Not so long ago, an umpire cited the Infield Fly Rule in an important baseball game.
Now, let's be honest: A significant percentage of "baseball fans" don't know what the Infield Fly Rule is, or why it exists. But of course you're not most baseball fans; I will guess that every one of you has at least a passing familiarity with the Infield Fly Rule, and I'll bet that some of you thought you had it cold.
I thought I did.
I didn't. As with a lot of baseball rules, there are nuances and codicils that don't come up very often ... but when they do, watch out. That's what happened, not long ago. Because a lot of people who saw the Infield Fly Rule called in that Braves-Cardinals game had never seen it called precisely that way before (or couldn't remember seeing it called that way; which, for the sake of their arguments, is the same thing).
In the immediate aftermath, I wrote this long piece about the play. I titled it "Everything you always wanted to know about the Infield Fly Rule" ... but I knew it wasn't really everything. The result was (at last count) more than 900 comments. Granted, a few hundred of those were from just a few heartbroken Braves fans. Still, it's obvious that I didn't cover every nuance and codicil. So let's take another run at this thing, and this time I'll try to address all the questions and complaints that have been raised since my original piece.
Once more but in rhythm this time, here's the guts of the Infield Fly Rule, with a few particularly relevant parts bolded:
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.
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) 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...
You know what makes this one tough for people? Those words ordinary and ordinarily. But we'll get back to those in a moment. Let's start with the easy stuff ...
Why does the Infield Fly Rule exist?
As the 1971 edition of Knotty Problems of Baseball notes, "The Infield Fly rule is designed to protect runners from the trickery of the defensive team, which, without this regulation, could turn easy pop flies into double plays with great regularity."
In the early 1890s, some bright boy realized that with runners on first and second or the bases loaded, with one out or none, he could let a pop fly drop to the ground, then grab the ball and start a pretty easy double or even triple play, because the runners would have felt compelled to hold near their respectable bases.
So in 1895, the Infield Fly Rule was adopted. (Oddly, the initial rule covered only one-out situations; it wasn't until 1901 that the Infield Fly Rule also applied with nobody out.)
Okay, so if the intent of the Infield Fly Rule is to protect the baserunners -- that is, to prevent those crafty infielders from turning crafty double plays -- why did Sam Holbrook call it in this situation? There was no way that Kozma was going to start a double play, was there?
No, probably not. I mean, I suppose it's possible. But without looking at an overhead view, I'm guessing that both runners were well off their bases and could have easily advanced if Kozma had tried something crafty. Well, at least one of them. There might have been time for Kozma to throw to third or second for a force-out, but a relay throw to complete a double play seems highly unlikely. Getting just one out might have been a stretch.
So if the intent of the rule is to prevent cheap double plays and Kozma wasn't going to turn a double play, why in the hell did Holbrook make the call?
Because that's what he was trained to do.
Let me back up for a moment. I won't argue (yet) that Holbrook was trained to make that call, 200-some feet from the plate. What I will argue (now) is that he was trained to ignore the relative chances of the defense turning a double play. The rules don't say anything about the umpire making that judgment, and I've seen comments from a number of umpires from every level, and they're unanimous: The umpire is not supposed to weigh the chances of the double play. You might think he should, but that's not a Sam Holbrook issue; that's a Baseball issue. It's not in the rules, and there is no apparent precedent for it.
Also, while it's probably true that Kozma couldn't have turned a double play, it's not really that difficult to imagine a situation in which the runners could get all bollixed up. Last week I spoke to Hunter Wendelstedt, who's been umpiring in the major leagues since 1998, and serves as Chief Instructor at the Wendelstedt Umpire School. When I asked Wendelstedt about the argument that Holbrook should have eschewed making the call because Kozma was too deep to turn a double play, he pointed out, "You have to assume these guys are the best players in the world."
What if a couple of incredibly slow hitters were on the bases? Is the umpire supposed to take the speed of the baserunners into consideration, too, along with everything else? (Well, maybe a little. More on that below.)
What does precedent have to do with it?
