The return of the Infield Fly Rule

Law-and-sport types are having fun this morning (at least those not living in Atlanta) because everyone is suddenly talking about our favorite rule in all of sports–the Infield Fly Rule. Lawyerly fascination with the Rule was captured in William Stevens’s famous 1975 “Aside” in the Penn Law Review. It remains the most legalistic of rules in the most legalistic of sports. And if you can explain it to someone, you know baseball.

In last night’s Wild Card playoff game between Atlanta and St. Louis, the umpire made a controversial infield fly call on a fly ball into short left that fell when the Cardinals’ shortstop  and left-fielder miscommunicated; the shortstop had settled under the ball and looked ready to make the catch, then ran out of the way when he thought the left-fielder had called him off. (Video here). The call took the Braves out of what would have been bases loaded/one-out situation, trailing 6-3; instead, there were two out and the Braves did not score again. The game was delayed for 18 minutes when Atlanta fans began throwing stuff onto the field. The Braves played the game under protest, but MLB denied the protest and upheld the Cardinals 6-3 win.

What we have here is a nice example of statutory interpretation; whether the call was correct depends on how you resolve the conflicts among textualism, history, and purposivism.

The text of the rule requires only that the ball “can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” Commentary to the rule (call it legislative history or committee notes) points out that the rule’s applicability is not subject to “arbitrary limitations” such as the baselines or grass, so the fact that the ball was hit into the outfield does not matter. The rule also can apply even if the ball is handled by an outfielder (as happened here), if the umpire determines that it could have been as easily handled by an infielder. So far, watching the play with the text in mind, the call seems right. But the purpose of the Rule is to prevent an infielder from dropping the ball  on purpose and getting a double play on the base runners who had to stay put on the short fly ball. Given how deep the ball was hit, there was no way the runners would have been doubled off and no way the shortstop would have tried. So the interests served by the rule were not implicated on the play, thus purposivism suggests the call was wrong. Now the question is whether you believe text or purpose controls.

In addition, the play had procedural problems. The Rule requires the umpire to “immediately declare” infield fly “[w]hen it seems apparent” that the rule is catchable by an infielder with ordinary effort. The commentary emphasizes that “the decision should be made immediately.” If you watch the replay that begins at the 0:55 mark on the linked video, however, the umpire makes the call really late, probably because it took longer than usual for it to become “apparent” that the ball was easily handled by the infielder. But note that the Rule also states that the obligation to “immediately declare” infield fly is for the benefit of the runners, not the batter; the batter is out on the call, so the goal is just to give runners notice of the play (the ball is live and runners can move at their own risk). Since neither baserunner was disadvantaged by the call, the lateness did not affect them. The only thing the lateness of the call did was heighten the confusion surrounding the play and therefore the fan and player anger over the call.

So my instinct is that the umpire got it right, however odd the play looked. Either way, I’m just glad to be able to write and talk about the rule.

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14 Responses

  1. Howard,

    You write that “The rule also can apply even if the ball is handled by an outfielder (as happened here), if the umpire determines that it could have been as easily handled by an infielder.” That is not evident from a textualist perspective. Here is the rule:

    “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.”

    From a strict textualist perspective, an outfielder cannot field the ball unless he “stations himself in the infield on the play”; the left fielder during the play in question never left the outfield. As a result, the commentary to the rule seems to contradict the text when it suggests that it does not matter whether the ball is hit to the infield or outfield; such an interpretation makes little sense given that an outfielder has to be stationed in the infield in order for his ability to catch the ball to trigger the rule. If the rule applies to outfield catches as well as infield ones, the rule contemplates a situation in which the outfielder has to race into the infield (a necessary but not sufficient condition of the rule) and then has to race back into the outfield with the ability to make the catch (the other necessary condition of the rule). How could such a catch ever be made with “ordinary effort”? The structure of the rule thus suggests that, contrary to the commentary, the rule applies only to infield flies — as the name of the rule suggests…

    As an aside, I disagree with your view of the play. I think it makes a mockery of the “ordinary effort” requirement to suggest that a ball hit 55 feet into the outfield — so far that it is immediately unclear whether the shortstop or the left fielder should catch it — can be caught by the shortstop with ordinary effort.

