The Outfield Fly Rule

“The 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.
When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare “Infield Fly” for the benefit of the runners.” -MLB.com Rule Book

Well, I can say this much for the first ever Wild Card playoff round: it wasn’t dull in the least. In the early game St. Louis was able to advance to the Divisional Series to take on the Washington Nationals thanks to some strong starting pitching from Kyle Lohse, a couple of timely hits, and a wee bit of help from the boys in blue. The nightcap saw the upstart Baltimore Orioles continue their magical run by erasing any hopes that Texas had for an American League three-peat in a 5-1 victory. But it was the terrible use of the outfield fly rule by umpire Sam Holbrook that took all the headlines on Wild Card Friday.

A perfectly good baseball game was murdered on Friday, and all 45,000+ witnesses got a great look at the only suspect in the case: Sam Holbrook. To put it as bluntly as possible, the call Mr. Holbrook made was the worst that baseball has seen this entire season. In fact, it’s difficult to tell if he knew what was going on at all during the Andrelton Simmons pop-up, or if he had temporarily transplanted his mind to another planet. And to make things worse, the fact that he said after the game, upon seeing a replay, that he was confident he made the right call is absolutely idiotic. If Holbrook honestly believes he made the right call, he should never set foot on a Major League field again.

The infield fly rule came into existence as a measure to prevent infielders from easily doubling up base runners. Back before the rule came into existence (1901), the smart play was to let any infield pop-up with multiple runners on base to drop to the ground intentionally in order to double said runners up. The play was so successful at such a great frequency in the 1800s that the infield fly rule had to be implemented. But in this particular situation the Cardinals had a snowball’s chance in hell at doubling the Braves up, in fact, they weren’t even able to get a single runner out!

Holbrook does a complete botch job on every aspect of the rule. He waits until the ball has nearly completed its descent back to the turf before making any call. And to say that Cardinals’ shortstop Pete Kozma made an “ordinary effort” to chase the ball down is just laughable. He was squarely in left field, to the point the Cardinal outfielder Matt Holliday was confused as to who should catch the ball! A 60-to-70 foot sprint to left field isn’t an ordinary effort because it stations the shortstop squarely in the outfielder’s territory, which turns the hit from an infield fly into a normal, routine outfield pop-up, and by calling the infield fly rule, Holbrook spat directly in the face of the rule’s intention.

Look, I’m not trying to beat up on all the boys in blue because the umpires in Major League Baseball are irreplaceable. As a whole, they do an excellent job making insanely difficult calls and, for the most part, are the best at what they do. The best umpires/officials/referees make you forget that they are even on the field, so it’s as if the game is calling itself. You want to leave a stadium having never known who was behind the dish calling balls and strikes or who was perched behind first all night. Sometimes they make mistakes, which is ok, but in this instance it’s just too egregious to ignore. The fans didn’t make matters any better, and throwing bottles on the field should always be condemned, but I understand their anger, their emotion. It was Chipper’s last game, the Braves were finally showing signs of life, and they felt that Holbrook mercilessly stepped in and delivered the killing stroke. So the bottle-throwing and other ugliness ensued.

It almost undoubtedly didn’t cost Atlanta the game, as they were already down to their final 5 outs and were trailing by 3 runs, but it in no way helped the Braves along the comeback trail. But it definitely overshadowed why the Braves lost the game. Atlanta’s normal superb defense completely crapped the bed last night, Medlen was less than dominant, the offense stranded far too many runners, Kyle Lohse pitched very well, and the Cards’ offense did it’s thing. But taking away a bases loaded, 1 out situation with a 20+ homer hitter stepping in the box was probably the straw that broke the camels back and it’s borderline depressing that the final game in Chipper Jones’ legendary career will be remembered more for this ugly incident than for all the memories and sacrifices that Jones made to our great game.

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3 comments

  1. aswingle

    I understand your point about the distance Kozma had to travel, but my issue is how we define ordinary effort. Even after traveling 60 to 70 feet on a sprint, he was positioned under the ball to catch. If an outfielder were to travel 60 to 70 feet in, come to a stop and wait for the ball to come down before catching, we would not call that an extraordinary effort, it would just be ordinary.

    I must also that I am a Braves fan, and at the time I disagreed vehemently with the call. After reading the rule in its entirety, I believe the proper call was made.

    Good post. Thanks for writing.

  2. Sean Breslin

    The proper call was not made, and I think it’s because these guys aren’t used to being in that position during a game. They only bring out the outfield umpires for the postseason, and he messed that call up. It wasn’t even his call to make. But that’s life, I guess.

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