Baseball's Infield Fly Rule Explained
By Loot, MLB Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
It’s a part of the game that has existed forever, but not everyone understands the infield fly rule. At its root, the infield fly rule exists for one reason--to prevent the defense from purposely dropping pop-ups in order to turn double or triple plays. Without this rule, infielders would be dropping balls left-and-right in order to register force-outs with the existing base-runners. That wouldn’t be very sporting and it would tear at the spirit and essence of the game.
So when the infield fly rule is in affect, a batter is deemed out regardless of whether or not the ball is actually caught. At the major league level, it won’t be very often that a ball deemed to be an infield fly will be misplayed. It’s always a routine play and rarely misplayed by players at this level. Still, the rule exists in case an infielder decides to get cute.
In addition to turning double and triple plays, a defense could purposely drop a ball to get the speed off the base-paths. If a speedy leadoff hitter gets to second and the next guy is walked and then a hulking first baseman hits a pop-up in the infield, a fielder could purposely drop the ball to get an easy force-out at third, leaving the slower players at first and second, as opposed to the better runner.
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Whatever the reason would be for dropping an infield fly, the rule exists to prevent teams from gaining an advantage through trickery or other inorganic means. Here is the actual rule: There must be less than two outs. There must be a force play available at third base. So either the bases are loaded or there are two men on base at first and second. If under those conditions, a fair pop fly is hit that should be caught with normal effort, the umpire will raise his right hand with his forefinger pointing up to indicate an infield fly. In those cases, the runner is automatically out, regardless if the ball is caught or not. If a player drops it, usually on purpose, the runners are not required to tag up and the ball is considered live.
There are no rules or boundaries for determining an infield fly rule. It’s not like the intentional grounding rule in football, where the “pocket” is the determining boundary. The key criteria is effort. So any pop fly that the umpire deems can be caught with “ordinary effort” is liable to be called an infield fly. That applies even if the ball is hit outside of the boundaries of the infield or even if an outfielder comes in to make the play.
In a sport like baseball, nothing is as easy as it seems. Though the infield fly rule is pretty simple and well spelled-out, there are different twists that can cause occasional controversy. The term “ordinary effort” can change from game to game with a key determinant being weather. One of the more recent examples of this rule’s gray-area was in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, played in heavy winds and rain in Philadelphia. With runners at first and second with one out, a ball was hit in the infield and the umpire did not call the infield fly rule, explaining that under those conditions, a pop fly required something more than “ordinary effort.”
An infield fly cannot be called if there is a runner on first only. The rule-makers determined that there is no real advantage to be gained by purposely dropping the ball in this situation. One might think different, being that the defense dropping the ball with a great base-runner at first and forcing him out at second puts them in a better position. You never really see that, though.>
It’s key that the batted ball be a pop fly. Line drives do not apply. Again, a defensive player could purposely not catch the ball to get the speedier runner out, but for it to count, he can’t touch it before it falls. That means a fielder runs the risk of the ball getting away from him, being that it is a line drive. That makes it an undesirable plan, as a miscalculation can lead to getting no outs at all, when playing it straight would have at least yielded one out. Anyway you look at it, the infield fly rule is good for the game, making it so that superior play wins games and not savvy tricks.