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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Infield flies and taking a knee

I have written recently about baseball's Infield Fly Rule, including a general defense of, and rationale for, the rule itself. I plan to come back to it more fully in the spring, after I get through some current and future projects. I want to write a fuller piece on the cost/benefit analysis underlying the IFR and why that cost/benefit balancing both justifies IFR and why, given that balance of costs and benefits, the infield fly situation is unique not only in baseball but in all sports. There simply is no other situation like it.

This will expand on The Atlantic piece. In that essay, I identified four features of the infield fly situation that justify a special rule: 1) The fielding team has a strong incentive to intentionally not do what they are ordinarily expected to do in the game (catch the ball); 2) the fielding team gains a substantial benefit or advantage by intentionally not doing what is ordinarily expected (this is the prong I want to flesh out in economic terms of optimal outcomes, costs incurred, and benefits gained for each team); 3) the play is slow-developing and not fast-moving, so the player has time to think and control what he does; and 4) even doing what is ordinarily expected of them, the opposing players are powerless to stop the play from developing or to prevent the team from gaining this overwhelming advantage.

As I said, I believe the infield fly is the only situation in all of sport that possesses all four features. But in conversations with friends and readers, one situation keeps getting brought up: The kneel down (or "Victory Formation") at the end of football games.

For those of you who don't know football (but who are still reading this post anyway; if so, thanks for sticking around): At the end of a game, with the offensive team leading and some permutation of score, time on the clock, and timeouts held by the defense indicating that the game is functionally over, the offensive team will snap the ball and the quarterback will kneel down behind the line of scrimmage, ending the play, with the clock continuing to wind down. A team may do this 2-3 times to the end of the game. The players on both teams know the game is over and that the kneeldown is coming and the defense won't do anything to challenge the play (although the play is alive and the defense could contest it, even if the practice is frowned upon). The defense's only hope in this situation is to somehow get a turnover; taking a knee is designed to avoid that risk by only snapping the ball to the quarterback and not having a handoff or other exchange that may go wrong.

Taking a knee shares all four features of the infield fly: 1) the offensive team is not trying do what we ordinarily expect--move the football forward--and is intentionally losing a couple of yards in exchange for running out the clock and avoiding the risk of a turnover; 2) the offensive team gains a substantial benefit (time runs off the clock, no turnover), imposes a substantial cost on the defensive team (time running out, no opportunity to make a play), and offers no benefit at all to the defensive team; 3) the offensive team entirely controls the situation; and 4) the defensive team can do nothing to stop the kneeldown and the running of the clock (it could try to be aggressive on the snap and force a turnover, but, again, that is frowned upon).

If the kneeldown does contain all four features, it means that I am wrong about the uniqueness of the infield fly. The question is what to do; here are some options:

1)  Eliminate the Infield Fly Rule. If the situation is not unique and if there are similar situations that do not enjoy a special rule, maybe (as a number of readers have argued to me) that special rule is unwarranted here. I like the IFR, so this is the least acceptable option for me.

2) Outlaw taking a knee. My colleague Alex Pearl suggests a requirement that a team at least make an effort to move the ball forward, even if just by a quarterback sneak; by keeping the play truly live, it gives the defense a chance to force a turnover or otherwise make a play. The problem is that this adds more plays in which players are going to be hitting one another; given the genuine need to do something concussions and other injuries, the sport should not be looking for more hitting. Plus, such a rule requires a tricky determination of intent--how hard does the team have to try to move forward, since lots of plays go nowhere.

3) Recognize the effect of the clock in a timed sport such as football, as opposed to baseball. Football is not all or always about gaining the maximum yardage; in many situations a team runs plays that are likely to gain less yardage, but with the benefit of winding down the clock and bringing them closer to the end of the game and the win. In taking a knee, the offensive teams loses yards but gains in time. In other words, we're tweaking how we understand what a team ordinarily is expected to do on a play; it is not only about gaining yardage, but also about managing the clock. The response is that running a play still is different than taking a knee because of prong 4--the ability of the defense to oppose the kneeldown. So running out the clock by simply handing the ball off and running into the line is OK because teams are still running true plays, trying to gain yardage, and the defense has a real chance to force a mistake. But simply taking a knee is different.

