Drop the Infield Fly Rule (Part I)

Because the Rule Is Incoherent… Or it’s just woefully over-applied. Let me explain.

Official Baseball Rules, Appendix 1, “Diagram of the Playing Field”

While it’s one of the most misunderstood rules in baseball, the MLB Official Baseball Rules actually make the Infield Fly Rule relatively straightforward:

Rule 2.00: An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out.
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…
The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball.

The ambiguity of “ordinary effort” aside, this part of the rule is relatively clear. Even if a pop up goes 250 feet into the outfield, it would still qualify as an “Infield Fly” if an infielder could catch the ball with ordinary effort.

In fact, the Comment to this definition makes it explicit that the rule is solely tied to the capability of the player designated as an infielder, and not to the location of the batted ball per se (and whether or not it would land on “the infield”):

Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule 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.

Great. Any casual baseball fan or former t-ball player knows that the infielders are the 1B, 2B, SS, and 3B. (And, just in case there could be confusion, the rulebook stipulates that the P and C count as infielders for the purposes of this rule.)

So, if the circumstantial conditions apply (fly ball in fair territory, runners on first and second, less than two outs), and if any one of the players labeled 1 through 6 in the image above could catch the ball with ordinary effort, the umpire should rule the batter out pursuant to Rule 2.00.

However, it’s not that simple, because only two of the nine fielders—the pitcher and the catcher—have mandatory positions on the field. At the time each pitch is thrown, the pitcher must have at least one foot in contact with the rubber (a.k.a. “the pitcher’s plate”) and the catcher must be in the catcher’s box, behind home plate. But the other seven fielders need only be in fair territory:

5.02(c): Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.

The rulebook does not codify the traditional infield scheme. Neither are the names for those positions designated in the rules. 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, LF, CF, and RF are traditional and strategic positions, not required positions.

It’s like the players on a basketball team. Labelling a player a “2 guard” or saying that a particular player is playing “the 5” has no direct relation the actual rules of basketball. Of course, one player from each team needs to stand in the center and compete for the jump ball at the beginning of the game, and that’s typically the team’s tallest player, but there’s no reason why that player needs to be called a “center” or play in particular proximity to the lane. Rather, these positions simply relate to the way that basketball has traditionally been played, because spreading out players spatially, diversifying the skills of the players on the court, and assigning roles according to size, skill set, etc. makes sense—it generally works.

Similarly, in most situations in baseball, it makes sense to space the fielding team’s players out in the traditional manner—pitcher and catcher, four infielders (usually split between the two sides of the infield), three outfielders. But if a team simply wanted to have some fun, or if predictive analytics keep advancing, we might reach a point where managers are stacking players in right-center field — say, one 150 feet out, one 225 feet out, and one 300 feet out. Or, they could try something much more mundane and strategic, like a five-person infield:

Or a four-player outfield:

Hell, all seven free-roaming fielders could form an arc 20 feet from home plate or huddle in the left field corner, if they really wanted to. Just like a basketball team could have its five players huddle in one of the corners (though they would face rules aimed at promoting ball movement and possession changes).

So, if players can generally stand anywhere they want on the field, who qualifies as an “infielder” for the purposes of the Infield Fly Rule?

2.00: An INFIELDER is a fielder who occupies a position in the infield.

Fair enough—it’s tied to the fielder’s physical positioning. So, the infielder is a player positioned somewhere within the ice-cream-cone shaped “infield” area (bounded by the foul lines and the “outfield grass”), right?

2.01: The infield shall be a 90-foot square.

Wait, so the infield doesn’t even include the infield dirt outside the base paths? That’s indeed the most natural reading of this rule. In fact, the “grass lines” (separating the outfield grass and “infield” dirt) are not mandatory at all:

2.01: The grass lines and dimensions shown on the diagrams are those used in many fields, but they are not mandatory and each club shall determine the size and shape of the grassed and bare areas of its playing field.

The Comment to Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) even called the grass line an “arbitrary limitation.” It’s like the outfield fence—MLB writes rough guidelines, but the ballparks determine the specifics.

