Inside the rules: The infield fly

Few rules in major league baseball provide such a captivating history as that of the infield fly rule. From its origins as an instrument to legislate the morality of infielders, through its strange turn as a legendary subject of United States law, and with occasional base running blunders by professional players who have misunderstood it since, the infield fly continues to be one of the more interesting rules in MLB.

First, MLB’s definition of the infield fly:

An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.

It’s important to note that, in subsequent language, the rulebook clarifies (among other things) that the infield itself is not an actual boundary, that an umpire’s decision on an infield fly cannot be appealed and that the determining factor in an umpire judging a fly is the aforementioned “ordinary effort.” The latter covers, for example, the effects of windy conditions.

Baseball adopted the infield fly rule in 1895 so infielders could not let an easy pop-up drop to set up a chance at a double play while an opposing base runner held his position, assuming the ball would be caught. Baseball deemed such a deceptive move by the defense as unfair to the base runners. It was modified from its original designation of men on first and second with one out to include the same scenario with no outs, as well as bases loaded and less than two outs. Apparently, the original definition arose when a team attempted to end an inning with such a play. Amendments came when similar situations with no outs called for the same type of ruling.

Curiously, this whole idea of a deterrent to defensive stratagems against base runners in the rules of baseball is limited to pop-ups.

For instance, pitchers, with runners on first and third, may fake a pick-off throw to third to try to draw the base runner on first off the bag to pick him off. Likewise, with runners on first and third, catchers may fake a throw to second on an opponent’s attempted steal of second base to draw the other base runner off third. In the same situation, catchers may throw the ball back to the pitcher in a way intended to make the runner on third believe he going for the putout at second, when in fact the pitcher plans to throw out the base runner on third if he tries to score.

Just recently, in the NLCS, second baseman Chase Utley acted a though he was fielding a ball that was actually hit into center field, trying to confuse Andres Torres and keep him from advancing all the way to third on the hit and run.

Those are just a few examples in which defenders try to deceive opposing base runners. However, those actions are not illegal and happen all the time. Why such behavior on pop-ups was singled out a century ago is anyone’s guess.

Another oddity is the infield fly’s rule book contemporaries. Baseball instituted some of its most fundamental regulations around the time of the infield fly rule’s inception. Some examples include four balls constituting a walk, the pitching distance set at 60 feet six inches and a caught foul-tip counting as a strike. Those rules are among the basics of the game and it is surprising that such a nonessential ruling as the infield fly would surface during those formative years in the history of the game.

For instance, a mere 13 years before to the infield fly rule’s appearance, foul balls caught on the first bounce still counted as outs. The adoption of the infield fly rule is analogous to the absurd notion of the NFL outlawing play-action passes shortly after instituting the forward pass for fear that fake handoffs would put opponents out of position.

The peculiar history of the infield fly rule prompted a University of Pennsylvania law student to pen an initially anonymous, somewhat satirical, and wholly logical law review article called “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule.” William S. Stevens wrote it in 1975, and his legal commentary made its way to publication and even into in law school classrooms.

Stevens argued that fair play cannot be assumed in a game (or society) that puts emphasis on winning (or upward mobility via wealth accumulation). Therefore, baseball legislated fair play in the same manner some societies, mostly those spawned by the Brits, formed their legal systems. That is, by taking a decision on a previous ruling and following that verdict subsequently, until the previous decision is slightly modified, which then produces the new law to be followed.

While Stevens studied the infield fly rule with the diligence of a law student and the ingenuity of a humorist, many players have misunderstood the rule, much to their detriment. A few recent examples include some of the biggest names in baseball.

On May 13, 2003, Barry Bonds (most home runs in major league history) hit a pop-up with one out and the bases loaded. Jim Joyce (he of Armando Galarraga‘s lost perfect-game-fame) correctly called an infield fly. The ball fell untouched in front of home.

Neifi Perez (thrice suspended under MLB substance abuse policies) was the runner on third. Perez felt obligated to run home once the ball bounced. Fernando Tatis (once hit two grand slams in a single inning) spared his opponent an embarrassing out when he stepped on the plate instead of tagging the befuddled Perez. Therefore, a rule meant to limit the damage to one out worked, but only because of ignorance of those involved in the play. Tatis could have tagged Perez for a double play.

