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Friday, October 12, 2012
In Defense of the Infield Fly Rule

My two posts on the controversial Infield Fly Rule call in last week's National League Wild Card game generated a number of comments and emails, several suggesting that, not only was the call wrong, but that the rule itself is a bad idea and should be scrapped. This motivated me to write a defense of the Infield Fly Rule, which now has been published on The Atlantic.

By the way, media opinion on last week's call seems to be changing. Two of the stronger defenses are from Rob Neyer and Harold Reynolds (with video breakdown, including highlights of IFR calls happening in similar spots on the field).



I enjoyed your Atlantic article and agree with you on all the major points. I would point out to you another instance in which a player might intentionally drop a fly ball:

With a runner on third and fewer than two outs, perhaps in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game but not necessarily, an outfielder might decide not to catch a fly ball in FOUL territory to avoid giving the winning run a chance to tag up. I think most would agree this is not unsportsmanlike -- maybe it's the fact that the batting team is not left helpless, i.e. the batter remains at the plate. But it is interesting to me because it shows that dropping the ball is not the unsportsmanlike act; instead it is the unfair advantage of the potential double play.

I think one way to look at the call in the Braves game would be to ask whether Braves would complain if the infield fly rule had not been invoked and a double play resulted. I think they would. For that reason, I think the infield fly call was appropriate. (Though, and I don't think this is contradictory, I also think it would have been appropriate for the umpire not to make the call.)

Nice article.

Blogger Jimmy Golen -- 10/15/2012 12:19 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Jimmy Golen -- 10/15/2012 12:19 PM  

For whatever it is worth, I posted this comment on the Atlantic piece:

While I generally agree with the defense of the IFR, this situation is by no means unique, even within baseball. Consider the dropped third strike rule. This is an ancient feature of the game, surviving from pre-modern folk versions. In early organized baseball it applied regardless of base runners. So consider: bases loaded, no outs, two strikes on the batter. The pitcher sends a fastball down the middle of the plate, blowing it by the batter (regardless of whether or not he swings). The catcher intentionally drops it, turning the batter into a runner with force plays at all bases. The catcher picks up the ball, steps on home for an easy out, and throws the ball to first for a double play. Or, if he is even more enterprising, throws it to second or third, with the base tagged and the ball relayed to another base for at triple play. The only counter the runners have is to take off with the pitch, but unless there are already three balls, this has its own set of issues.

This may seem farfetched, but several of the triple plays in the SABR triple play database occurred just this way. The rule was eventually changed so that the dropped third strike rule only applies if first base is open or there are already two outs. This change occurred about the same time as the infield fly rule and for the same reason. Fielders' gloves were improving to the point where they could reliably take throws. In the days of bare-hand fielding there was no such thing as a routine throw to a baseman, and even good teams often ended up with overthrows and chased balls which would make a modern little league team blush. Under those conditions intentionally dropping an infield fly or a third strike had a high up side, but also a very real potential downside, and therefore was considered good, smart play when it worked. As they became too easy, they came to be considered cheap outs and the rules adjusted to remove the incentive.

Anonymous Richard Hershberger -- 10/15/2012 1:04 PM  

Jimmy: I thought about that as I was writing the piece, which is why I specified that I was talking about dropping a fair ball. As I think about this more (and perhaps plan to write about it more), it is very bound up in economics--optimal outcomes, incentives, and various benefits and disadvantages for each side. In the situation you present, the move is not optimal for the defense, but there is no overwhelming disadvantage to one side--each side gets a benefit and we move on. What makes the IFR unique is that there is an overwhelming benefit to one side and disadvantage to the other, all from dropping the ball.

Richard: I did not know about the history of the dropped third strike rule, so I never thought of that as a comparable way to produce a double play by not catching the ball. The irony, of course, is while people seem to be sick of the IFR, no one is talking about reverting to the old version of the dropped third strike rule.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/16/2012 1:16 AM  

"The irony, of course, is while people seem to be sick of the IFR, no one is talking about reverting to the old version of the dropped third strike rule."

