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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Law-of-Baseball Bleg

I already have the title for a future paper--"Tie Goes to the Runner" and Other Myths of Baseball Rules. The paper will explore baseball rules that everyone believes/assumes are one way and that often are captured in a common, pithy cliche; in fact, they are entirely different, if not the precise opposite, from what everyone thinks. For example, the one from the paper title. As kids, we always yelled "tie goes to the runner" to justify having a runner be safe when the play was too close to call; in fact, the runner is out unless he affirmatively beats the throw--in other words, tie goes to the fielder (Bruce Weber's As They See 'Em has a great discussion of this).

Now I just need some content. So far, I have identified five rules that fit the bill, thanks in part to suggestions from participants in a SEALS discussion group earlier this week: 1) Tie goes to the runner; 2) Infield Fly Rule only applies to balls on the infield; 3) "One base on an overthrow"; 4) "Hand is part of the bat" (so getting hit on hand when hand on bat is a foul ball); 5) The runner cannot run out of the baseline (this rule, and the common misunderstanding of it, came up during the 2013 World Series).

Can anyone think of others? Suggestions welcome in the comments.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 30, 2015 at 09:31 AM in Article Spotlight, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


The checked-swing rule is going to be a big one. Although it sounds like the rules themselves don't say anything about checked swings, so this is all common law.

Ron: Do people who are knowledgeable about baseball believe the pole is foul? I thought everyone understood, as Keith Olbermann used to say, "of course it's fair pole, it's a fair ball."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 31, 2015 2:55:46 PM

Is that a matter of situation sense? Years ago I saw an interview with umpires about check swings, strike zones, etc., and one of them said that he calls strikes so that in the long run he will get the least total yelling by both sides.

Posted by: anon | Jul 31, 2015 9:53:49 AM

Is that a matter of situation sense? Years ago I saw an interview with umpires about check swings, strike zones, etc., and one of them said that he calls strikes so that in the long run he will get the least total yelling by both sides.

Posted by: anon | Jul 31, 2015 9:53:43 AM

I've always been most interested in the checked swing "rule" mentioned by MIBW above. This happens several times a game -- many of us have seen it literally tens of thousands of times -- and yet there remains no general understanding of just what the rule is. It seems that no one, *ever*, makes any effort to figure out what the "correct" rule is.

Of course, we've all heard announcers, former players, kids on the playground, obnoxious little league parents, etc., articulate countless variations on the rule, or, more precisely, on the question the umpire is supposed to answer, e.g., "Did he break his wrists?" (he almost never does); "Did the bat cross the [fill in: plate entirely; middle of the plate; batter's front leg; foul line; etc.]?"; Did he "interrupt his swing in time"? (how question-begging is *that*?!-- yet it's what's on the Baseball-Reference.com website!).

This is the one that used to make me laugh out loud: "It's a question of intent. Did the batter intend to swing?" Well, in virtually every case that matters, the batter *did* have that intent -- until he didn't. That's in the very nature of a checked swing-- it's a matter of withdrawn intent!

Which of these is correct? (or any other?) This is the good part: There really is no rule--not one that matters, anyway. It is entirely a matter of custom -- a common-law system, at best. And therefore every umpire could, in theory, use a different criterion, and different evidence for assessing whether the criterion is satisfied.

Here's what the official MLB Rules say about it, in the definition of "strike":

A STRIKE is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, which:

(a) Is struck at by the batter and is missed . . . ;

Whoa. Read literally, that describes *every* checked swing. The whole point of the problem is that the batter struck at it . . . and then pulled back.

Therefore, obviously, umps do not apply the definition literally. It's an "I know it when I see it" kinda thing. And, truth be told, they probably take into account all of the "questions" I listed above -- and perhaps many more -- in assessing whether the batter "struck at" the pitch.

This raises the obvious question: If you're a manager (or fan or viewer, etc.) who thinks the ump got it wrong, what arguments can you possibly make that would have any purchase? "He went 'around'!" (so what?) The bat crossed the [fill in]!" (Yeah, and what of it?) "He intended to swing." (OK, and . . . what, exactly?)

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Jul 31, 2015 8:20:11 AM

A batter may get at most 3 strikes or 4 balls during a single at bat.

In fact, a player may have a total of 11 combined strikes and balls in a single at bat, and no, this isn't counting foul balls!

Here's the scenario: It's a full count, 2 strikes, 3 balls, 2 outs, runner on first. The runner is picked off trying to steal second. The sides retire. In the next inning the same player will be at bat, but will have a new count of strikes and balls. Even though he's back to 0-0, this is considered the same at bat.

Also another rule many people get wrong is "the bums can't win." In fact, even the bummiest teams occasionally do win.

Okay, back to being serious, you may want to look into the Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode "The World Series Defense." In it, the gang is on trial for breaking into the stadium, and is recounting the events that got them into the situation. During the telling, they constantly refer to the Phillies mascot as the "Philly Frenetic" rather than as the Fanatic. Spoiler Alert: They lose their case, and as they're being hauled out of the court room Charlie (IIRC) complains about having to call the mascot the Frenetic because of onerous IP laws. Could Always Sunny have used the real name, or were they required to change it? [It's possible that rather than being a dig at IP rules, the joke is about the gang's misunderstanding of the law.]

