Killing the Infield Fly Rule

This weekend was the SABR analytics conference.  I did not attend, but I follow enough smart SABR guys on Twitter to keep up to speed.  If you like baseball research, join SABR.  I have been a proud member since the early 2000s.

Above is a brief conversation I had with Sean Forman on the elimination of the Infield Fly Rule.  Before I get into my thoughts on the issue, an aside on Mr. Forman.  He created and runs Baseball Reference on the web.  No exaggeration when I say this is probably the single most important and useful baseball website ever created. If the Baseball Hall of Fame ever decides to add a wing for non-player/non-affiliated yet impactful people on the game, Mr. Forman should go right in behind Bill James and John Thorn (and those guys have gone on to get jobs in baseball, so maybe they should be in another category).  I am not joking.

Plus, I met him once at a SABR conference in Cincinnati and we talked about logarithms.  He seemed like a nice enough guy.

OK – to the issue at hand, as a reminder the infield fly rule is when there are runners on at least 1st and 2nd, less than 2 outs, and a batter hits a ball that an infielder can catch with ordinary effort.  The rule states that the batter is automatically out.

Why was this rule created?  If it did not exist the defense would presumably just let the ball drop and grab an easy force out if not a double play.  If the runners got wise to this and took off early, the defense would catch the ball and nab the runner for not tagging up.

The research at the conference suggested that eliminating the rule and punishing the offense would lead to more double plays (450 per the tweet).  The question becomes would eliminating this rule be a good thing. Again, I have not seen the research.  On the surface, I would say don’t mess with this rule.  Here is my reasoning:

  • The rule is more about protecting the offense rather than rewarding the defense.  I think that protection is valuable.
  • I wonder if it would really change anything.  By rule, the fielder would have to let the ball bounce (hit the ground un-gloved – unless they also eliminate the infielder intentionally dropping a ball rule: 6.05(l) ) and then turn the double play.  Pop-ups have all sorts of crazy spin, so this opens up a slight chance for a freak play.
  • At lower levels players may not be able to complete the double play.  Does that mean you only change the rule at the professional level?  How far down does it go?  I think changing rules this fundamental between levels is dangerous.
  • Baseball has all sorts of unwritten rules.  I wonder if teams would even take advantage of it all that often.  Seems like something that would lead to bean balls

Bottom line, it is an interesting thought and probably very interesting research.  I don’t see the players (minus Atlanta Braves) and umpires going for the change though.  It just seems like it might be more trouble than it is worth.

RuleGraphics contains information on all the rules discussed in this post:

  • infield Fly on page 31
  • Intentionally dropped batted ball on page 32
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