Like it or not, precedent plays a big role in umpiring. For example, according to the rules, fielders aren't generally allowed to block baserunners from bases. But the umpires allow it everywhere except first base. Drives me nuts, because a) it's against the rules, and b) it's a good way to get somebody hurt. But today's umpires allow it, because they always have (no, I don't know why they began allowing it).
We don't have to be happy about umpires ignoring the Official Rules -- I mean, the Official Rules literally, as you and I understand them -- but nobody's going to raise much of a fuss if precedent is on their side. Nobody's going to excoriate an umpire for allowing a catcher to block the plate, and nobody's going to excoriate an umpire for ignoring the double-play chances when the Infield Fly Rule might be in order. Except those situations aren't really analogous, since the latter umpire has both the rulebook and precedent on his side.
Okay, smart guy. Is there any precedent for calling the Infield Fly that far away from, you know, the infield?
Precisely that far? According to Baseball Info Solutions, that ball hit the ground 224 feet away from home plate. Also according to BIS, this season there were 50 fly balls caught by infielders more than 224 feet away from the plate. Just from watching the games recently, it's clear that infielders could catch many more fly balls, if they weren't called off by the outfielders. One thing that BIS doesn't track is how often the Infield Fly Rule has been called on those plays.
We do know that the Infield Fly Rule has been invoked when an infielder's ranged well into the outfield, because it happened just this season in a Cubs game, with Starlin Castro. I've run this video before, in a Hot Corner post, and I'm not going to belabor Harold Reynolds' analysis within, because it touches on a lot of the points I made in my original piece. But if you haven't seen this, it's simply proof that Holbrook's not the first umpire to yell "Infield Fly!" on a batted ball that carried well into the outfield. The first minute and 15 seconds is about Kozma and Holbrook, and then it's Starlin Castro from May ...
Now, I know this gets a little tricky, but Starlin Castro is important because it establishes that umpires do call the Infield Fly well into the outfield. It doesn't happen often. But it does happen.
A few people have told me, "I've seen a lot of baseball games, and I've never seen the Infield Fly called on a play like that." Well, the fact that you've never seen it (or don't remember it) doesn't mean it's never actually happened. I feel fairly confident in suggesting that Pete Kozma and Sam Holbrook did not set the all-time record for Infield Fly Rule distance ... although I suspect they came real close.
It was an extraordinary play. But I use the superlative extraordinary in its most literal sense. Yes, that play in its entirety was far from ordinary. Usually the left fielder would catch the ball. Occasionally the shortstop would catch the ball. But very rarely would there be a mix-up, with the ball dropping between them. Even more rarely would this happen with two runners on the bases, in a winner-take-all playoff game.
But while the play (in its entirety) was extraordinary, that does not mean Kozma displayed extraordinary effort.
Wait, what? If the play was extraordinary, how was the fielder's effort merely ordinary?
Now we're getting to the really tricky part. The part, I think, that's tripped up a lot of the people who can't stop thinking that Sam Holbrook made a terrible call.
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...
Earlier in the rules, there's a Definition of Terms, where we find this:
ORDINARY EFFORT is the effort that a fielder of average skill at a position in that league or classification of leagues should exhibit on a play, with due consideration given to the condition of the field and weather conditions.
Rule 2.00 (Ordinary Effort) Comment: This standard, called for several times in the Official Scoring Rules (e.g., Rules 10.05(a)(3), 10.05(a)(4), 10.05(a)(6), 10.05(b)(3) (Base Hits); 10.08(b) (Sacrifices); 10.12(a)(1) Comment, 10.12(d)(2) (Errors); and 10.13(a), 10.13(b) (Wild Pitches and Passed Balls)) and in the Official Baseball Rules (e.g., Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly)), is an objective standard in regard to any particular fielder. In other words, even if a fielder makes his best effort, if that effort falls short of what an average fielder at that position in that league would have made in a situation, the official scorer should charge that fielder with an error.
Yes, this section is ridiculous on its face. It's perfectly nifty to say that "average fielder" is an objective standard, but of course that's actually a subjective judgment that every umpire (and official scorer) must make.
But umpires and official scorers make subjective judgments all the time. There's another problem, at least for those trying to parse the definition of "ordinary effort" ... What is a play?
