The current emphasis on the slide rule, and change of direction has created a controversy in the sport. So Rick Rowand has decided to clear the air surrounding some topics regarding baserunning. Today he will tackle the difference between the baseline and the basepath.
With the advent of MLB’s rule changes regarding sliding into a base to break up a double play, and with Chase Utley trying to prove how macho he is by altering his path to initiate a collision with the catcher, now seems like the right time to go over what a baseline and basepath is or isn’t.
In order to lessen the burden on my typing fingers and my editors we’ll stick with basepath for the purposes of this article.
Whenever you’re at a game – from rec ball to the majors – you’ll see two lines on the field, from home to first and from home to third, and then continuing to run all the way to the foul poles in the outfield. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not the basepath. There is only one basepath, or lane, or whatever you feel like calling it, in baseball. That starts 45 feet down the first base foul line, and is three feet to the outside of the foul line towards the stands. This path is the only place on the field that runners are directed to run in, but only when there will be a play at first.
From the MLB rule book, Rule 5.09(a) states:
(11) In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of ) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of) the three-foot line or inside (to the left of) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball;
Rule 5.09(a)(11) Comment (Rule 6.05(k): The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-foot lane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.
You’ve probably noticed that players routinely don’t use that lane, even when there is a play at first. The only time the lane really comes into play is on bunts and dink hits to the right side that are fielded by the catcher or pitcher, or even the first baseman, or on dropped third strikes.
If the runner isn’t in the lane on a throw by the fielder just inside the foul line, and the throw hits the runner, he is usually called out unless the throw hits him while he is transitioning from the path to the base. As you can see in the diagram above, the base is in fair territory and the marked running path is in foul territory.
As a general rule, as long as the runner is in the path and he’s hit by a thrown ball he will be called safe. A runner may even be hit by a ball when he is outside of the bridle path and still be called safe. For instance, if the catcher fields a dropped third strike in foul territory, and the first baseman switches to the other side of the bag to receive the catcher’s throw. In this case, per the last line of 5.09a(11), the runner must move outside the basepath and into fair territory to avoid interfering with the first baseman. If he was hit by the throw while in fair territory, because he has moved to avoid a fielder, he should be called safe. If he was inside the foul line and was hit by the thrown ball when the ball was fielded in fair territory, then he should be called out. These are all judgment calls decided by the umpire.
Moving on to a new topic: “Facts Not Covered In Geometry Class.” The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, true, but running in a straight line is not always the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B…to Point C. Because of this, running in a straight line between bases only happens some of the time in baseball: on balls hit in the infield, sacrifices of both the ‘bunt’ or ‘fly’ variety, stolen bases, and hit and run plays, Texas Leaguers. Pretty much any type of station-to-station baseball. But, you’ll see below that the rules don’t mandate this behavior outside of the 45-foot first base path:
MLB Rule (b) (7.08) Retiring a Runner. Any runner is out when: (1) He runs more than three feet away from his base path to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s base path is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely; or (2) after touching first base, he leaves the base path, obviously abandoning his effort to touch the next base;
Rule 5.09(b)(1) and (2) Comment (Rule 7.08(a): Any runner after reaching first base who leaves the base path heading for his dugout or his position believing that there is no further play, may be declared out if the umpire judges the act of the runner to be considered abandoning his efforts to run the bases. Even though an out is called, the ball remains in play in regard to any other runner.
Except for the times a runner must run in the 45 foot first base path, a runner creates his own baseline. As long as he only strays no more than three feet on either side of the basepath he set to the base to avoid a tag, he isn’t supposed to be called out.
Hypothetically, a runner going from first to second could take a detour into the outfield to shake hands with the right fielder. A very poor choice, but if no one’s trying to tag him, a legal one.
You will almost never see a player running in a straight line between bases on an outfield single or any multi-base situation. They round the bases so that their right foot lands on the inside corner of the bag in order to keep as much speed as they can to increase their chances of arriving safely at the next base, or to see if there was an error on the ball and they can advance safely.
You will also almost never see a runner lead off a base in a straight line between the bases unless it’s off first. When taking a lead off second and third base, runners usually lead off about two or three feet behind an imaginary line between the bases, anywhere from six to ten feet on their primary lead (depending on how closely he’s being held on by the fielder) so that if there is a pickoff attempt they will slide back hands-first into the rear corner of the bag. It also helps the runner be in a better position to run to the inside corner of the next bag. And even when a runner leads off from first, he’ll still line up on the back corner of the bag so he can tag the rear corner on a pickoff attempt.
There is much more to say about the intricacies of the basepath, but will have to wait until another article or two. For now, remember that straight lines are not always best, but sometimes you have to just make do.
Follow Rick on Twitter @rrowand.