Statutory Interpretation and the Infield Fly Rule

If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve heard about the controversial call in last week’s NL Wild Card single-game playoff. The Cardinals beat the Braves 6-3 in a game that featured an infield fly call that went against the Braves.

Everyone seems to think it was an awful call. I don’t. In fact, it seemed totally fine to me. Here’s why:

The Braves had runners on 1st and 2nd with 1 out in the 8th inning. Braves hitter Andrelton Simmons then lofted a fly ball into shallow/middle left field. The Cardinals’ shortstop ran out to make a play while the left fielder ran in to make the play. Just as the shortstop seemed to settle under the fly ball, two things happened almost (but not quite!) simultaneously. First, the umpire called an infield fly, which means Simmons was automatically out. Second, the shortstop seemed to think that the left fielder had called him off, so he turned toward the outfield and stopped trying to catch the ball. However, the left fielder was not in position to make the catch, nor had he called off the shortstop, so the ball fell to the ground between the two fielders. But no matter; despite the Cardinals’ bumbling Simmons was out because of the umpire’s infield fly call. The runners advanced to 2nd and 3rd on the drop. But now, instead of having the bases loaded with 1 out, the Braves had 2 on with 2 outs — not nearly as good.

Apparently, this was a disaster! An apocalypse of umpiring! Shades of Packers-Seahawks on Monday Night Football! I heard three common arguments against the call: (1) It’s the INFIELD fly rule, not the OUTFIELD fly rule, and the ball was way out in the outfield! (2) The call was late. The ball was already on the way down and approaching the shortstop when the umpire called the batter out. He should have made the call earlier. (3) The point of the rule is to protect runners from getting stuck in a double play where the fielder can intentionally drop a fly ball and double off the runners.  There was no way that could happen here, so it was the wrong call.

One thing all those critiques have in common: They all ignore the text of the rule. Indeed, in all of the Twitter/internet complaining about the call, hardly anyone actually referred to the text of the rule itself. Here it is:

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. . . . 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 R. 2.00 (definition of infield fly). Apparently the baseball webiverse is full of purposivists.

A few things. First, whether the ball is in the infield or in the outfield is irrelevant. The key is that an infielder can catch the ball with “ordinary effort.” That might be possible anywhere on the field — theoretically, even on the warning track. But the language of the rule focuses on whether an infielder can catch the ball, not whether the ball is in the infield.

Second, the umpire doesn’t need to call the play immediately; he needs to call the play immediately “[w]hen it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly.” What does that mean? It means that the call should be made as soon as it seems apparent that the ball “can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” So perhaps the umpire in the ATL-STL game waited until the shortstop had camped under the ball to make the call. Fine! You don’t want the ump to make the call as soon as it is it, before he can tell whether it is going to drop for a single or whether the shortstop is going to be able to catch it easily.

Third, while the purpose of the rule may be to prevent cheap double plays, there is nothing about that in the text of the rule. Why? My guess is that MLB does not want the umpire to have to look at (a) the flight of the ball, (b) the movement of the relevant infielder, (c) the potential for forcing out the runner at second, and (d) the potential for forcing out the running at third. Instead, MLB just wants the umpire to have to look at two things close together on the field: the fielder and the ball. That’s it. MLB has exchanged some precision for ease of application. That seems reasonable.

And it is not like this situation was not considered by the MLB rule drafters. Clearly, the point of the rule is to call the batter out before the infielder is able to make the play. Everyone knows freakish things happen that can prevent an easy play from become a disaster: balls pop out of gloves, players run into each other, people lose the ball in the sun, shortstops imagine being called off, &c. MLB was aware of all of that. If it wanted to draft the rule so the umpire could reverse the infield fly call based on a judgment call that one of those random things happened, the MLB could have done that. But it didn’t. Instead, everyone understood there would be situations where the infield fly call would be made, and then the fielder would mess up and drop the ball. Oh well. That’s going to happen. It’s a small price to pay for the overall utility of the rule.

Moreover, the critics of the call wanted it to be made earlier, which means there would have been more time for crazy things to happen that would lead to the dropping of the ball. If we want to minimize the effect of post-call errors, we should require the call to be made as late as possible. But that’s not what people want.

Anyway, the rule seems to contemplate that this sort of thing is going to happen from time to time. And it did happen. I can’t get too upset about it. (Well, maybe that’s because, as a Twins fan, I still root against the Braves as a holdover the 1991 World Series. Though I don’t root against the Cardinals from the 1987 World Series, so who knows.)

 

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