Everybody knows what a play is! But I'm not so sure that everybody does. When we think of a play, we think of everything. Let's say there's a grounder to the shortstop. When the ball is hit, the following (usually) happens:
1. Shortstop moves to field baseball,
2. Shortstop fields baseball,
3. Shortstop throws baseball.
That's a play, right?
Yeah. Except in the narrow context in which an official scorer evaluates the shortstop, that's not a play. That's two plays.
Think about it. If you're the official scorer, you don't care about how good a jump the shortstop gets. That's essentially irrelevant, even though you and I think of that as part of the play. If the shortstop starts in the wrong direction, and winds up missing the ball by six feet, the scorer won't give him an error. I've seen it happen. To the official scorer, all that matters is that he does get to the ball in a good position to make a play; that play.
If our shortstop now fields the ball cleanly, he's made that play and won't get charged with an error. If he doesn't field it cleanly and the official scorer believes an average fielder would have fielded it cleanly, he'll probably get an error.
Ah, but even if he does field it cleanly, he's got another play to make. The throw is another play. In fact, players occasionally make two errors on the same play. Because fielding a ground ball is actually more than one play. Fumble a grounder, you get an error on that play. Pick up the ball and throw it away? You get an error on that play, too, if it leads to further runner advancement.
Great. So one play can be two plays. What does that have to do with Pete Kozma?
It has everything to do with Pete Kozma. Some people think it took extraordinary effort for Kozma to be in a position to catch that fly ball in left field. That the average shortstop wouldn't have been out there, setting up for the catch.
It doesn't matter. I mean, I think that's actually wrong. I think a lot of shortstops would have been out there, in almost exactly the same position as Kozma. But again, it doesn't matter. All the umpire cares about is, once the player is out there, can he make the catch, that play, with ordinary effort?
Think about it like this. Two left fielders. Matt Holliday and Brett Gardner. Long fly ball to left-center field. Holliday's got below-average range, and doesn't come close to catching it. Ball hits the ground and bounces over the fence. Automatic double. No question. Gardner's got fantastic range, reaches the spot and slows down for the catch ... and the ball bounces out of his glove. Does the scorer watch that play and say, "Well, an average left fielder wouldn't have been in position to make that play. So, no error for Gardner"?
No, he does not. Or he shouldn't. Scorers make odd decisions sometimes. But the scorer should ask not if an average left fielder would have reached the ball and made the catch. The scorer should ask if an average left fielder would have made the catch, once he reached the ball. Which is why Brett Gardner gets an error.
Let me be more specific. As that pop fly in Atlanta began to descend, Holbrook had one job: Determine whether the infielder, at that moment, was in good position to make a catch that an average major-league shortstop would make. Hunter Wendelstedt stressed this point to me again and again: "We need to realize that these ballplayers are the best in the world."
Here's what Holbrook actually said about the call, right after the game (via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution):
"I saw the shortstop go back and get underneath the ball where he would have had ordinary effort and would have caught the baseball, and that’s why I called the infield fly."
"It’s all judged on what the fielder does. Once that fielder establishes himself and he has ordinary effort on the ball, that’s when the call is made. So it wouldn’t matter whether it was from third base or on the line out there. But, again, it’s all based on what the fielder does, that’s what I went on, and that’s what I read."
Maybe all this seems elementary to you. But I've had people reading the rule, then reading Holbrook's comments, and arguing that he simply doesn't understand the rule. That his definition of "ordinary effort" does not square with the Official Rules.
Which is possible. But unlikely. The umpires are really good about knowing the rules. They make mistakes all the time. But the great majority of their mistakes are snap misjudgments, or the result of faulty or unfortunate positioning. Their mistakes are very rarely due to not knowing the rules.
All of that sounds good, but why should we trust your interpretation?
You shouldn't. I've laid out my interpretation of "ordinary effort" -- which is the biggest point of dispute, I think -- as clearly as I can, and I arrived at it independently. It does comport, I think, with Holbrook's statement, and I'm assuming he does know the rules cold.