Other star players, such as Albert Pujols (greatest active hitter) are not as lucky as Perez. On April 8, 2010, Matt Holliday hit a pop-up behind second base. Umpire Mike Reilly called the infield fly before Brandon Phillips muffed the catch. Phillips then mistakenly thought he had to force Pujols at second base, so he threw to second. Pujols mistakenly thought he’d been put out on that throw, so he headed back to the dugout. Orlando Cabrera completed the unlikely double play by running over and tagging Pujols while he was off first base.

Other examples abound, several produced by Rich Marazzi in Baseball Digest’s “Baseball Rules Corner,” but they follow the similar theme that Marazzi uses for his series: Players sometimes make mistakes on the rules of the game that could cost their team a win.

As interesting as misplays by fielders and runners are regarding the infield fly rule, perhaps the most interesting part of the rule is its formation in the first place. Why one specific form of scheming—or, as some would call it, gamesmanship—found its way among the most basic of rules, while others were never considered unjust, is one of the more unusual stories behind baseball’s rules.

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding your argument, but it appears to me that the analogies you provide are fundamentally different from the problem inherent in the infield fly. In every other case, the base runner has reasonable choices and opportunities whether deceived or not. A runner on 1B who strays too far off the bag may still get back or may pay for it by getting picked off. A runner fooled by a fielder mimicking a catch may manage to get to the next base anyway or at least can be safe without advancing.

    But with force plays at two bases and fewer than 2 outs, the base runners have no reasonable options on an obvious pop-up put out. If he assumes the fielder will intentionally let it drop, he is certain to be doubled off the base since all the fielder has to do is make the ordinary play that is nearly 100% successful. If he assumes the fielder will make the routine play and the fielder intentionally doesn’t, he is sure to be doubled up (or nearly sure) anyway. All competitiveness is eliminated without the infield fly rule.

    Additionally, the rule does allow runners to advance at their own risk. So if a fielder does muff the play, the runner can try to move up. At that point, real competition exists since he has to judge how likely the fielder is to recover.

  2. jim said...

    I think the difference in a lot of these plays is that if the base runners have the ability to make a decision about what is best for them (i.e. to run or not) based on what they could see happening. But with the infield fly, the runners can’t make the best decision based on the knowledge of where the ball is and where the fielder is, it is solely dependent on what the fielder does. The runner isn’t given a fair chance to make a decision on what to do to give him the best chance of being safe based on what information that is available to him. If you look at the infielder faking a play on a ground ball, the runner has the opportunity to see where the ball was hit – just because he didn’t doesn’t make it the same because he could have. Same with the other ‘tricks’ mentioned – if the player is watching close enough he can make a decision that will not make him out based solely on what the fielder has done.

  3. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    The one thing I don’t understand about the infield fly rule is why is it only in effect with at least two baserunners? You can still engineer a cheap double play with just a man on first, and I saw the Astros do so seven or eight years ago. The ball was popped-up, the runner held first, Bagwell let it drop, they turned two. Why is that situation not covered by the infield fly rule?

  4. David Wade said...

    Bob and Jim- if there were no infield fly rule, wouldn’t baserunners go off the base a little and be ready to run in case the fielder elected to let the ball drop and try for two?  In doing so, the fielder would be taking a chance that he’d get a favorable bounce, then throwing (presumably) to third for the force there.  Would there easily ( so easy as to make the act unfair) be enough time for the third baseman to then throw to second for the double play if the runner on first is watching all that happen and is off the base a little?  The player furthest from the play could take a decent lead and still have a good chance to get back before being doubled up.

    If the pop up were right by a base (2nd or 3rd), then yeah, the baserunner would be at the defenders’ mercy somewhat. 

    Kind of like a line drive right to the first baseman who’s holding the runner close.  That’s not considered an ‘unfair’ double play and would be in full veiw of the baserunner.

    What a great way for a pitcher to get out of a bases-loaded jam- induce a pop-up that, if close to a base, could get two outs instead of one.

