When is an Infield Fly Not an Infield Fly?
The infield fly rule is notorious among baseball fans. Ostensibly this is because many find it impenetrable, but I think the real problem is that it is too transparently a piece of ideology, and we are uncomfortable with that. In reality, every rule is an act of ideology. Take, for example, four balls for a walk. This is in fact the end result of a decades-long discussion about the roles of the pitcher and the batter, and how these should be balanced. The consensus that was finally achieved is built into the rule, but the rule doesn’t flaunt this. It is just there, and it seems as if it always has been.
Not so with the infield fly rule. Consider this scenario: there are runners at first and second, with one out. The batter hits a pop-up. The second baseman circles around a bit waiting for what should be an easy catch, but muffs it. He misjudges the ball and it hits off the back of his glove. Yet the batter is out anyway: not because of anything the fielder did, but because an umpire invoked the infield fly rule. This just doesn’t seem right. Indeed, it seems to contravene everything about baseball. What’s up with that?
What is up is consider this from the runners’ perspective. The pop fly is an easy catch, so the proper response for the runners is to return to their bases before the ball comes down, so they can’t be caught off their base and put out. Nothing to see here. But suppose the basemen were to intentionally fail to catch the ball. Instead, he steps back and lets it hit the ground, taking it on the first bounce. What then, for the runners? This has suddenly turned into a force play. The runner at second has to go to third, and the runner at first to second. But they are each ninety feet away from where they need to be. The second baseman has ample time to throw the ball to third, and the third baseman to second for a double play. Nor can the runner prevent this by anticipating the play and running the bases. If they try this, the fielder will go ahead an make the catch and then throw to the base to double up the runner from that base.
So here we see the ideological principle behind the rule: a double play should not be cheap. Mostly they aren’t. Your classic 6-4-3 shortstop-to-second-to-first only looks easy on TV because those guys are really good. Any bobble or hesitation will blow the play. (Or, to put it another way, go down to the field where the local rec league plays and see of those guys make it look easy. Spoiler: they don’t. If they make the play at all, give them a nice round of applause.) Probably the closest thing to a cheap double play is when there is a man on first and the batter hits a line drive straight at the first baseman, who catches the ball and tags the base before the runner has a chance to react. But even that is a bang-bang play on the first baseman’s part. That pop-up to the second baseman is another matter. The guys down at the rec league could pull that one off pretty easily.
Which brings us to game 2 of the NLCS last Sunday between the Cubs and the Dodgers. Runners are at first and second, and the ball was hit to Cub second baseman Javier Baez. He intentionally steps back and takes the ball on the bounce, and throws the ball to shortstop Addison Russell covering second, putting out the runner from first. This puts Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers’ runner from second in a rundown. The Cubs competently execute the play, and that is that.
Why didn’t the umpires call an infield fly? The short answer is that it was because the batter didn’t hit a fly ball. It was a line drive, albeit a soft one. The infield fly rule doesn’t apply. This answer is technically correct, but hardly satisfactory. It just pushes the question back a step: why is the rule written this way?
It is the ideology. This is not a cheap double play, because it requires a snap decision by the fielder. In the classic pop-up scenario the fielder has ample time to mull over the situation, and his team mates to advise him of the location and movements of the runners. Baez here has no such luxury. He must instantly decide what to do.
Baez shows baseball sense. Many players don’t have it. Even some very good players often don’t. I’m looking at you, Manny Machado. We Orioles fans love you, but it breaks our hearts watching you slide into the tag at third base for the final out: our own “Manny being Manny.” I’m pretty sure Baez doesn’t do that sort of thing.
But there are limits. Baez actually threw to the wrong base. He should have thrown to third, putting the runner from second out. This would have left time for the third baseman to relay the ball back to second to put out the runner from first.
As it is, the double play could have been broken up by Adrian Gonzalez. Watch the play the second time it is shown, starting at 0:15. Upon the ball being hit, Gonzalez correctly returns to second base, as it appears that Baez will catch it. Then when he sees the ball hit the ground, he turns back and starts for third. This is the wrong move. If Baez throws to third, Gonzalez won’t have nearly enough time to get there, and if Baez throws the ball past the third basemen then Gonzalez will have more than enough time. He should be parking himself at second base, at least until he sees where Baez throws the ball. As soon as Russell tags the base the force is off, and Gonzalez is safe.
I’m not slamming Gonzalez. This is strictly Monday-morning quarterbacking. I sat at my desk and clicked through the replay multiple times working out the correct response. If I were on the field, I would still be there wondering what to do. But I do feel a bit better realizing that Baez didn’t get it perfect. And the point here is that this was decidedly not a cheap double play.
On a final note, we should stop and admire the Cubs’ response to the run down. Look at 0:22. There are seven Cubs in that frame, either at the point of the play or hauling their butts to get there. We can’t see the center or right fielders, but I will venture that they were moving pretty quickly, too. Had a throw gone errant, there would have been two guys back there to get it. That, children, is how it is done. If you see your team blow a run down, with the ball rolling into the dugout and runs scoring, spread the blame far and wide.