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Friday, July 26, 2013

Rage against the Infield Fly Rule

The Infield Fly Rule is back in the news and ticking off baseball fans, but this time because the umpires didn't call it. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Twins had runners on first and second with none out. The batter hit a low looping pop-up to the side of the pitcher's mound; the pitcher let the ball drop to the ground, then threw to first to start a double play on the batter and the runner on first (who had to be tagged out). Video here (H/T: One of my team of RAs looking at baseball games and reports looking for Infield Fly situations).

This certainly looks like a play warranting an infield fly call--it was a fair fly ball that could have been caught with ordinary effort in the appropriate game situation. And it did, in fact, lead to a double play (although not the double play the rule is designed to prevent), providing the defense the overwhelming advantage that the rule is intended to avoid. The crew chief explained the non-call as follows:

"For an infield fly, we look for if the ball has arc and if the fielder can catch it with ordinary effort and if the fielder gets comfortably underneath," said crew chief Ted Barrett, who was working third base. "That one definitely had enough arc, but the fielder has to get comfortably underneath the ball to catch it. That's the criteria that wasn't met."

Ironically, that explanation arguably makes the call worse. It looks as if the pitcher was standing still and waiting for the ball; he wasn't settled directly under it only because he already had decided to let it fall to the ground and wanted to be in good position to surround it and pick it up. The better explanation would have been that the ball did not have enough arc (the rule does not apply to line drives, so the umpires would have to decide whether this was more like a pop-up or line drive). If he truly wasn't settled under the ball, it's only because the ball wasn't hit high enough.

As always, the play tells us some things. First, note the shorthand the umpires have developed for when a ball can be caught with ordinary effort. Neither the rule nor commentary says anything about arc or the fielder being settled under the ball, but the umpires have adopted those visual indicators as indications that a ball is catchable with ordinary effort.

Second, this play is an example of why the IFR is necessary. Without it, double plays on intentionally not caught pop-ups are possible (watch the runner on first and see how hung up he is and how he has to retreat close to the base) and that infielders will intentionally not catch the ball to try for the double play. True, this did not produce the double play the rule is designed to prevent; had the batter been running hard to first, he probably would have beaten the throw (he starts running hard only when he sees the ball drop). But look at the :06 mark of the video--both base runners are about two steps off the base; the pitcher easily could have turned around and start a third-to-second (1-5-4, if you're scoring at home) double play on the base runners. The point is that many double plays would be possible if fielders could seek out multiple outs by intentionally not catching an easily catchable ball.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 26, 2013 at 09:13 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink

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