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Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Infield shifts and infield flies

Today's New York Times reports on the increasing use of infield shifts.
In March, I did a workshop at American University on my empirical study of the infield fly rule. One person asked how the increased use of shifts affects the rule and it is a potentially interesting question.

First, we may have to rethink what is playable with "ordinary effort" when a shift is on. In this photo, there is no one playing in the shortstop "space." On a ball hit right to where the unshifted shortstop would have been standing, either the third baseman (standing in his normal spot) or the shortstop (standing to the right of second base) may have to run a fair distance to catch even an easy fly ball. Is that still "ordinary effort"?

Second, if the infielder is playing in the shallow outfield, is he still an infielder? We know the converse is true--an outfielder "who stations himself in the infield on the play" is deemed an infielder for purposes of the rule. But what about an infielder in the outfield? The rules define an infielder as "a fielder who occupies a position in the infield." Does the shallow infield grass count as the infielder?  (I would argue it does, since that is an area routinely covered by infielders and the I/F/R applies to a lot of balls hit to that area). Does it require the umpire to judge whether the player is close enough to the infield to still be an infielder?

Now, it seems to me that teams would be less likely to shift with runners on first and second or the bases loaded (the situations in which the I/F/R might take effect), since the shift makes it more difficult for infielders also to deal with base runners. If so, this becomes a somewhat academic point. Still, to the extent shifts remain, it could present some interesting interpretive issues.


This is an area where, even apart from the shift, the rules are a complete cock-up. You were headed in the right direction to see this, but didn't take it far enough. Look up the definition of "infield" in Rule 2.

As for what constitutes "ordinary effort," the rule is explicitly tied to where the fielder is actually positioned: hence the bit about outfielders playing as infielders. The rule does not work on the basis of some abstract understanding of the players' proper positions.

Anonymous Richard Hershberger -- 5/15/2014 9:19 PM  

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