« transparency and Trump | Main | A Kingdom of Sensorveillance »

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Infield fly rule is not in effect and it produces a triple play

The Baltimore Orioles turned a triple play against the Boston Red Sox Tuesday night (video in link) on an unintentionally uncaught fly ball into shallow left field. With first-and-second/none-out, the batter hit a fly ball into shallow left. O's shortstop J.J. Hardy moved onto the grass and signaled that he had the ball, then had it carry a few feet behind him. But the umpire never called infield fly, so Hardy threw to second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who tagged the runner standing near second, then stepped on second to force the runner on first, then threw to first to get the batter, who stopped running. According to the article linked above, the Orioles turned an identical triple play in 2000, where the shortstop intentionally did not catch the fly ball, as opposed to this one, where it seems Hardy misjudged the ball.

On one hand, this play shows why we have the Infield Fly Rule--without it, shortstops would intentionally do this constantly and double plays would multiply. Had the baserunners tried to advance when the ball landed, they would have been thrown out, given how shallow the ball was and how quickly Hardy recovered it.

At the same, it shows a problem with the Rule--everything depends on the umpire invoking. And failing to invoke may create its own problems. Here, the Sox players all assumed the Rule had been invoked, so the baserunners retreated to their current bases and the batter, assuming he was out on the call, stopped running to first.  It is a close question whether infield fly should have been called on this play. Hardy misjudged the ball, so he was not actually "settled comfortably underneath it." But he acted as if he was and umpires ordinarily use the fielder as their guide. Plus, in watching every infield-fly call for six seasons, I have seen it invoked on numerous similar balls that carried just over the the head or away from the settled fielder. At the very least, this was a play on which the umpire could not determine whether to invoke until the end of the play, because it was not clear the ball was not playable until it carried over Hardy's head at the last instant. And that hung the runners up, because once the non-call was clear, it was too late for them.

So I must consider a new issue that I had not considered before, at least in these terms: There needs to be a bias in favor of invoking the rule in uncertain or close cases. The presumptive move for the baserunners in a close case is to retreat and wait, as the Sox runners did here. But retreating leads to the double play on the close case, because the runners will not be able to reach the next bases when the ball lands. I have discussed this in terms of false positives and false negatives. But this goes further--there may almost be a presumption of infield fly, so the rule should not be invoked except the obvious cases in which no double play would be possible.

Of course, my interlocutor on the Rule, Judge Andrew Guilford of the Central District of California Central district of Florida, would say this is just proof that we should dump the rule, let the players figure it out for themselves, and not have everyone standing around looking confused while four guys in blue jackets confer.

Update: There is a debate in the umpiring community over when an umpire should invoke the Rule. One school says the call should be made when the ball is at its apex, the other says to wait longer until it is clear the infielder could catch the ball with ordinary effort, even waiting until the ball is almost in the glove. Those who urge invoking when the ball is at its apex point to plays such as this one as the justification--waiting longer than that does not leave the baserunners sufficient time to react and run on the non-call.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 3, 2017 at 01:57 PM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


Tennis keeps a stat called unforced errors, which is designed to measure whether X's shot into the net is a result of his own bad shot or a good shot by A that X could not return well.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 6, 2017 11:10:06 AM

You're right that ordinary effort is a proxy for intent. But I think in practice it is a matter of geometry. Umpires look to the arc on the ball and whether the infielder is settled comfortably underneath it, which is about movement and location of the ball and player.

I just think the umpire missed this call.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 6, 2017 11:08:34 AM

"why bother actually throwing pitches for intentional walks"

Already resigned to the new rule here though it is a bit depressing.

Guess they need more time to look at the Zapruder film during those reviews of plays.

As to "ordinary effort," comes to mind that the concept of "error" is basic to baseball while am not familiar of its usage (including in factoring in stats) in other sports. Is baseball special in this regard?

Posted by: Joe | May 6, 2017 11:06:00 AM

Maybe my question is better posed as: Why is there a judgment on "ordinary effort"? Why not just make it a matter of geometry? Ball vs. strike, fair vs. foul, even out vs. safe...none of them take consideration of what a player could have done but didn't. When an ump calls an infield fly, he is effectively saying that anyone dropping this one must be doing it on purpose.

The rules in football, at the cost of great complexity, try to avoid such reads on player intent. A late hit, conceptually, is a hit that doesn't actually defend against the play, but in practice the rule is 1.5 steps after the whistle, QB surrendered with an ankle-first slide, etc. Basketball got rid of the 4-corners offense not by introducing a delay of game call at the ref's discretion, but with a shot clock.

Posted by: M. Rad. | May 6, 2017 8:57:11 AM

It's not discretionary. But there are judgments involved, namely whether the ball is playable by an infielder with ordinary effort. It has to be called while the ball is in the air--if you wait until the ball hits the ground, the runners are screwed.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 4, 2017 11:52:17 PM

Why is the infield fly call discretionary? If the ball hits the ground inside a certain radius and doesn't bounce more than a certain amount, then make it an infield fly. Maybe add a line of chalk 20 feet behind the bases. That way everyone is looking at the ball and playing the game, rather than looking at the ump and waiting for him to tell everyone what to do. Of course, if you start asking that, then we can ask why we still have humans calling balls and strikes, or why bother actually throwing pitches for intentional walks, or why bother kicking football's extra point?

Posted by: M. Rad. | May 4, 2017 11:20:21 PM

Check out my book, available at supermarket checkout lines near you later this year.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 4, 2017 8:44:48 PM

This rule is a problem, a judgment call, and it excludes dramatic game-changing plays.

At the same time, we're trying to speed up the game. A triple play speeds up the game by a lot!

Would someone tell me why we have this rule again?

Posted by: David Quinn | May 4, 2017 6:51:26 PM

"Judge Guilford is in the Central District of California. Florida has a Middle District, not a Central District."

It's a central district if your state is full of centrists, like California; it's a middle district if your state is full of moderates, like Florida.

California is politically centrist, but they always vote the same way. Florida is politically centrist, but they swing between dems and repubs, so they're moderates.

This was obvious when the umpire raised his arm in Bush v. Gore, invoking the Infield Flyover Country Rule.

Posted by: ModerateCentrist | May 3, 2017 8:40:13 PM

The ump invokes the rule by raising his right arm above his head, declaring the batter out. Absent a signal, the rule was not invoked. So the players could be blamed for not knowing what to look for. But: 1) They also have to watch the infielder; and 2) Given where the ball was, they were toast either way.

On a ball near the foul line, the umpire orally yells "infield fly if fair" and raises his arm.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 3, 2017 3:06:58 PM

The rule says that 'When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare "Infield Fly" for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare "Infield Fly, if Fair."'

How is an umpire supposed to make this declaration? Shouting? Waving? Both? Apparently all the Red Sox -- the runners on second and first, and the batter, Bradley -- thought the rule had been declared.

Posted by: Mark Regan | May 3, 2017 3:01:33 PM

Judge Guilford is in the Central District of California. Florida has a Middle District, not a Central District. More evidence of confusion regarding the infield fly rule, I say.

Posted by: aa | May 3, 2017 2:45:52 PM

Post a comment