That is because the modern dropped third strike rule is a bit clunky, but acts passively. No action is required from the umpire, and there is no ambiguity about when it does or does not apply.

For an even more obscure example, prior to 1857 the game was played to 21 runs. Furthermore, they borrowed from cricket to concept of a "draw", which in cricket is not the same as a tie. In cricket, if the game is not completed in the time allotted, it is a draw regardless of the score. A weaker team playing for a draw is a perfectly respectable strategy. As applied to early baseball, if neither team had reached 21 runs when the game was called (usually due to darkness) then it was a draw. The thing was, they did not yet have called strikes or balls. The batting team could stall simply by refusing to swing at any pitch. The fielding team could similarly refuse to act to put a player out. Fully one quarter of match games played in 1856 ended in draws.

So in 1857, when a convention was held to revise the rules, they switched to the modern rule of nine innings (itself an interesting decision: the original proposal was seven innings, while the average game in 1856 lasted six). More subtly important was the adoption of the rule that the game is official with but five innings, and null and void if ended before that. This eliminated the concept of the draw so effectively that we have largely forgotten that it ever existed, and Americans find the concept of a drawn cricket match nearly incomprehensible.

Why playing for a draw is respectable in cricket is an interesting topic, but beyond the scope of a blog comment. Just to throw out one more idea, it led to the concept of the "declaration", declaring one's innings closed. That is, the batting team simply declares that it is done, as if it had been put out. This is done when they think they have scored enough runs to win, and want the time saved to use to putting the other team out when it is at bat. This again is to Americans a bizarre concept, and pretty close to your criteria for an incentive to act contrary to the normal aims.

Anonymous Richard Hershberger -- 10/16/2012 9:41 AM  


Another thing I have thought about, but not fully explored the implications of: Why can't the infield fly rule be converted to a post hoc rule that prohibits teams from dropping the ball on purpose in order to create a double play? Instead of the umpire shouting "infield fly" while the ball is in the air, why can't he simply rule afterward -- if a ball is dropped and a double play occurs -- that the batter is out and send the runners back to their bases?

I believe baseball created the infield fly due to a unnecessary desire to have the play continue without interruption. But there are plenty of instances -- baserunner interference, for one -- in which umpires have to act afterward to reset the field in a way.

Blogger Jimmy Golen -- 10/16/2012 2:57 PM  

Because no one wants to get into issues of intent

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/16/2012 3:37 PM  

Yes, but that is silly. Intent is part of other baseball rules -- did the pitcher hit a batter intentionally, for example -- and I would argue it would be easy to determine if a player intentionally dropped a fly ball to create a double play (for one thing, he'd have to stay close to the ball, in position to field it, in order to convert.) Even if you find this troublesome, is it more troublesome than the current situation, which led to the Braves fiasco? I would say no.

Blogger Jimmy Golen -- 10/16/2012 4:21 PM  

Yes, sometimes we have to figure out intent. But I would much prefer a rule that relies on a concept such as whether a ball could be caught with ordinary effort than with whether the ball was dropped intentionally.

Plus, I disagree that the Braves call was a "fiasco." To the extent the call was wrong, it was wrong on the ump's perception of whether the SS was camped under the ball. It was not a problem of interpretation.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/16/2012 5:57 PM  

Fiasco in that people were throwing bottles onto the field. I am fine with the umpire's call.

And I don't think having umpires interpret "ordinary effort" is an improvement over having them try to ascertain intent.

A ripe topic, as you said.

Blogger Jimmy Golen -- 10/16/2012 8:43 PM  

With a runner on third and fewer than two outs, perhaps in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game but not necessarily, an outfielder might decide not to catch a fly ball in FOUL territory to avoid giving the winning run a chance to tag up. I think most would agree this is not unsportsmanlike


Blogger jerry john -- 10/23/2012 1:39 AM  

Mr Wasserman,
I'm late to the game, just read the Atlantic article.
Wanted to comment that the IFR does not seem sui generis in sports. Does the example of a football team QB taking a knee to run out the clock, or even intentionally allowing a safety, meet your four criteria?


Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/09/2012 6:39 PM  

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