Yesterday’s controversial application of the infield fly rule during the eighth inning of the National League Wild Card game was the latest example of bad umpiring that seems to be pushing the sport to the brink of significant changes regarding how the game is officiated.
For those unfamiliar with what transpired, the Braves had runners on first and second with one out when Andrelton Simmons hit a pop up about 100 feet onto the outfield grass. Cardinals short stop Pete Kozma and left fielder Matt Holliday both converged on the pop, but a miscommunication between the two players resulted in the ball dropping untouched. The costly miscue should have given the Braves a bases loaded situation with two cracks at driving home the tying run. However, baseline umpire Sam Holbrook signaled for the infield fly just before the ball landed, thereby declaring the batter out and putting the runners at their own risk on the base paths.
2012 Official Baseball Rules: 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. 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.
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.
Although some attempts have been made to justify Holbrook’s decision with a very broad interpretation of the rule, there were three key reasons why the play in question did not constitute the “ordinary effort” required for application of the infield fly: (1) the depth of the ball; (2) Kozma’s failure to get under the pop up; and (3) the convergence of Holliday and Kozma.
The length to which Kozma had to go in order to catch the ball should have been Holbrook’s first clue that the infield fly did not apply. Just because an infielder is camped under a pop up doesn’t mean the infield fly must be enacted. Taking that logic to an absurd extreme, the infield fly would also be applicable on a play at the warning track. In other words, just because an “infielder” is waiting for a ball to land his glove doesn’t mean the base runners are in jeopardy of a double play.
Unfortunately for Holbrook, a look at the video reveals that Kozma was never actually camped out under the ball. In fact, the pop landed a couple of feet behind his deepest foray onto the outfield grass. Had Holliday not called him off, perhaps Kozma would have nestled under the fly, but that’s an assumption the umpire shouldn’t make. Also, the presence of Holliday is not a mitigating factor. Rather, it’s yet another reason why the play wasn’t ordinary. With the two fielders converging on the same spot, the chance of a mis-communication, collision, or awkward maneuver were heightened, adding a degree of difficulty to the play.
Based on the circumstances of the play, it seems clear that Holbrook made the incorrect call. However, MLB was correct to deny the protest because about the only thing Rule 2.00 makes emphatically clear is that application of the infield fly is beholden to the umpire’s judgment. Of course, that doesn’t mean baseball has to live with such a vague rule going forward.
The infield fly rule is one of the most common rules in baseball, but it usually goes unnoticed. However, the time has come to make some modifications. The reason it was originally instituted was to protect base runners from being put in jeopardy by infielders who allowed easy pop ups to fall at their feet in hopes of turning a double play. Although that still remains a valuable objective, the complete indemnification of the defense seems like an unfair trade-off. Instead of having the batter automatically declared out when the infield fly rule is invoked, the defense should be limited to recording one force out. In other words, the status quo would be the best they could accomplish by allowing the ball to drop. Meanwhile, the offense would have the benefit of capitalizing on a defensive mistake without the burden of risk being completely on their side of the ledger.
In addition to balancing out the risk and reward, the infield fly rule also needs to be fine tuned to accommodate the increasing use of defensive shifts. Although the current rule deputizes any player positioned on the infield, it does not take into account an infielder stationed deep in the outfield grass (making the aforementioned absurd example much more plausible). So, instead of defining the rule in terms of a player’s position on the diamond, it should simply state that if any fielder has the ability to make a play with ordinary effort, and by failing to do so the base runners would be placed in jeopardy, the umpire may make a declaration.
Unfortunately, the misapplication of the current infield fly rule detracted from baseball’s first ever wild card game, overshadowed the last game of Chipper Jones’ Hall of Fame career, and gave the city of Atlanta a black eye when the fans at Turner Field started throwing debris on the field in protest. However, if baseball takes the opportunity to improve upon a flawed rule, at least something positive will have resulted. Then again, the real remedial action needed is a complete overhaul of how umpires are recruited, trained, and evaluated as well as a more careful examination of how replay can be expanded unobtrusively.