  5. jim said...

    ed, I agree, it does seem to be a bit strange but it may be that their is an assumption that the batter has the ability to make a competitive play at 1B.  I think with 2 (or more) players on, all moving back to the bag assuming the fly will be caught, they are pretty much dead in the water if the fielder lets the ball drop at the last minute, whereas the batter should be moving toward 1st no matter what the situation is, so 2 outs would not be as easily assumed.

  6. David Wade said...

    Ed Jr.- I believe they chose two baserunners because any hit considered a pop-up (and not a line drive) should give the alert batter enough time to get close enough to first so that he could be there easily should the fielder choose to let it drop, field it, and throw to second for the lead runner.

  7. David Wade said...

    Further- isn’t the baserunner on first stuck with no decision on a hard grounder to short?  He must run.  He will almost always be out, and very often so will the batter. 

    So, why is the hard grounder to short penalized with a good chance for two outs instead of one, but the high pop-up to short is not?

  8. Michael S said...

    “why is the hard grounder to short penalized with a good chance for two outs instead of one, but the high pop-up to short is not?”

    Because with the ball on the ground the runner on first HAS to go, whatever the fielder decides or is able to do. The fly ball does not create a force-out situation, since the batter does not become “entitled” to 1st base unless/until the ball hits the ground (and even then only if an infield fly hasn’t been called).

  9. Nyet Jones said...

    Nice article! I agree with Bob’s assessment, only wanting to add that there’s at least some semblance of wanting a certain degree of difficulty involved in getting two/three outs. Particularly in the bases loaded situation, because there are forces at all bases and all three baserunners have to more or less stay put, allowing the infielder to have the double (or triple) play “either way” (by doubling them off or letting it drop and forcing them out) feels somewhat cheap. Not that there aren’t other cheap plays out there, too, but this one seems somewhat egregious.

    Also, probably shouldn’t fail to consider a similar play that isn’t covered by the infield fly rule per se but is remarkably similar. In the same situations that the infield fly rule applies, fielders aren’t permitted to intentionally drop line drives – if I remember correctly, if a fielder does this, the batter is out and the ball is dead. And I think the rationale is exactly the same, that the baserunners have no capacity to make a reasonable decision if the fielder just muffs the liner intentionally, and it would be another instance of a cheap double or triple play.

    Or maybe there’s just something aesthetic about it – “baseball” doesn’t want its fielders dropping balls and letting pop-ups fall in the infield. Fortunately the latter would never happen in a postseason game, what with the best teams on the field and all. smile

  10. jim said...

    Now you are talking about the rule for a force out vs the rules around deception when talking about the runner making a choice. Two different things.

  11. David Wade said...

    My second analogy was bad- I only meant to show that I don’t see why it’s a bad deal for a runner on a pop-up to be in a bad spot- forced to make a guess at what the fielder will do.

  12. Bob Rittner said...

    On a normal infield pop up I don’t think the base runners could take a big enough lead to have a reasonable chance to beat a double play. More than a few steps would almost guarantee a DP if it is caught, and anything less makes the 6-5-4 or 5-2-5 (or any similar play) DP almost as certain.

    As for the infielder taking a chance on the ball getting away, there is certainly some risk, I agree, but not a really significant one, especially on the well groomed infields that exist. Actually, an infielder could almost certainly guide the ball to the ground. I really do not see the argument against it.

  13. kardo said...

    I was my impression that the reason for this deception being disallowed is because the fielding will have to make a deliberate “bad” play in order to gain an advantage. This is consistent with a dropped third strike being an automatic out with less then two outs and a runner on first, because in this case again the catcher can turn a double play by deliberately making a bad play (drop the third case) and with the disallowed steal of first base from second. Compare this to a fake throw, and you notice that the fielder doesn’t have to make a “bad” play in order to pull that deception off. (This logic actually breaks down with balks)

    And honestly when an amateur baseball player like myself can know the rule, then I would think so should the people who make a living out of playing the game. As much as I think Pujols is amazing, not knowing the infield fly rule properly is just inexcusable.

  14. Cliff Blau said...

    I don’t know what would happen under modern conditions, but I’ve inputted many 1888-1891 games for Retrosheet, and I can tell you that infielders let pop-ups drop in these circumstances fairly often.  They never got less than a force out, and usually made a double play, even with the poor field conditions back then. The analogy to an intentionally dropped third strike is apt.  I know of a triple play that occurred before that practice was banned (and also a throwing error that cost the defense the game).

