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Devil's Advocate and the Infield Fly Rule

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This article has nothing to do with the A's. Deal with it.

Scott Cunningham - Getty Images

The Infield Fly Rule has always been kind of a joke. I don't mean that the rule is stupid; I mean that the rule is literally used as a joke more commonly than it is actually needed in a game. In a sport whose rules are so simple and straight-forward that even Nuke LaLoosh can understand them, the infield fly rule is the one complicated bit of the rulebook. Even MLB's very own Twitter account made a joke, just yesterday, about not understanding the rule. The sport itself made a joke that one of its own rules was so weird that it didn't understand it. How meta!

And yet, tonight, everyone and their mother seems to be an expert on the rule.

Let's get this out of the way. I'm writing this article because I think that umpire Sam Holbrook made the right call. I put "devil's advocate" in the title, but don't take that to mean that I'm just arguing the other side to incite a riot. I really believe that the call was 100% correct. Here is a replay; watch it a few times, just to refresh your memory.

Let's begin with a quick lesson in the rule itself. Forget everything that you think you know about it. Here is what the rulebook actually says:

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. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.

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.

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. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul.

If a declared Infield Fly is allowed to fall untouched to the ground, and bounces foul before passing first or third base, it is a foul ball. If a declared Infield Fly falls untouched to the ground outside the baseline, and bounces fair before passing first or third base, it is an Infield Fly.

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. 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. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire's judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.
When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. If on an infield fly rule, the infielder intentionally drops a fair ball, the ball remains in play despite the provisions of Rule 6.05 (L). The infield fly rule takes precedence.

Nowhere does it say that the ball has to be inside of the infield, or even particularly close to it. In fact, it specifically says the exact opposite. Location of the ball is irrelevant. All that matters is that an infielder can make a generally routine play.

Now, here is what I see when I watch this play. I see the shortstop jog slowly out to shallow left field and camp out under a fly ball. He hears something which causes him to peel off, but otherwise, he was there in plenty of time to make the catch. Sure, he had to leave his normal position, but he did not have to put a huge amount of effort into this play. He was not racing out to make an over-the-shoulder web gem; he casually jogged out to shag a fly. If Cliff Pennington or Stephen Drew missed this ball, the next 100 comments of the game thread would be calling for their heads because they had missed such an easy, routine pop-out.

I'm not sure what else to say about it. Read the rule, and then watch the replay. It is an unusual instance of the call, perhaps, since the ball was deeper than most people's mental picture of an infield fly. But that doesn't make it an incorrect call. For all we know, this ball is called an infield fly every time, but you never realize it because the fielder never drops it! How often are you aware of this rule being used in a game? It's rarely talked about, because it is unimportant except for the incredibly rare instance that the fielder drops the ball. You (and I) have no real idea of which fly balls are subject to this call on a day-to-day basis, because why in the world would we care on any day except today? Honestly, if Holbrook hadn't made the call, I wouldn't have thought twice about it or scolded him for missing it...but only because I'm not a professional umpire and, therefore, am not thinking about every little detail at all times like he is. I sort of expect the umpire to think of the things which I forgot about.

Here are some of the more common objections that I am hearing to this play, along with my responses to them:

"How is it an infield fly if the outfielder is standing right there?" We've mostly discussed this; the shortstop was camped out under the ball, waiting for the routine out. In fact, there is even a provision in the rule that states that the infielder need not be present at all. It could be the left fielder coming in for a shallow pop-out, as long as the umpire believes that the infielder could have made the play easily.

"But look how far he had to run!" Umm, not very far. He wasn't even running. He was sort of side-step jogging. He could have tripped, gotten up, and still run over and caught the ball. It wasn't that far, and he had plenty of time. Again, if shortstop Pete Kozma had dropped this ball and sparked a game-winning rally, the headlines would be all about how he had flubbed a routine pop-out and was obviously the re-incarnate of Brooks Conrad.

"There was no chance that they could have turned a double play there, so why make the call?" Although the point of the rule is to prevent an infielder from letting the ball drop and turning a sneaky double play, whether or not that outcome is likely in a given scenario is irrelevant. The rule is in effect when the umpire judges that the infielder should routinely make the play. The fact that the Cardinals almost certainly couldn't have turned a double play on this hit is immaterial.

"Maybe the call wasn't so bad; the problem is that he made it so late!" Actually, there is absolutely no provision for precisely when the infield fly has to be called. Rather, it is just immediately after the umpire judges that the rule applies. Sure, ideally the umpire would make this judgment much earlier than Holbrook did, but this was not your cut-and-dried infield popup at first glance. Holbrook had to wait to make sure that it was, indeed, a routine play. Once he was sure that Kozma had easily tracked down the ball, he immediately made the call (yes, the ball was still in the air). The alternate option, of course, is for Holbrook to make the call too early, and then find out that the ball carried further than he expected and landed far beyond anyone's reach. That would be a far worse outcome.

"OK, fine, but why make this call in such a crucial game? Just let the players play!" Because that's not how rules work. If the bases are loaded in an 11th inning tie, and the pitcher throws ball four to the hitter, the umpire doesn't just say, "Screw that, what a lame way to end this game! Take one more crack at it, Broxton. We'll say you need 5 balls for a walk this time." No, the batter gets his base, and the game ends in an anticlimactic fashion. Similarly, Holbrook judged that a part of the rulebook was in effect at this particular moment. Therefore, he was obligated to make the call. Situation cannot matter to an impartial judge, or else the entire system is ruined. If you pick and choose the opportune times to enforce a rule, then it's not really a rule. It's more of a guideline.

"The ump cost the Braves the game!" No, he didn't. The Braves lost this game because their fielders threw the ball all over the place and let in four unearned runs (in a game which they lost by three), and because they couldn't capitalize on rallies in the 7th and 8th. Chipper Jones had runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 7th, and couldn't get it done. Michael Bourn had the bases loaded in the 8th, and couldn't get it done. Brian McCann could have had a momentum-laden at-bat against Mitchell Boggs, but instead the Atlanta fans decided to throw a bunch of trash on the field in an incredible display of poor sportsmanship, delaying the game long enough to force Mike Matheny to call on his closer a bit early and basically reset the good-vibe-momentum-meter to zero. There is no guarantee that the Braves would have knocked in any of those runs in the 8th, so all that Holbrook cost them was a slightly better chance at not losing.

"But that's such a lame way to lose a game!" Yep, sure is. You won't get any argument from me there, but them's the breaks. Perhaps Simmons should have hit a liner to the gap instead.

Listen, I'm not saying that this play doesn't merit discussion. What I'm saying is that a lot of people are making a lot of statements about the rule without fully understanding what it says or how it is supposed to be enforced. It is written in pretty clear terms, and this particular instance absolutely falls within the boundaries of those terms. So don't worry, Sam Holbrook. The entire country (outside of St. Louis) thinks that you're wrong and that you suck, but I got your back. You were right.