Rulebook 101: Infield Fly Drama

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Baseball is a unique sport filled with situations that you may only see once every few years, if at all. Umpires must be prepared to rule on these situations in real time, but we have our own expert to rely upon. Brandon Magee explains the rule behind the infield fly drama from some of the more interesting plays we’ve seen over the past few years.

Baseball has been America’s national pastime for well over a century and a half. Yet it still provides long-time spectators events that they have never seen before – or will again. As baseball fans, we are well aware of the written and unwritten rules that govern the game. And sometimes a popup is just a popup.

Given a specific set of circumstances, an umpire may call a popup in the infield as an infield fly. The MLB rulebook defines an infield fly as:

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.

When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare “Infield Fly” for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare “Infield Fly, if Fair.”

The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul.

If a declared Infield Fly is allowed to fall untouched to the ground, and bounces foul before passing first or third base, it is a foul ball. If a declared Infield Fly falls untouched to the ground outside the baseline, and bounces fair before passing first or third base, it is an Infield Fly.

In many cases, the average fan may not even be aware of the umpire’s decision to call an infield fly. After all, as the infield fly continues to be a live ball, the fielders generally do their best to catch the popup as they would if the infield fly was not called. Such as in this play:

Why have such a rule? The rule is in place to prevent shifty chicanery by the defense, of course. If the rule were not in place, players could intentionally drop popups in order to induce double plays or to remove faster runners from the base paths. For example, when the infield fly rule is not in effect, Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus can simply let an Albert Pujols popup drop in front of him in order to force the much faster Mike Trout out at second. In the ninth inning of a one-run game, that tactic could make the difference between a win and a loss.

Oftentimes, players get caught by the nuance of the rule. Yasiel Puig correctly hung half way between first and second on this popup by Hanley Ramirez. When it dropped, Puig bolted to second… but then continued on as he thought he was out on a force play. At which point he was tagged out to complete a double play.

For those wondering how a ball that dropped on the outfield grass could be considered an infield fly candidate, the rulebook has a comment:

On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder-not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. 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. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire’s judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.

This rulebook comment was the cause of much consternation during the 2012 National League Wild Card game between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. In the eight inning with runners on first and second and one out, Andrelton Simmons skies a Mitchell Boggs pitch into short left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma appears to have a bead on it to make the easy catch. However, with leftfielder Matt Holliday coming in, neither player gloves the ball, and suddenly the Braves appear to have the bases loaded.

BUT… left field umpire Sam Holbrook had called for the infield fly rule. Given the provisions of the rule, Holbrook was justified in the call as it did appear that Kozma should have gloved it with ordinary effort. However, in a regular season game – with no umpires stationed down the outfield lines – a ball that lands so far into the outfield would likely not be called an infield fly. The Braves would go onto load the bases as pinch hitter Brian McCann would follow with a walk, but they did not score as Michael Bourn struck out to keep the score at 6-3 Cardinals.

The infield fly rule was put in place to avoid chicanery, but the nuances of the rule make certain that confusion will continue.


Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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