4) Adjust my four features to add a fifth--the game must still be genuinely contested. A team takes a knee only when the outcome is, at least as a practical matter, no longer in dispute.


Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 17, 2012 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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I've never liked the IFR. Yes, it would suck to hit a pop-up with runners on first and second and get double-played. You know what else sucks? Hitting a grounder to the SS with runners on first and second, which usually also results in a double play.

Second point: The bunted third strike rule is reasonably analogous to the IFR, especially insofar as baseball adopted a rule to address it. The main difference is that applying the usual foul ball rules to bunted third strikes essentially blows the game up (i.e., you'd have a parade of hitters going up and bunting balls foul until they got to four balls and drew the walk), whereas the infield fly rule just prevents a result that seems inequitable. (But isn't. You know what is really inequitable -- when the batter hits a gapper that looks like a no-doubt double but then the left fielder makes an amazing diving catch and then throws out the lead runner who did exactly what he should have.)

Posted by: Two things. | Nov 18, 2012 10:09:17 PM

Maybe it doesn't have to be unique; that's a different tack. My thought is that the infield fly is the only place in which we made a special rule to correct for those bad incentives in this way. In defending the IFR, I have repeatedly been hit with "what about X" responses, where X is an odd situation for which we don't have a special rule. So now the question is why infield fly and no others.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 17, 2012 10:25:37 PM

It's hard to know how to contribute without knowing why it is necessary for the infield fly rule to be unique; isn't the relevant category simply rules that correct unintended bad incentive structures? Either way, does this one fit your model: the Olympic scandal in badminton where the tournament structure led some teams to play to lose in order to get a better pairing in the next round?

Posted by: Raquetguy | Nov 17, 2012 7:05:31 PM

As for intentional safety: Not the same overwhelming imbalance of costs and benefits. The team taking the safety saves some points and gets a chance to kick the ball away in a way that will be more advantageous to it; the other team still gets two points (not as good as 7, but better than nothing) and gets the ball back.

Intentional fouls in basketball: The team getting fouled can stop the strategy by making the damn free throws.

Sacrifice bunts: The fielding team could block the strategy by trying to throw the runner out at second.

There are a lot of trade-offs in sports, lots of situations in which a team may accept a sub-optimal result because it brings about some other benefit (the batter is out on the sacrifice bunt, but the runner advances), where both teams get some benefit and incur some cost. Infield fly is different because the cost/benefit balance is so one-sided.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 17, 2012 3:54:46 PM

Not a baseball fan really, so not personally vested in the IFR debate, but I have a couple questions:

1. Doesn't intentional grounding in football meet all four of your criteria?

2. With respect to the infield fly situation, I'm not convinced that it meets your fourth criteria. Can you really say that the opposing players are powerless to prevent a situation from developing that they created? Why isn't the response to the complaint that the IFR prevents the fielding team from gaining a substantial advantage just "well, then don't hit a pop-up to the infield in that game situation?"

3. Your first criteria seems to take a cramped view of what players are ordinarily expected to do. The only thing I expect players to do is to take actions at any particular point in a game to maximize their chance of winning, taking into account all the rules of the game (which may even include intentionally violating the rules with knowledge of the penalties (i.e. intentional fouls in basketball, intentional pass interference, delay of game as mentioned above, etc.)). You seem to acknowledge this when you start discussing the points/yardage/time tradeoffs in football. Even in baseball (and, again, I'm not a fan so my knowledge is quite limited), aren't there some tradeoffs between advancing runners and limiting outs? Does a sacrifice bunt meet your four criteria?

Anyway, certainly thought-provoking, but I'm ultimately not sure why your four criteria matter other than trying to find some criteria that make the infield fly situation unique and thus justifying a special rule.