In case we assume that the definition of “infield” was simply drafted badly, the rulebook doubles down:

2.00: The outfield shall be the area between two foul lines formed by extending two sides of the square, as in diagram in Appendix 1 [the image reproduced at the top of this article.]

So, basically, the infield is the square formed by the base paths, and the outfield is everything else that’s in fair territory, extending to the outfield wall.

In a way, this all makes sense. Because the rules do not dictate the contour of the grass line, each ballpark could theoretically have a differently sized infield. While dictating 90-foot base lines is both necessary and relatively easy to implement, mandating a specific curve for the infield could get geometrically complicated and difficult to administer. This wouldn’t be a problem except that certain rules are dependent on uniformity in the infield (the Infield Fly Rule, for one). So, in the absence of a prescribed grass line, the only reasonable way to define the infield is in terms of the base lines.

The problem here is that the players typically called “infielders” are not usually positioned within the 90-foot square—they’re usually somewhere outside the base paths, unless the specific situation calls for them to be “drawn in” toward home plate (e.g., to field a probable bunt, or to throw the ball home to prevent a run with a runner on third and less than two outs).

Based on this rule, how many of the players in the following picture would be considered “infielders”?

Well… zero (unless we count the pitcher and catcher, who must always be in those locations). Even if we count those who are on the infield dirt (which is, again, an arbitrary boundary, set by the stadium crew, not the MLB rules), there are only two infielders.

So, technically, if there were runners on first and second, the Infield Fly Rule would not apply to this alignment, unless the pitcher or catcher could catch the pop up with ordinary effort.

Of course, this type of shift wouldn’t make much sense with runners on first and second base, because the runner on second would simply run to third without the possibility of being tagged out.

But take a standard bases-loaded alignment:

The corners are not drawn in, as they sometimes are, so none of the four infielders (other than the P and C) are in the “90-foot square” (and even when the 1B and 3B are drawn in, they’re not necessarily inside the baseline). Here, the batter ended up hitting a ground ball toward second, resulting in a double play. But what if it had been hit in the air, outside the range of the pitcher and catcher? No Infield Fly. At least, not by the rulebook.

Or, take the controversial Infield Fly call from the 2012 National League Wild Card Game:

Most of the arguments focused on whether Cardinals SS Pete Kozma satisfied the “ordinary effort” requirement, some concluding yes and some concluding no:

But these arguments missed the fact that the Infield Fly was the incorrect call here… because Kozma was not an infielder within the meaning of the Rulebook’s “Definitions of Terms.” At 1:20 of the above video, Kozma’s alignment at the time of the pitch is clearly visible—he’s standing on the infield dirt, but not within the “90-foot square.” In short, Kozma was an outfielder, as crazy as that sounds.

Of course, all of this runs directly counter to our common sense of the way baseball actually works. Yes, the foregoing describes a technicality in the rulebook, not the way the game is generally played or umpired. But it’s the rule nonetheless.

A relatively simple change could correct the issue and bring the rulebook into alignment with our common understandings: Simply define the “infield” in terms of the “grass line, such that any player positioned in front of the grass line would be an infielder, and any player behind the line would be an outfielder. This would, of course, require a mandated distance between home plate and that arc separating the infield and outfield, which could get geometrically technical in defining the precise contour. Just imagine what the grounds crew would need to do to ensure that the distance is exactly right at every point along the entire arc… I’m sure there’s a way, but I’m not sure what it is.

As an alternative, MLB could codify the traditional positioning—that is, mandate two infielders on the right side of “the infield” (as traditionally understood), two on the left side, and exactly three outfielders. Each of those players would be required to stand in a relatively specific region of the field. For example, the SS would be required to (1) be on the third-base side of second base, (2) on the second-base side of the 3B, and (3) no more than, say, 160 feet from home plate. Done. It would be clear exactly who must be able to catch a pop up with “ordinary effort” in order for the Infield Fly Rule to kick in. This would align with Manfred’s suggested ban of the infield shift. It would also have implications for whether players elect to stand on the outfield grass or not in particular situations. Ultimately, it would make for a more boring, less strategic game. It would be bad for baseball and bad for our souls.

Or, there’s another alternative. Simply get rid of the Infield Fly Rule.

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