A “dropped” third strike can result in four strikeouts in one inning. That’s happened 54 times. It can also dramatically change a game, even a postseason series. That’s happened at least a couple of times. The “dropped” third strike can even make people wonder why it exists. That has happened countless times over the years.
First, one minor point of clarity. Many umpires will qualify that it is not the “dropped” third strike rule. Apparently the correct terminology is an uncaught third strike. While a bobble that falls to the ground does violate the rule, the ball doesn’t have to be dropped and it certainly doesn’t have to be dropped purposely. That’s the point of the clarification. In fact, the ball could sail right past the catcher and remain a live ball after a third strike, whether called or swinging.
Here is the relevant rule:
A batter is out when-
6.05 (b) A third strike is legally caught by the catcher;
Rule 6.05(b) Comment: “Legally caught” means in the catcher’s glove before the ball touches the ground. It is not legal if the ball lodges in his clothing or paraphernalia; or if it touches the umpire and is caught by the catcher on the rebound. If a foul tip first strikes the catcher’s glove and then goes on through and is caught by both hands against his body or protector, before the ball touches the ground, it is a strike, and if third strike, batter is out. If smothered against his body or protector, it is a catch provided the ball struck the catcher’s glove or hand first.
6.05 (c) further states that the batter is out if “A third strike is not legally caught by the catcher when first base is occupied before two are out;”
Further, section 6.09 defines situations where the batter becomes a runner and covers the uncaught third strike from the batter’s perspective.
The batter becomes a runner when:
6.09 (b) The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out;
Rule 6.09(b) Comment: A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle surrounding home plate.
The original rule about catching the third strike emerged around 1880, about 15 years before players began widespread use of gloves. Some believe the ‘dropped’ third strike came from devious catchers purposely muffing a pitch to try and get two outs instead of one. For example, with the bases loaded, a dropped third strike could easily lead to a double play, and possibly a triple play. It’s a gambit that seems difficult with modern day pitchers and their 100 m.p.h. fastballs and fast-breaking sliders, but pitchers in the early days of baseball didn’t have quite the arsenal and a play like that could have been popular.
However, it’s doubtful that the purposeful drop was the sole contributor to the rule of a clean catch on strike three. If it were, rule 6.05 (c) would suffice to protect the base runners, just like the Infield Fly Rule. 6.05 (c) is similar to the infield fly and surely would be the lone rule in the matter if deception by the catcher were the only catalyst to the uncaught third strike.
One thing that makes 6.05 (b), and the idea that rules require a clean catch for the out on strikes, mesh with the rest of baseball’s rules is that a defender must catch the ball to record an out. With no force and no tag on a batter before the ball is in play, the act of catching the ball cleanly on a pitch must have seemed necessary to early rule makers.
MLB amended the comment after Rule 6.09 (b) in 2007. Previous language allowed the batter-runner to still attempt to reach first base until he reached his dugout or defensive position. One can understand the purpose of this change by imagining a batter that, after striking out and noticing the catcher failing to make a legal catch, acts as if he will return to the dugout, only to try for first base when the defense believes the inning is over. As we will see shortly, the 2005 ALCS may have drawn the attention of MLB to the comment in 6.09 (b) and led to this revision.
Of course, meshing the original rule to the rest of baseball’s rules does not make sense to everyone, especially pitchers that work hard to get third strikes. Over at Insidethebook, they link to a John Wetteland interview where the former pitcher makes the fine point that a batter down on strikes has done nothing to deserve first base, and shouldn’t reach just because the catcher couldn’t make a clean catch.
But, as frustrating as this rule may be for pitchers, the clean catch to finish the strikeout comes from the earliest days of the game. Wetteland wants to repeal the wrong part of the rule, if he’s looking to benefit pitchers, and he should feel the same way about the Infield Fly Rule. Pitchers would be better off with 6.05 (c) specifically rescinded, and the clean catch rule left intact. The trade off of double plays, compared to those batters that reach with first base open after an uncaught third strike, would rarely effect pitchers adversely.
Of course, rarely means it would still happen. There are at least two instances where a muffed third strike impacted pitchers, the outcome of the game, and the momentum of a postseason series.
In the 1941 World Series, The Brooklyn Dodgers ended a long stretch of poor baseball by their franchise to meet the always successful New York Yankees. As Ron Fimrite wrote in Sports Illustrated, 1941 was an amazing year in baseball, with Joe Dimaggio hitting in 56 straight games and Ted Williams batting .406 on the year. The Dodgers had spent most of the previous seasons near the bottom of the standings, but had turned their fortunes around in the previous couple of years. They not only surprised baseball by winning the pennant in 1941, they surprised the powerful Yankees by taking the lead in the Series.
In game four, Brooklyn was only one out away from evening the series. Dodgers reliever Hugh Casey faced Tommy Henrich with the Yankees down to their last batter. Henrich, whose nicknames include “Old Reliable” and “The Clutch”, would become the first player to hit a walk-off home run in a World Series eight years later. But before that, he dealt with Casey in 1941. Henrich worked the count full before a Casey breaking ball got him to swing and miss for strike three, and what would have been the end of the game. Unfortunately, Dodger catcher Mickey Owen didn’t catch the ball and Henrich made it safely to first. A subsequent rally by the Yankees stunned Brooklyn and turned that game around. It also turned around the series and immortalized the uncaught third strike.
In 2005, an uncaught third strike once again changed the outcome of a postseason series. Television replays and an umpire’s mechanics made this one even more controversial.
That year, the Chicago White Sox reached the postseason, looking to win their first World Series since 1917. They faced the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the American League Championship Series. The Angels took the series opener in Chicago and had an opportunity to take a 2-0 lead back to their home field. Then A.J. Pierzynski changed the dynamic of the series when he reached first on an uncaught third strike.
It was a tie game, the White Sox had no runners on base, and the Angels were one out away from forcing extra innings. Pierzynski, the White Sox catcher, swung and missed on a 3-2 pitch from the Angels’ Kelvim Escobar. After plate umpire Doug Eddings indicated strike three, Angels’ catcher Josh Paul thought the inning was over and rolled the ball back to the mound. Pierzynski knew the pitch was low and wasn’t sure Paul had caught it cleanly. The White Sox backstop took a chance and ran to first. Eddings ruled that Paul did trap the ball, and Pierzynski became the go ahead run when he reached first safely. The Sox won the game later that inning—and their next eight postseason games—for their first championship in 88 years.
Controversy surrounded the play, ranging from Eddings’ third-strike-fist-pump to replays showing Paul possibly making a clean catch. Many pointed to Pierzynski’s reputation as a villain and figured he took advantage of the situation, maybe going as far as intentionally faking out the Angels.
Pierzynski did take advantage of a close play on that uncaught third strike. Perhaps he even duped his opponents, acting initially like he’d resigned himself to a strikeout. Perhaps somewhere, John Wetteland cursed a rule that’s been around for 120 years.