  15. Jim C said...

    Re the Neifi Perez/Barry Bonds play, since Bonds was called out on the rule, Tatis stepping on home made it a double play after the runner headed that way. And the rule does not apply with just one runner on, because the batter should be at first base if the ball falls uncaught, thus making a double play impossible. Sometimes fielders do let popups fall in that situation, to get a faster runner off the bases, or if the batter just stands there at the plate, and doesn’t run it out.

  16. David Wade said...

    Cliff,
    Personally, I think such plays would be exciting and do not change fundamental rules of the game.  I have a friend who mentioned the drop third strike ruling you allude to and we thought that would be interesting to research as well.

  17. MikeS said...

    I have to agree with @Bob Rittner and @jim while disagreeing with @David Wade.

    To use the simplest example if there are men on 1st and 2nd with one out and the hitter hits an infield pop up the runners have no safe option.  Stay flat footed on their bases and a fielder can easily muff a ball, pick it up and throw to third and second to get two.  try to advance and it is even easier to catch it and get the two.  The only option would be to go half way and try to confuse the fielder.  Sure, there would be risk in letting the ball drop but he’s almost certain to get at least one out so the risk is minimal.  I guess you could devise a strategy where one runner advances and the other stays home to limit the damage.

    In all other plays the runner has a safe play or can be attentive and discover the trickery.  Here it’s not a matter of having your head in the game or risk/reward ratios.  It’s just that the runner is dead either way.

  18. Matt said...

    If I recall on the Pujols play, it was not clear to anyone that the umpire actually called the infield fly. I don’t think Pujols was confused by the rule, he was confused by the ump.

    Here’s the play in question:
    http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=7322413&query;=&game_pk=263854

    You can see on the replay that the second base ump makes the call, but only just before Pujols gets back to first base, which is barely before Phillips dropped the ball.

  19. John K said...

    “Why such behavior on pop-ups was singled out a century ago is anyone’s guess.”
    As others have mentioned, it is obvious to me how the plays you describe differ from those plays covered by the IFFR. 

    Furthermore, I should point out that there is no risk to an infielder of letting the pop-up drop b/c he doesn’t have to let it take a bounce.  He can just do a phantom catch, easily controlling its landing spot and then proceed to gun down runners who were faced with a catch-22.

  20. Jim C said...

    About 20 years ago, adult amateur hardball started in the Wash. DC area, where I was living at the time. I got stuck with the scorebook as the first inning of the first game started. The pitcher walked the bases loaded to start the game. The next batter hit a high popup to shortstop. The umpire immediately yelled “Infield Fly” so the batter was out, and the runners held their bases.  But as the ball descended, the shortstop tripped and fell as the dirt infield gave way to the outfield grass. the ball landed and rolled away, and the runners took off. The shorstop got to the ball, and threw to second to try to get the runner advancing from first, but the throw eluded the second baseman. By this time two runners had scored, and the runner who had started from first was headed to third. The first baseman got to the ball, threw it to third, and the runner was out. So on this play, we got a double play, but the other team scored two runs. The second baseman had touched the throw from the shortstop, but could not control it. The best I could come up with for scoring was calling the batter out on a P6, since he was out automatically and the shortstop was closest to the ball. The runners scored on a throwing error by the shortstop, and the runner attempting to advance from first to third was out, 6-4-3-5, since they all touched the ball. Comments?

  21. MikeC said...

    @Jim C:

    I wouldn’t give the second basemen an assist unless he significantly altered the flight of the ball towards the first baseman.  If he completely whiffed on the catch, he clearly doesn’t get an assist.  If it’s somewhere in between?  In stat conscious MLB he probably gets an assist if he touches the ball at all, even if it just grazes his shin.

    Also, I think there were 2 errors on the play.  One on the SS for the missed catch allowing all the runners one base and one for the bad throw that allowed the man who started on second to score after he went to third on the first error.  The second error could go to the second baseman for missing the catch depending on how good the throw from short was.

