Abolish the Infield Fly Rule

Two years ago, while wondering why the dropped third strike rule exists in baseball, I wrote the following:

Baseball has some weird rules, but you can usually figure out why the rule exists by playing the alternative out to its extreme conclusion: It’s usually trying to prevent something from happening that people decided was unfair. For example, the infield fly rule exists because defenders intentionally let routine fly balls drop to the ground in order to get a double play, instead of taking the out.

I stick by that descriptive statement but I stand before you now to say this: the infield fly rule sucks. It’s TERRIBLE. It needs to go. As I said in that paragraph – baseball has some weird rules, and most of them were not in existence when the game began. Instead those rules were created as a reaction to ways in which players subverted the blank spaces of the rules to their advantage. 

But there are problems with the infield fly rule – first, it’s both hyper-specific and non-specific.  On the hyper-specific end of the spectrum, the rule is only invoked when there are runners at first and second or the bases are loaded, and less than two outs. Speaking from experience, this gives umpires something extra to think about before a pitch on top of the umpire’s other duties. You have to know when the rule is in play based on those guidelines or you won’t have time to realize it after the ball is hit. On the non-specific end of the spectrum, the ball must be a “fly ball” but specifically not a line drive (which is absolutely getting into a wide swath of gray area) that “can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” And what the hell that means is really open to interpretation. As the comment to the MLB rule states:

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.

Yes, the infield fly rule can be invoked when the ball is hit into the outfield. It can also be called when an outfielder in fact makes the play. And what the heck constitutes “ordinary effort”? Worst of all, if I am reading this right, the infield fly rule can be invoked when the ball is foul (“not by some arbitrary limitation such as … the base lines.” WHAT!? That isn’t even consistent with the reason for the rule!). What a mess.

The aftermath of the play is the most confusing. “When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk.” What does this mean in this context? Can a runner tag up and go as soon as the umpire calls the batter out, the same they would after the ball is caught? Or, if the rule is invoked can a runner advance before the infielder catches it? And if they advance before the infielder catches it and then the infielder catches it, can the runner be thrown out for leaving early? I think I know, but the rule is not clear, which seems problematic.

The infield fly rule has always bugged me for these reasons. But it gnawed its way through my brain this week as I read How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius, by Anthony Greene. In the book’s opening chapters, Greene dives into the 13 original rules of basketball, as written by Dr. James Naismith, and how players worked within the rules to innovate the game to make it better. Here’s Greene, quoting NYU professor and game designer Eric Zimmerman:

“You can tell that Naismith was thinking about exceptions,” Zimmerman says of the first set of rules. “Trying to figure out the loopholes players will try to exploit.” But the exploitation of rules is vital to a game’s evolution. Essentially everything related to basketball that isn’t contained within its original thirteen rules developed because some player somewhere at sometime fudged with them.”

Remember what I said up there about baseball? Baseball’s weird rules were created to “prevent something from happening that people decided was unfair.” But Greene makes the compelling case that this is wrong. The thirteen original rules of basketball prevent “running with the ball,” but permit “throwing” and “batting” the ball “in any direction.” The rules, as written, expected players to be stationary. But it did not take long for some Ivy League boys to find the blank space in the rules – dribbling. Did Naismith find this innovation cheating? Did he try to stop it? Nope. Instead he called it, “one of the most spectacular and exciting maneuvers in basketball.” And he’s right. Again, from Greene’s book:

“It is a subversion,” Dr. Shawn Klein, a philosophy lecturer at Arizona State University, tells me. Klein specializes in the ethics of sport, and I reached out to him to better understand the moral (or amoral) underpinnings of dribbling. “That’s probably the best word for it. They were adhering to the rules, but they were subverting the expectations of how those rules would be followed.”

Reading this angered me more than ever about the infield fly rule – the first player to intentionally drop a fly ball was a genius. Incredible creativity! And that play is exciting as hell. Early in his book Greene speaks to another game designer, Colleen Macklin. 

[Says Macklin} “A lot of game rules are modified or changed based on what the player wants. Basketball rules are modified in order to make the game more interesting to the spectator.” When she watches basketball she sees players both following and exploiting rules for the benefit of us fans. The result, she says, is “one of the most beautiful things you can see.”  

Macklin loves Hickey’s example of the Dr. J behind-the-backboard layup, as it alludes to the kinds of decisions game designers must make. “When it happened, she says, “everyone was like ‘Oh my God, we’ve never seen such a graceful move before.’ And so you have a choice there. The NBA could either say it’s not allowed, or they could be like, ‘Yeah, let’s let that happen.’ The right choice is obviously, ‘let’s let that happen.’” 

The infield fly rule is terrible for this reason – it is, by umpire fiat, a blown dead play. Yes, the runners can advance but they would be stupid to do so. Imagine an infield fly without the rule – if a player decides he wants to try and get a double play, he runs a great deal of risk – if he turns down the sure out, there’s a chance the ball bounces away from him and he gets no outs. Or maybe he does it perfectly. Either way, that is entertainment. And you don’t have to use your imagination to know how exciting that would be – in recent years I have seen players (particularly Javy Baez) do this on line drives. For example:

That is such an exciting play, in a HUGE moment of the NLCS. And not only was it exciting, it did almost backfire – instead of first and second with two outs, Baez almost ended the play with first and third with two outs. Now imagine that skips by him when it hits the outfield grass – chaos. Each time something like that happens, everyone watching agrees – wow that was a heads up play and wow that was fun. 

Which is why MLB flat out got the infield fly rule wrong. Players subverted the rules in an entertaining way and baseball decided to litigate that fun out of the game. It’s not too late to fix it though. Let’s abolish that stupid rule forever. I’m looking at you, Theo.

Happy Opening Day, everyone! -TOB


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