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Sunday, April 17, 2016
 
Not an infield fly

On Sunday, Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler* intentionally failed to catch an infield pop-up with a runner on first and none out, in order to get a force out at second base on a speedy runner at first, replacing him with the batter, a slower runner. (Video in the link). After some initial confusion, the runner at first was called out and the batter was on first base.
[*] Apropos of nothing, Kinsler is Jewish, so this ties back to the ongoing fascination with the presence/increase of Jewish athletes.
Some comments after the jump.

• The Infield Fly is not involved here, despite the initial shouts from the announcers (more on that below), because there were not force outs in effect at multiple bases. That rule is designed to prevent a double play on the stuck base runners (as opposed to a base runner on the batter running to first base). Absent that risk, the IFR does not control. Instead, R. 5.09(a)(12) (also known as the "trapped ball rule") prohibits an infielder from intentionally dropping a ball with a force out in effect at any base, although the rule does not apply where the infielder allows the ball to drop to the ground untouched.
• It is not clear where the confusion came from initially. The only possibility is that the first base umpire believed Kinsler had touched the ball and intentionally dropped it, although the video makes clear that the ball fell to the ground untouched. But the umpires conferred and got it right.

• This is the same play that originally triggered the creation of what became the infield fly rule in 1894. Hall of Fame shortstop John Montgomery Ward pulled the same move in an 1893 game order to replace a runner on first with the batter, who had the "speed of an ice wagon." Decrying the deception, trickery, and poor sportsmanship (in 19th century conceptions) the play reflected, baseball officials outlawed the play in 1894. Over the next decade, they came to realize that the problem was this play being made when there were two force outs in effect and the defense could turn a double play; what became known as the Infield Fly Rule evolved in that direction.

• Critics of the IFR (most recently Judge Guilford in Penn Law Review) point to this situation to show that baseball otherwise tolerates players intentionally not catching balls in search of greater advantage. My response is that the cost-benefit disparity is not nearly as great, since the defense still only gets one out in this situation (as compared with two outs when there are multiple forceouts, and thus the IFR, in effect). As a result, the incentive to try this play is not as great, given the relatively marginal benefit of exchanging individual base runners, the relative rarity of genuinely wide disparities in speed, and the deemphasis on base-stealing in our advanced-metrics times. Part of the reason Kinsler's play will draw attention is that infielders do not try this all that often, because the benefit is typically not worth the risk.**
[**] A batting team has a run expectancy of about half-a-run from having a runner on first and one out (meaning it scores an average of .5 runs from that situation to the end of the inning); that number does not move dramatically with a faster runner.
• Announcers are clueless about baseball's rules. The Astros announcers initially believed the umpire had called Infield Fly, downshifting into a discussion of why that rule should not apply here. The Tigers announcers recognized what Kinsler was trying to do, but then started talking about how he did not "sell" the play well enough, ignoring (or unaware) that because he never touched the ball, he did not have to sell anything.

• Although this is not an infield-fly situation, watching the play illustrates how likely a double play would be in that situation absent the rule, at least on balls hit to this area of the field. Watch the play--see how the ball falls at Kinsler's feet, takes a small bounce, and comes to a rest at his foot; see how easily Kinsler picks up the ball and flips it softly to second. It is easy to imagine, in an infield-fly situation, a fielder picking this ball up and making a hard throw to third, followed by a relay to second that produces a double play, all before the base runners can even begin moving. Having the IFR means we generally cannot test the actual likelihood of the double play that the rule seeks to prevent; a play like this gives us a little bit of an idea.





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