Hunter Wendelstedt told me that when he teaches the Infield Fly Rule at his school, "We're going to show this and say, 'You need to call this.' "
I also ran my interpretation past Jim Evans, who umpired in the American League for nearly 30 years and now runs the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. Specifically, I asked him about the meaning of ordinary effort and play in the context of the Infield Fly Rule. In an e-mail message, Evans wrote:
Quick answer: You are judging the possibility of an infielder fielding a fair fly ball with ordinary effort after the ball has reached its apex and started down. Something could happen between the time the ball left the bat and the ball reached its apex that could change the play (e.g. infielder falling down, wind).
Umpires are trained to signal each other prior to the first pitch to every batter when the conditions for the infield fly rule exist: Runners on first and second or bases loaded with less than two outs. The umpires then observe the starting positions of the infielders. When the ball is hit, the umpire then mentally determines whether the ball is fair or foul, a fly ball, a line drive, or a bunt (the infield fly rule does not apply to foul balls, line drives, or bunts). If he determines it to be a fair fly ball, he waits until it reaches its apex before making his decision whether or not the ball can be fielded with ordinary effort by an infielder. Waiting until the ball has started down gives him more time to more accurately assess the situation. Though not stipulated in the rule, consideration should be given at this point to the feasibility of a trick play by the infielder...
Now, I should say that Evans does allow, both here and elsewhere in his e-mail message, that there is room for interpretation by the umpires. That is, while a literal interpretation of the rule allows for the Infield Fly to be called on the warning track, the umpire should consider the double-play (or "trick play") possibility in his ruling. Evans wrote, "Though controversial, Sam Holbrook's call is defensible under the current wording of the rule." Defensible, but perhaps not metaphysically correct.
I will note, too, that Wendelstedt (if I understood him correctly) didn't really allow for any interpretation at all; if the infielder can make the catch with ordinary effort, the umpire has to make the call.
Which shows, again, just how tricky these things can be. Here we've got two experienced Major League umpires who run top umpiring schools, and they seem to have a somewhat different take on a central point.
After all of this, my take is essentially what it's been from the beginning: I believe that Sam Holbrook's call is certainly defensible; on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is they should fire this buffoon and 10 is let's put him in the Hall of Fame tomorrow, I'm somewhere north of 7.
Most of this makes sense, I guess. But shouldn't they rewrite the Infield Fly Rule so this doesn't happen again?
So what doesn't happen again? A bunch of people who don't understand the rule, complaining about it?
Haha really funny. No. A situation where a team loses a baserunner and an out, even though the defense doesn't actually make the play.
Oh, that. Yeah, sure. But the devil's in the details, right? The rule could be, for example, that if the Infield Fly Rule is called but the defense doesn't make the play, the batter gets first base and everybody else moves up one base. I haven't yet figured out what's wrong with doing it that way.
But you know, something probably is wrong with it. It's the Law of Unintended Consequences. Every time you change a rule to fix one problem, you're probably going to create another problem.
And this problem that we have now ... Is it really so terrible? According to Baseball Info Solutions, in the last three seasons there have been six occasions on which the Infield Fly Rule was called, but the catch was not made.
Have you ever tried to plow through the Official Rules? They're really complex. Basically, nobody knows the rules except the umpires. Most managers don't have them cold. Most players really don't have them cold. Yes, I know that erstwhile shortstops Cal Ripken and Omar Vizquel didn't think Holbrook should have called the Infield Fly. With all due respect to both of them, I suspect that neither Ripken nor Vizquel know the Infield Fly Rule as well as Sam Holbrook knows it. Or as well as Hunter Wendelstedt and Jim Evans know it. Or as well as you know it, now.
So, congratulations - You're an expert!
You're welcome. But you asked about changing the rule. I think the Official Rules are complicated enough. Most of the people who want to change the rules want to make them even more complicated, so that they'll cover every possible situation perfectly, and preclude the possibility of any controversy at all.
But that's an unreachable star, the quest hopeless. The more situations you cover, the more complex the rules, and the more complex the rules, the more times the umpires or the managers or the players will misunderstand them.
The rules should certainly be rewritten, so that a modestly intelligent English-speaking person can understand them. They should be simplified to whatever degree they can, so there are fewer people complaining about them in October. And they should be enforced, usually, to the letter. Because the rules were put there for good reasons.
Actually changing them, though? Only for a heavenly cause.