  2. Joyce Green says:

    Interesting. I haven’t seen a citation to the “Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule” for some time now. I cited it in a nerdcore article that I authored and posted last week: “Workers’ Comp – Gangsters v. States: Job-Related Disability in the Licit and Illicit Economies.” The first footnote in my “article” is a tribute to the Penn Law Review “Aside,” which footnoted the word “the,” citing the Oxford English Dictionary. My article appears at

    I enjoyed your post very much. Tx.

  3. I’ll amend to say the call appears correct with text and history in mind. I read the commentary as more like the Advisory Committee Notes than ordinary legislative history and thus more authoritative, so I can see it as more a part of the text.

    In any event, I think you’re misreading the commentary. The rule applies to all potentially easy catches by *an infielder*, regardless of where the catch might occur and regardless of whether an outfielder is in on the play. But the ability of an outfielder to make the play, by itself, never triggers the rule, unless that outfielder was stationed in the infield. And this makes sense–the rule applies to anyone who begins the play in the infield and can make the play with ordinary effort, regardless of where the play may take place.

  4. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Great post!

  5. Andrew Selbst says:

    There two observations seem to contradict each other to an extent:

    “Since neither baserunner was disadvantaged by the call, the lateness did not affect them,” and “the umpire makes the call really late, probably because it took longer than usual for it to become “apparent” that the ball was easily handled by the infielder.”

    Can’t the timing be an aid in the factual interpretation? If the call takes too long to make, there should be a strong presumption that it is in fact not an infield fly. The more hesitation that’s required, the less the effort required can be “ordinary.” In the case where the timing comes *so* late, perhaps the presumption should be irrebuttable.

    So in a sense, yes the runners weren’t directly disadvantaged by the lateness, except that the lateness itself provides quite good evidence the call was wrong.

  6. Rando Evans says:

    Extract from post above “…, the shortstop had settled under the ball and looked ready to make the catch,…” Extract from quote from Kozma the shortstop, “I went back and was camped under it.” Quote from Sam Holbrook the umpire, “I saw the shortstop go back and get underneath the ball where he would have had ordinary effort and would caught the baseball, and that’s why I called the infield fly.”


    Each of these folks have distorted the facts as can be witnessed in the video. Kozma never “settles” or was “camped out under it” in actuality, Kozma, while turning his head toward the infield, ran to the spot where he thought the ball would be to make the catch. This is a typical method taught to players in tracking a fly ball. When he gets to the spot, he realized he had gone to far toward the foul line and made a couple of steps backwards in attempt to find the “campsite” to camp out. Kozma was at least two or more steps backwards away from where he needed to be to make the catch. Simply stated, running or taking backwards steps and changing directions are not a description of ordinary effort. It might be worthwhile for all to relook at the video as the words describing what was taking place doesn’t agree with the “facts” of what actually happened.

  7. Why is their version of events a “distortion” while your version is the facts “witnessed” in the video? They are describing what they perceived, just as you are describing your own inferences from what you perceived in the video. In watching the video, I actually saw the shortstop under the ball until he ran forward when he heard the left-fielder coming.

  8. Harold Stones says:

    I would like to hear an expert explain the underlying philosophy behind the rule. Yes, I know our forefathers considered it gave too much of an advantage to the fielder, and caught the baserunners at 1st and 2nd like hapless dead ducks.
    But, this is lessening the “penalty” on bad hitters. One who hits a pop up, now has his own out ONLY to worry about instead of one or two more as well.
    Let’s use the same logic and say if we have two outs and a runner at third, he is also a “hapless dead duck” if the batter strikes out. But we don’t give the team on offense 4 outs just to protect the offenseive team.
    Every time someone justifies the philosophy behind the rule, it seems to me an analagous situation can be created to make it ridiculous.
    Why not say, “To Heck with the haplessness of the base runners; rescind the rule; let the fielder take his chances, and if a pop up results in two outs instead of one, then don’t hire players who are prone to hitting infield pop-ups.
    Man up, offense, hit the damn ball, or take the consequences!

