rule, The Economics of the Infield Fly Rule, is now available on SSRN and forthcoming in Utah Law Review. The abstract is below. Comments welcome.

 No rule in all of sports has generated as much legal scholarship as baseball’s Infield Fly Rule. Interestingly, however, no one has explained or defended that rule on its own terms as an internal part of the rules and institutional structure of baseball as a game. This paper takes on that issue, explaining both why baseball should have the Infield Fly Rule and why a similar rule is not necessary or appropriate in seemingly comparable, but actually quite different, baseball situations. The answer lies in the dramatic cost-benefit disparities present in the infield fly and absent in most other baseball game situations.

The infield fly is defined by three relevant features: 1) it contains an extreme disparity of costs and benefits inherent in that play that overwhelmingly favors one team and disfavors the other team; 2) the favored team has total control over the play and the other side is powerless to stop or counter the play; and 3) the cost-benefit disparity arises because one team has intentionally failed (or declined) to do what tordinary rules and strategies expect it to do and the extreme cost-benefit disparity incentivizes that negative behavior every time the play arises. When all three features are present on a play, a unique, situation-specific limiting rule becomes necessary; such a rule restricts one team’s opportunities to create or take advantage of a dramatic cost-benefit imbalance, instead imposing a set outcome on the play, one that levels the playing field. The Infield Fly Rule is baseball’s prime example of this type of limiting rule. By contrast, no other baseball situation shares all three defining features, particularly in having a cost-benefit disparity so strongly tilted toward one side. The cost-benefit balance in these other game situations is more even; these other situations can and should be left to ordinary rules and strategies.


I'm curious, do you have an explanation for why bunts are excepted from the infield fly rule? My hypotheses are:
1) The rulemakers expect that a competent player can bunt the ball down onto the ground. If he can't, and two of the runners get thrown out as a result, then it's his own damn fault.
2) A bunt doesn't typically stay up in the air long enough for an infielder to conceive of a plan to let it drop and get two outs, so the rule is unnecessary.
3) Many times, when a bunt is popped up, the fielders have time to turn a double play just involving one runner and the batter-runner. And, whether the infield fly rule applies to bunts or not, the fielders will have such a chance when there's a runner on 1st but none on 2nd. So, applying the infield fly rule to bunts would create an anomaly that a "fair" double play (that is, one involving the batter-runner and the runner from 1st) would be available depending on the fortuity of whether 2nd was occupied. This anomaly doesn't exist for normal pop-ups because the batter-runner will almost always have time to get to 1st before a double play can be turned. In other words, the only double play that's ever available is the "unfair" one (that is, involving two runners) that the infield fly rule is designed to prevent.

Blogger Benjamin Schak -- 2/25/2013 9:13 PM  

Benjamin: I did not cover this in the article, although I should (still time to edit, fortunately). I would say it is a combination of ## 2 and 3--the disparity of control isn't there because the defense can't settle under the ball in the same way (just as with a line drive, which I do discuss in the paper). I like your conception of the "fair" double play on the batter and one runner as pulling it outside the rule.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/26/2013 5:25 PM  

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