Along the same lines, to what extent are the "no descriptions of this game..." warnings enforceable? Surely the "you can't rebroadcast" part is good, but "you can't tell people what happened" wouldn't fly. Not sure why though. Unconscionability? Or custom between the parties (MLB never trying to enforce that provision) overriding the express language?

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jul 31, 2015 7:07:33 AM

Faking a throw to a base is always a balk.

Posted by: Ron Rychlak | Jul 30, 2015 8:55:54 PM

The foul pole is foul..

Posted by: Ron Rychlak | Jul 30, 2015 8:49:57 PM

Another one is the misuse of the term "foul tip" by announcers/writers. A FOUL TIP is a batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat to the catcher's hands and is legally caught. It is not a foul tip unless caught and any foul tip that is caught is a strike, and the ball is in play. It is not a catch if it is a rebound, unless the ball has first touched the catcher's glove or hand. A lot of writers and play-by-play men will use the term "foul tip" to describe any ball that is "tipped" by the batter.

Posted by: Daniel Friedman | Jul 30, 2015 4:28:07 PM

The cliche isn't, "You can't assume two outs would have been made but for the error." I think the commonplace expression is contradicted by the Comment to Rule 10.12(d): "When a fielder muffs a thrown ball that, if held, would have completed a double play or triple play, the official scorer shall charge an error to the fielder who drops the ball and credit an assist to the fielder who made the throw." My observation that it's a myth that "you can't assume a double play" is hardly original: there are several discussions of the point readily available online.

Posted by: New Yorker | Jul 30, 2015 2:43:13 PM

I was going to respond to Orin in the other direction: A lot of the basic rules are the same for all levels, at least definitionally--for example, when someone is safe or what constitutes an infield fly. My focus in the paper is on the rules for MLB (or professional ball generally, so also including the Minors) that are established and written one way but everyone believes are something different.

Marsha: You've captured my point--I am looking for rules that everyone thinks they know but actually don't. And fan interference may be a great example, which allows me to bring in some specific examples. Although, in fairness, the controversy over Bartman was less over the definition of interference than about the fact question of whether he prevented Alou from catching the ball.

New Yorker: Isn't that aphorism true for purposes of assigning runs as earned or unearned? To go back to the Steve Bartman Game: It's why most of the runs Mark Prior gave up were earned. Alex Fernandez committed an error on what might have been an inning-ending double play. But only one of the post-error runs was unearned, because we assume only that they would have gotten one out had Fernandez fielded the ball cleanly, not two.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 30, 2015 2:15:19 PM

"You can't assume a double play."

Posted by: New Yorker | Jul 30, 2015 1:49:14 PM

there is definitely one set of major league rules - and part of the reason people don't understand the rules at big-league games is that those rules aren't always the same in Little League. Not sure where that leaves us.

I fear that this could easily devolve into a discussion of rules that people think they understand but don't, but here goes anyway:

RBIs - people think that if you're the batter and someone vp crosses the plate during your at-bat that you get an RBI. Not true.

Nearly everyone misunderstands the rules about fan interference when related to balls that go into the stands but are potentially playable - leading to the attacks on Bartman, for example.

Posted by: Marsha | Jul 30, 2015 1:46:53 PM

Howard writes: "The paper will explore baseball rules that everyone believes/assumes are one way and that often are captured in a common, pithy cliche; in fact, they are entirely different, if not the precise opposite, from what everyone thinks."

Is there one correct set of baseball rules? I would think that each league could set up its own rules. If the kids want the rule to be that the tie goes to the runner, then that's their choice. Cf. PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001) (Scalia, J., dissenting) ("Nowhere is it writ that PGA TOUR golf must be classic 'essential' golf. Why cannot the PGA TOUR, if it wishes, promote a new game, with distinctive rules (much as the American League promotes a game of baseball in which the pitcher's turn at the plate can be taken by a 'designated hitter'?").

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 30, 2015 12:57:57 PM

Perhaps you could expand it to other sports? Most people seem to assume that a hand ball occurs in soccer when a player touches the ball with his or her hand, but it is more complex than that (there is a requirement in the rules that the act be deliberate and a fairly complex set of "common law" rules have been developed that in practice seem to extend the rule to also include certain types of reckless or even negligent conduct). Similarly the offside rule is often described as requiring that the most forward attacking player be further from the goal than the deepest defending player when the ball is passed to him or her. This is not technically true. There are some weird corner cases that come up if the goalie is sufficiently off his or her line.

Posted by: Stuart Ford | Jul 30, 2015 12:34:01 PM

Extend the discussion to rules of custom: "There is no crying in baseball." A League of Their Own.

Posted by: William Patton | Jul 30, 2015 12:13:36 PM

Check swing occurs when the bat crosses the plate and/or check swing occurs when the batter breaks his wrists.

working title: "striking at the ball: an exercise in interpreting evidence"

Posted by: The Most Interesting Breh in the World | Jul 30, 2015 12:02:01 PM

How the "save" statistic is recorded. i.e. the general, but wrong belief, one can only record a save by getting the last 3 outs of the game being up 3 or less runs.

Posted by: Daniel Friedman | Jul 30, 2015 11:46:38 AM

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