Saturday, October 06, 2012

A Controversy In Baseball: Judgments About In-Field Fly Balls

An episode which will find resonance with cricket fans. We are typically quite critical of cricket fans at grounds (especially in the Indian sub-continent) who throw things on the field when they are upset as a group. The controversy itself is interesting, but the crowd's behavior is a revealing aside. Remember that people who can afford tickets to major league baseball games (especially games like the one game post season play-off which is being played for the first time) are typically wealthy, upper income Americans. Even the cheapest tickets for such games typically cost upwards of 50 dollars, with the better seats (near home plate or first base or third base) going for entire orders of magnitude more. Yet, these people responded to a controversial umpiring call the same way that a spectators at Eden or Wankhede might have responded to a controversial decision against India in the years gone by. Perhaps being poor has little to do with how fans react to defeat.

But on to the decision itself. Here is a video.

Here is a simple explanation of the rule in play

The in-field fly rule is an interesting one. Its need arise from the possibility of a "double play" in baseball. A double play is one where 2 batters (as they are termed in baseball) can be dismissed off the same pitch. An inning in baseball consists of 3 dismissals (in the same way that an innings in cricket consists of 10). A run is scored in baseball when a batter makes it safely from home plate to 1st, 2nd and 3rd base and then back to home. Typically, except in the case of "Home Runs", these runs are constructed by teams in installments. A batter will get a "safe" hit (i.e. one in which the batter is not caught, or in which the batsman is not out caught, and makes it safely to 1st base, or 2nd base, or in rare cases, as far as 3rd), and then progress from 1st to 2nd to 3rd, either by "stealing" bases, or because the next batter gets a safe hit.

This creates a peculiar situation in which it is in the interests of the fielding side to not get a batter out caught when the batting team has batters of 1st and 2nd base (i.e. when there is a "forced" play on third - a forced play is one where a batter on one base has to proceed to the next one).

So if there are less than 2 batters out in an inning, and if there are batters on 1st and 2nd. Now, if the next batter hit a balls high in the in-field, and the in-fielder (i.e. the fielder near third base) has a fair chance to make the catch, then the runners on 1st and 2nd base have the option of staying at 1st and 2nd. On the other hand, if the catch is dropped, they must proceed to 2nd and 3rd base respectively since 1st base must now be vacated for the batter who just hit the in-field fly ball.

In most cases, batters on 1st and 2nd, if they see that the in-fielder has a chance to catch the ball, don't stray too far from 1st and 2nd base respectively, because otherwise, they risk conceding an extra out. If the fielder then decides not to make the catch, he immediately finds himself in a great position to get the run out (to use a cricket term) at 2nd base and 3rd base. So instead of getting just 1 batter out by catching the ball, the fielder can get two batsmen out by choosing not to catch it.

The In-field Fly rule exists to prevent the fielder from deliberately not catching a catchable ball in order to get 2 outs, where only one would otherwise be possible. This is a reasonable rule because the batters on 1st and 2nd (i think the accurate term for them is actually "runners" at this point) are forced to try and get to the next base.

The In-field fly is an instance (like the LBW law in Cricket) of an Umpire being asked to make a judgment about something that might have happened, but actually didn't. The Umpire has to judge whether (a) the catch was reasonably makeable for the in-fielder, (2) that there was a reasonable possibility of a double play, should the in-fielder not make the catch.

Now, you will see that these judgments can easily get into marginal territory. One area of marginality could be an Umpire's judgment as to how deep a hit has to be in order for it to be considered no longer reasonably makeable by an in-fielder. What happens if the in-fielder is playing slightly deeper than usual? Did the in-fielder make a genuine effort to catch the ball, or was there confusion with the out-fielder about whose catch it was (given stadium noise), which resulted in the catch being dropped?

There is one aspect of the law which puzzles me though, and which I think should be at the bottom of all the objections to the application of the in-field fly rule in this instance. This is that the double play was not even attempted either by the in-fielder or the out-fielder. The result was that the bases were loaded (i.e. there were runners on all three bases, in this instance with only one batter out in the inning). In such an instance, why was the in-field fly ball called?

Interestingly, the in-field fly was called as soon as the in-fielder withdrew from the catch. Whats more, the 1st and 2nd base runners had advanced to the 2nd and 3rd bases respectively, and were not asked to return to their original bases (i'm not sure whether this is supposed to happen).

These are the two objections to the ruling by the Umpires. First, that the ball was too far out into the in-field in order to be considered for the in-field fly. Second, no double play was actually attempted. I'm not sure if this second objection is valid, but I'd be interested to know what you think.

If the 2nd objection is not valid, then in my view the Umpire's judgment becomes much less obviously wrong than if it is.


  1. The second objection is irrelevant - despite the motivation for the rule being about double plays, they're not mentioned in the offical rules:

    By the book, the umpires' decision was at least defensible - the short stop was able to catch the ball with much less than extraordinary effort (it wouldn't have been a spectacular diving catch), and the short stop is an infielder. Whether running that far is "ordinary" effort seems more debatable, and people who follow baseball more than I do seem to say that there'd be umpires who call it either way.

  2. A friend of mine was telling me just now that one big difficulty with the ruling was that the umpire called the infield fly so late. Typically, the Umpire is supposed to call it while the ball is still in the air, and apparently 1st and 2nd base runners watch for these calls.

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  4. Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.