In Defense of Baseball's Infield Fly Rule

An arcane regulation led to a controversial call in the Cardinals-Braves game a week ago. But there's a good reason that the regulation exist.

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Baseball's Infield Fly Rule has sparked more legal fascination than any other rule in sports. It returned to the national spotlight this past week when an unusual and controversial infield fly call in last Friday's National League Wild Card game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves short-circuited a potential Braves rally in a game the Braves ultimately lost. Opinion has been divided on the correctness of the call.

But beyond criticism of this specific call, some fans on Twitter and in web forums expressed a deeper distaste for the Infield Fly Rule itself, questioning whether it is necessary, wise, or warranted. They're misguided: The rule is part of the sport's fabric, uniquely warranted for a situation that's unique to baseball.

Here's how the Infield Fly Rule works. When a team has runners on first and second or the bases loaded with less than two out and the batter hits a pop-fly ball (but not a line drive) in fair territory that can be easily caught by an infielder (under the rule, can be caught with "ordinary effort"), the batter is called out, regardless of whether the fielder catches the ball; if the ball drops and remains fair, it is in play and the runners can try to advance at their own risk. The rule is designed to remove the incentive for a fielder to deliberately drop an easily handled ball on the infield, which likely would allow him to turn a double play on the two base runners (and perhaps, although less likely, a triple play). It took its more-or-less current form in 1901, enacted in response to infielders actually doing this, a bit of trickery that was deemed not "sporting" at the time.

We have moved beyond those 19th-century definitions of sportsmanship. Modern players employ many tricks and attempts at deception that our baseball forebears might not have appreciated. The question is whether, stripped of antiquated concerns for sports ethics, the rule can be justified. I say yes.

Critically, the Infield Fly Rule applies to a game situation that contains four distinct features. No other game situation in baseball, or indeed any other sport, contains all four features. The presence of all four features makes the infield-fly situation sui generis and necessitates a special rule.

The four relevant features are:

  1. Players have a strong incentive to intentionally not do what they are ordinarily expected to do in the game.
  2. The team gains a substantial benefit or advantage by intentionally not doing what is ordinarily expected.
  3. The play is slow-developing and not fast-moving, so the player has time to think and control what he does.
  4. Even doing what is ordinarily expected of them, the opposing players are powerless to stop the play from developing or to prevent the team from gaining this advantage.

First, the infield-fly situation gives fielders an incentive to intentionally not catch a fair ball, which is what the fielding team is expected to do. Second, the fielding team gets a significant advantage from not doing what they are expected to do, an advantage they would not otherwise have: They get two outs by dropping the ball, rather than only one out by catching it. And if there is one out at the time, that double play gets the team out of the inning, ending the batting team's chance to score. Third, because the ball has been hit softly straight up in the air, the fielder has time to settle under the ball and let the play develop; he has the chance to think the play through, know where the runners are, drop the ball right at his feet in a way that he can control, and quickly pick it off the ground and throw to start the double play. The other fielders also have time while the ball is in the air to move to the proper positions for the double play. Fourth, there is nothing the base runners can do to avoid that double play. There is a force in effect at all the bases; absent the rule, the runners must run when the ball hits the ground. But if they run and the ball is caught, they will be doubled off at their previous base. So they must wait to see whether the fielder catches the ball. Because the ball is hit in or near the infield, however, they cannot go too far from the base while they wait; if they do (as they would on a ball hit to the outfield), they will be doubled off if the ball is caught. So both runners must stay within about 3 to 5 steps of the base, meaning that once the ball is dropped, they must run approximately 80 feet from a standing start and try to outrun two throws within the infield. Most runners cannot do that and there will be a double play.

This is truly unique. Indeed, there is no other situation in baseball in which the fielding team will be better off by not catching a fair ball than by catching it. We can see the uniqueness by looking at the situations in which, by its terms, the Infield Fly Rule does not apply; all lack one of the four features. The rule does not apply if the ball is not catchable with "ordinary effort;" on a more difficult ball the fielder loses that control over the play. The rule does not apply to line drives; these balls are hit harder, are more difficult to handle, and generally happen much more quickly, meaning the fielders cannot control the ball or set up the double play as easily. The rule does not apply when there is only a runner on first; the defense does not gain a significant benefit by dropping the ball here, because it only gets one out whether the ball is caught or dropped, so the incentive to drop the ball is diminished. Of course, there could be a double play in that situation if the batter does not run hard; but the hitting team can control and prevent that double play if the batter runs, which is what he is supposed to do in the game.

The infield-fly situation remains unique even when we look to other sports. An analogy is often drawn to basketball, where a team trailing by three points in the closing seconds might intentionally miss a free throw, hoping to get the rebound and hit a three-pointer to tie the game. While this provides the shooting team great advantage (3 points instead of 1) and an incentive to not do what is usually expected (put the ball in the basket), the defensive team is not powerless; they can prevent the disadvantage by rebounding the missed free throw or by playing good defense on the subsequent shot.

Baseball likes to think of itself as a special, unique game, and so do baseball fans. In this one situation, at least, it is. And that justifies a unique rule.