  9. I’m not sure if Harold is serious, but I’ll try an answer.

    What is unique about the IFR situation is that the runners are “hapless dead ducks” because the fielder intentionally didn’t do what he was supposed to do–catch the ball. In 1894, that was considered “unsporting;” we can debate that, but that is what drove the rule change. But I can think of no analogous situation in which 1) the defense almost-automatically gets by dropping the ball than by catching it, 2) on an easy, slow-developing, routine play, so 3) therefore has a real incentive to drop the ball in that situation, and 4) where the offensive players can do everything they are supposed to do in the game situation and not prevent the additional outs. It is the combination of intentionality, bad incentives, easy plays, and additional outs than would otherwise be made that justify the rule.

    An alternative approach to the “sportsmanship” problem would have been to prohibit fielders from intentionally dropping the ball. But that would be a very difficult rule to administer, both in trying to determine intent and in having to make the call *after* the play has occurred.

  10. That should be “gets an advantage by dropping the ball”

  11. Michael Teter says:

    Baseball schmaseball. I’m glad I’m teaching Legislation in the spring, when I’ll be able to raise plenty of examples from the NBA’s new “no flopping” rule.

    (Go Lakers!)

  12. Harold Stones says:

    Thank you Howard, for taking the time to make such a logical explanation of the underlying reasoning. The best I have heard, and one with which I believe I can agree. So I will quit Bi***ing and Moaning about it. I’ll have to think it through for a while, but you are correct in that I can’t come up with a near-analogous situation right off the bat (so to speak)when you link the various circumstances.

  13. Harold Stones says:

    Howard, I emailed your response to a real baseball fanatic who is a good friend. He had an excellent reaction I want to share with you. If you’re not worn out on the subject, let us know what you think….

    “His explanation is probably the best one out there, but I still agree with you, Harold. I don’t think the rule should exist. It’s strategy, and if the defense is able to take advantage of the base runners precarious position, then I think it should be allowed. There are similar examples in other sports where players do things “they aren’t supposed to do” for strategic purposes and it’s not considered “unsportsmanlike”. For example, take a defensive back who intentionally knocks down a ball on 4th and long, instead of intercepting the ball so that the offense has better field position. Normally, this player would always want to intercept the ball, but b/c the situation would benefit his team and disadvantage the opponents, he does something counter to what’s usual. Or a basketball player who intentionally misses an extra point in the hopes that his team gets the rebound if they need more than one point to tie or win the game with seconds left. You could also say the same thing about every basketball game where teams intentionally foul to stop the clock. It’s not considered unsportsmanlike – it’s smart strategy.”

  14. Harold:

    There are two main differences between the situations your friend proposes and the IFR: 1) degree of advantage and 2) ability of the opposing team to prevent the advantage from occurring.

    1) There is a *greater* advantage given to one side in the IFR situation. The result in football is the same–the defense gets the ball and the difference in field position is likely negligible (given how rarely teams go for it on 4th and long outside of late-game, Hail Mary situations).

    And that degree of advantage matters. Note that IFR, as it has developed, does not apply where there is a runner on first only. So a team could intentionally drop the ball there to trade a fast runner for a slow runner, giving the defense an advantage. But the advantage is relatively small, since you’re still only getting one out.

    2) In all the situations your friend presents, the other side could do something to prevent the other team from gaining the advantage–in basketball, the defending team can get try to get the rebound, in football, the offensive team can still try to catch the ball that has been batted down rather than intercepted (see the end of one recent NFL game). For a comparison, imagine if in the missed FT situation, the defensive team was not allowed to go after the rebound and had to let the shooting team get the ball back on the missed FT. In the IFR situation, the offensive team can do nothing to prevent the increased advantage–they have to stay on or close to the base until the ball is dropped meaning they almost certainly won’t be able to do anything to prevent the double play once the ball is dropped.