  22. David Wade said...

    John K,

    A batter is out when a fielder intentionally drops a fair fly ball or line drive.  Same could/ would apply to pop ups if there were no infield fly rule and nullify the ‘phantom drop’.

  23. Paul said...

    I do not know why the infield fly rule was instituted, but given human nature I can put forth a few motiviations:

    1. Someone influental hated the “cheap” play and managed to convince the owners to do away with the play.  Bonus points if said “cheap” play cost his team an important game.

    2. Fans thought the play was a mockery, or at least the owners thought that the fans thought it was a mockery.  It is never a good sign when fans complain that a play requires no skill, or “my grandmother could do that.”  The National League was still young in 1895 and still building the fan base, so mockeries were to be avoided.  (To put a personal touch to his possibility, I watch the World Cup when its time rolls around.  Usually, I find myself actually liking football/soccer until the flopping, stalling, and poor officiating show up and remind me why I do not watch soccer.)  This may dovetail with #1. 

    3. The play was tolerated until some innovative player added a new wrinkle to the play and things just started getting absurd.  There have been a number of rule changes caused by a single player pushing things too far.

    Personally, I like the infield fly rule compared to the alternative.  Rewarding a team for intentionally muffing a play just seems wrong, just like flopping.  While the line drive double play has the same effect, it does reflect a good play by the defense.

  24. Steve Millburg said...

    As you say, a batter is out when a fielder intentionally drops a fair fly ball or line drive.  The infield fly rule is merely an extension of that rule: a batter is also out when a fielder intentionally drops or allows to drop an easily catchable fly ball on the infield.  If you have no problem with the former rule, why do you have a problem with the latter?  There’s a fundamental difference between the infield fly rule and the other attempts to deceive the baserunner that you mention, such as faking a pickoff throw or decoying a runner into thinking that there will be a play at second base on a ball actually hit to the outfield.  The other types of deceptions penalize only runners who are not alert or who do not exercise good judgment.  In the circumstances covered by the infield fly rule (and by the no-deliberate-drops rule), runners are doomed no matter how alert or smart they are—and not because of skillful fielding but rather because of deliberately unskillful fielding.  Baseball has decided that such plays are unfair.  I think so too.

  25. aaron said...

    Something I’ve always been curious about: Does a runner have to TAG UP to advance, if infield fly is called, but the catch is subsequently botched and the ball drops in? (ie; is it automatically ruled a “catch?” Or is the infield fly rule its own thing, and the batter is just ruled “out,” but there’s no tagging up necessary.)

  26. David Wade said...

    aaron- runners may advance at their own risk if the ball is botched, without having to tag up.

    Paul,

    I like those musings. 

    I will say, since a common thread appears to be the purposeful muff, that I don’t advocate that.  I simply think playing the ball on a bounce should be an option.  But, that’s still too close to ‘flopping’ for many.

  27. John K said...

    ah, my mistake.  I don’t know, I’m kind of coming around on your idea to get rid of the rule in that case

  28. David Wade said...

    Steve,

    I just have a problem with the extension of the rule on purposely dropping the ball.  Pudge Rodriguez a couple of years ago let a popped-up bunt drop in front of him and turned two.  It was a heady play.  I would have no problem with a shortstop trying the same thing on a pop-up on a full swing. 

    It’s not unskillful fielding to play a ball on the bounce, it’s just been deemed unfair to the baserunner because he could be doubled up.

    I am seeing that I’m on an island with this one!

  29. Jim C said...

    Many years ago, maybe 1992, I was at the first spring training game of the year at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, between the Cardinals and Orioles. With a man on first and 1 out, someone hit a soft line drive toward Jose Oquendo at second. He saw that the batter had barely moved, so he took a step back, fielded the ball on the short hop, and turned two. Should there be a rule about that?

  30. Art Schachter said...

    Unless I’m missing something, in the B. Bonds example above, Tatis stepping on homeplate would not have ended the inning.  If Perez had continued running and tagged home, he would have been safe.(no force once the infield fly in force)
    Correct?

  31. David Wade said...

    Art, you are correct, and that’s just what happened.  As noted in the article, Perez was safe on the play because Tatis touched home, thinking there was a force on, instead of tagging the runner.

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