Posted by: Confused Anon | Nov 17, 2012 2:37:28 PM

By the standards set out here, an even more problematic version of the victory formation is the intentional safety. (A team facing 4th down near its own goal line when up by between 7 and 2 points near the end of the game intentionally has its punter run out of its own end zone, giving the other team 2 points but gaining distance from which to kick.) Fits all the categories you set out rather easily. (Others do too -- e.g. taking a five yard delay of game penalty intentionally in order to set up a punt that has a better chance of not going into the endzone for a touchback).

The difference between these and the IFR is the weirdness created by the rules about tagging up -- the advantage from dropping the ball comes because it affects baserunner strategy, as the absence of the IFR would put runners in a bind between running (and getting picked off if the fielder catches) and not running (and getting forced out if the fielder intentionally drops). There's no damned if you, damned if you don't aspect to the defensive strategy facing the Victory formation -- they still have a dominant strategy of stopping the other team and trying to force a fumble. If you add a rule 5, "The decision by the fielding team whether or not do to what is ordinarily expected changes the opposing team's payoffs such that there exists no dominant strategy" or some such, you might get around this problem.

I'm not sure how you get around Hack-a-Shaq, though -- current rules allow the defensive team to gain an advantage through doing something unexpected (fouling a bad free throw shooter intentionally) in a way that affects the payoffs available to the other team (can't hack a shaq until shaq crosses halfcourt or it's two shots and the ball) that puts the other team in an impossible situation (play 4-on-5 or suffer from the intentional foul).

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Nov 17, 2012 1:24:28 PM

Howard, I think your intuition is correct that there's something different between the two situations (I'm inferring your intuition from the fact that you like the IFR but seem untroubled by the kneeldown). I think like Phil I would question one of the premises. I'm not sure the kneeldown clearly fits into (2). The offense is trading an opportunity to gain yardage for time. That is, there's a significant cost to what they are doing, one that ordinarily makes the play a poor tactic (which is different from the infield fly situation, which is *always* a good tactic). What makes the kneeldown situation different is that the tradeoff has a different cost-benefit ratio in that limited circumstance, because time has suddenly become more valuable. It's really only a variation on playing defensively to protect a lead as time is running out, which you see in any number of sports, and which arguably fits into all 4 categories (it's impossible for the losing team to make the winning team play more aggressively; although again the "substantial benefit" gained by playing defensively is questionable).

Another possible significant difference is that the IF situation is a maneuver pulled by the defense that terminates the offense's opportunities to score; the kneeldown is a maneuver pulled by the offense that forgoes opportunities to score to make it more difficult for the other team to get that opportunity.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Nov 17, 2012 11:29:40 AM

Extending the thought above... this play is specifically ALLOWED by rule. Ordinarily if a quarterback intentionally grounds the ball with no prospect of anyone catching it, it is a penalty. In recognition of the fact that a team might want to trade-off downs for time, the league permits this. It also adds more drama to the end of the game.

What is missing from "spiking the ball" is your element 3 (a slowly developing play), but I do not know why that element should be important.

Posted by: Phil C. | Nov 17, 2012 11:10:42 AM

The defense does have a move to counter the victory formation: they can call a time-out and force the offense to run more plays than they would prefer. If the offense does not gain 10 yards and a new first down, they have to relinquish the ball. There are a limited number of time-outs, but it is a counter-move.

I agree that field position and time management are both goals of the teams, the latter being especially important at the ends of the halves. Which raises the second play that appears to fit your criteria: "spiking the ball."

Imagine the team on offense is behind in the score, driving downfield with very little time left on the clock, and they have no time-outs left (or wish to preserve one to kick a field goal). In order to stop the clock, they can hike the ball and immediately throw it to the ground. An incomplete pass stops the clock. The team intentionally loses a down,something they ordinarily would not do, but gains in time. In this situation, the game is still very much being contested.

Posted by: Phil C. | Nov 17, 2012 11:04:19 AM

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