Infield flies and taking a knee

I have written recently about baseball’s Infield Fly Rule, including a general defense of, and rationale for, the rule itself. I plan to come back to it more fully in the spring, after I get through some current and future projects. I want to write a fuller piece on the cost/benefit analysis underlying the IFR and why that cost/benefit balancing both justifies IFR and why, given that balance of costs and benefits, the infield fly situation is unique not only in baseball but in all sports. There simply is no other situation like it.

This will expand on The Atlantic piece. In that essay, I identified four features of the infield fly situation that justify a special rule: 1) The fielding team has a strong incentive to intentionally not do what they are ordinarily expected to do in the game (catch the ball); 2) the fielding team gains a substantial benefit or advantage by intentionally not doing what is ordinarily expected (this is the prong I want to flesh out in economic terms of optimal outcomes, costs incurred, and benefits gained for each team); 3) the play is slow-developing and not fast-moving, so the player has time to think and control what he does; and 4) even doing what is ordinarily expected of them, the opposing players are powerless to stop the play from developing or to prevent the team from gaining this overwhelming advantage.

As I said, I believe the infield fly is the only situation in all of sport that possesses all four features. But in conversations with friends and readers, one situation keeps getting brought up: The kneel down (or “Victory Formation”) at the end of football games.

For those of you who don’t know football (but who are still reading this post anyway; if so, thanks for sticking around): At the end of a game, with the offensive team leading and some permutation of score, time on the clock, and timeouts held by the defense indicating that the game is functionally over, the offensive team will snap the ball and the quarterback will kneel down behind the line of scrimmage, ending the play, with the clock continuing to wind down. A team may do this 2-3 times to the end of the game. The players on both teams know the game is over and that the kneeldown is coming and the defense won’t do anything to challenge the play (although the play is alive and the defense could contest it, even if the practice is frowned upon). The defense’s only hope in this situation is to somehow get a turnover; taking a knee is designed to avoid that risk by only snapping the ball to the quarterback and not having a handoff or other exchange that may go wrong.

Taking a knee shares all four features of the infield fly: 1) the offensive team is not trying do what we ordinarily expect–move the football forward–and is intentionally losing a couple of yards in exchange for running out the clock and avoiding the risk of a turnover; 2) the offensive team gains a substantial benefit (time runs off the clock, no turnover), imposes a substantial cost on the defensive team (time running out, no opportunity to make a play), and offers no benefit at all to the defensive team; 3) the offensive team entirely controls the situation; and 4) the defensive team can do nothing to stop the kneeldown and the running of the clock (it could try to be aggressive on the snap and force a turnover, but, again, that is frowned upon).

If the kneeldown does contain all four features, it means that I am wrong about the uniqueness of the infield fly. The question is what to do; here are some options:

1)  Eliminate the Infield Fly Rule. If the situation is not unique and if there are similar situations that do not enjoy a special rule, maybe (as a number of readers have argued to me) that special rule is unwarranted here. I like the IFR, so this is the least acceptable option for me.

2) Outlaw taking a knee. My colleague Alex Pearl suggests a requirement that a team at least make an effort to move the ball forward, even if just by a quarterback sneak; by keeping the play truly live, it gives the defense a chance to force a turnover or otherwise make a play. The problem is that this adds more plays in which players are going to be hitting one another; given the genuine need to do something concussions and other injuries, the sport should not be looking for more hitting. Plus, such a rule requires a tricky determination of intent–how hard does the team have to try to move forward, since lots of plays go nowhere.

3) Recognize the effect of the clock in a timed sport such as football, as opposed to baseball. Football is not all or always about gaining the maximum yardage; in many situations a team runs plays that are likely to gain less yardage, but with the benefit of winding down the clock and bringing them closer to the end of the game and the win. In taking a knee, the offensive teams loses yards but gains in time. In other words, we’re tweaking how we understand what a team ordinarily is expected to do on a play; it is not only about gaining yardage, but also about managing the clock. The response is that running a play still is different than taking a knee because of prong 4–the ability of the defense to oppose the kneeldown. So running out the clock by simply handing the ball off and running into the line is OK because teams are still running true plays, trying to gain yardage, and the defense has a real chance to force a mistake. But simply taking a knee is different.

4) Adjust my four features to add a fifth–the game must still be genuinely contested. A team takes a knee only when the outcome is, at least as a practical matter, no longer in dispute.


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4 Responses

  1. Shane says:

    This is a bit similar to the intentional miss of a free throw at the end of certain basketball games — where the shooting team is down and the free throw shooter intentionally misses to give his own team a chance to get an offensive rebound. All 4 of your original criteria apply. Although the opposing team has the opportunity to rebound the ball (and thus it weakens the 4th element), the actual decision to intentionally miss the free throw is the shooting player’s alone. Your proposed 5th element also would apply, because this phenomenon only occurs when the game is genuinely in dispute.

    But it seems that clock management strategies are quite common towards the end of games. In the basketball context, in addition to the free throw situation, you have intentional fouls towards the end where you give up free throw opportunities (especially against a low percentage free throw shooters) for a larger amount of time to run a play on the other end of the court. As you mentioned, football has quite a few of these opportunities to trade yards for time. In the extreme case, a team may even run back to their own end zone, giving up a safety, instead of taking a knee, giving up the points in order to eat up the last seconds of the game.

    Still, intuitively, the clock management tactics seem fundamentally different from the IFR. Clock management tactics only occur towards the end of the game, and are largely understood to be part of what coaches do. Maybe the existence of similar tradeoffs being made throughout the game makes these particular basketball/football examples feel different from the IFR.

  2. It’s not who gets to choose the strategy, but whether the opposing team can do anything to counter it. With the intentional miss, the defensive team can rebound the basketball and/or play good defense on the ensuing shot. The runners in an infield fly situation have no such option.

  3. Jim Darling says:

    There’s another important difference between the IFR and taking a knee/intentionally missing a free throw. With the IFR, neither team makes a conscious choice to put themselves in a situation where it may be invoked, and the umpire makes a judgment call that determines the final outcome. It’s that combination of a chance occurrence and umpire discretion that produces controversy.

    By the way, there’s another situation in baseball that has all four features you identify but is not subject to special rules: intentionally walking a batter.

  4. Jeffrey says:

    I think you answer the in #3 above, or maybe that you are incorrect in thinking that taking a knee meets the criteria of you lay out for the IFR. The intention of a football game is to reach the end of 1 hour of play having scored more points than the opponent, the intention of a baseball game is to score the most runs possible before giving up 27 outs. Therefore a football team is working towards winning the game when it takes a knee precisely according to the rules.

    Another issue is that a football team has larger strategic options to prevent the other team from using the Victory Formation, even if it cannot prevent it’s tactical usage. A team can effectively use it’s timeouts over the course of the game, it can slow the game itself using the running game itself so as not to give the other team the last possession.

    The uniqueness of the IFR is directly related to the uniqueness of baseball, among major American sports, in not having a clock.