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After Wild Card game, infield fly rule goes from obscure to infamous

Updated on October 7, 2012

There was a time in the not too distant past (like Friday morning) when I was one of the few people in my range of acquaintance who understood and could explain the infield fly rule. Of course, I was also one of the few who cared.

Now, after the Wild Card playoff between the Cardinals and the Braves it seems that everyone – casual baseball fans, little old grandmothers, toddlers in pre-school – are all talking about and parsing the fine details of the rule.

What the rule says

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already read about the rule in a number of other blogs. But in case you haven’t, the rule is located in a section that has dozens of definitions of everything in baseball from what an out is to interference to the league president.

The rule basically states that with runners on first and second or bases loaded (in other words, a force play at a base other than second), with less than two outs, if a fair fly is hit (excluding a bunt or line drive) that an infielder could catch with ordinary effort then the umpire shall call an infield fly. The batter is automatically out whether the infielder catches it or not.

Runners can advance as they normally would; i.e., if the ball is caught they have to tag up before moving on. If the ball is dropped and a runner tries to advance, he has to be tagged since the force if now removed.

Umpire's judgment plays a key role in making the call

It is up to the umpire to decide if the ball could have been caught by ordinary effort of an infielder, and by ordinary effort, it means by an average player at that position. So if you have an extremely fast shortstop who could reach the warning track, it would be considered beyond the range of ordinary effort by an average player. The same if a lumbering first baseman could only move a step or two, if an average first baseman could reach it, it would still be an infield fly.

The umpire is also supposed to take into consideration the conditions. If the fielders are all playing in, such as with the bases loaded, a pop fly that might be called an infield fly if they were in standard positions would be allowed to stay in play without the rule being invoked because the fielder would have to run too far to be considered ordinary effort. The ump is also supposed to consider the field conditions, so that if the field is so wet that it would slow down the fielder, he might also not call it.

And if the ball is hit shallow but the outfielder races in and catches it at a spot that an average infielder could reach with ordinary effort, then it can still be called an infield fly.

The rule has been in baseball for around 125 years, put in place to prevent fielders from getting double plays by letting the ball drop, then turning double plays by forcing the runners at third and second (the reason it doesn’t go into effect with a runner on first is that unless the batter isn’t running at all, you’d only get a force at second and no out, leaving you in the exact position you’d be if the ball was caught).

Later and deeper than I've ever seen

All of that said, in 25 years of coaching at the high school level, with umpires who are less astute than those at the Major League level, I never saw an infield fly rule called as deep or as late as the one Sam Holbrook called in the Braves-Cardinals game.

I’ve read a lot of comments since then, some claiming the call was accurate and other claiming the call was wrong. Since it is an umpire’s decision call, it’s hard to call it wrong even though it probably was an error in judgment.

My opinion on the call

Here is how I view whether Holbrook made the right call or not: If Pete Kozma, the shortstop, had peeled off a few steps earlier and Matt Holliday come in to catch the ball in the exact same spot, would the umpire still have called an infield fly? There is no requirement that an infielder catch the pop-up; the key is the distance where an infielder with ordinary effort could have caught it.

In the comments about the infield fly rule in the official baseball rules it states that “the umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder.”

So if Holliday had caught the ball in the same spot Holbrook should have also ruled it an infield fly. But would he have? I doubt it. I can’t remember ever seeing an infield fly called when an outfielder is moving under it that deep into the outfield. Even popups behind second base, when a centerfielder makes a running catch on it, are seldom ruled infield flies, even though infielders routinely do range out that far.

I also think that in the post-season, when extra umps are added down the baselines, then the infield fly rule should be the responsibility of the base umps. Umpires routinely have areas of the field they’re responsible for. For example, on balls hit down the line, it is the home plate ump’s responsibility to call fair or foul until it reaches the base; once it passes the base, it is the base umpire’s call.

No excuse for loss or fan's actions

It’s interesting that a rule that many people who play and coach baseball don’t understand, and that many fans don’t even realize is being called during a game, has become one of the most talked about rules this season.

But the bottom line is that the call, whether right or wrong, was the not the reason the Braves lost the game. They lost because they made three throwing errors and didn’t come through with hits when they did have chances.

And, again whether right or wrong, the call was no excuse for Braves fans to act like spoiled brats and start throwing things onto the field. That’s a classless act that never has any justification.

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