Last night’s Astros-Red Sox game had everything. There was a divisive fan moment before the game when a kid called Alex Bregman over under the guise of wanting to get a picture only to pull the rug out from underneath him and call him a cheater. There were six lead changes — more than any game since 2019 — and Jose Altuve hit a home run on a pitch that was less than a foot off the ground. Magical.
However, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. There was a moment in the sixth inning that rubbed me the wrong way. I am, of course, talking about the infield fly that was called in the bottom of the sixth inning. With the game tied at eight, one out in the inning, and runners on first and second Rafael Devers hit a fly ball to shallow center field. Astros’ shortstop Carlos Correa makes his way underneath the ball and misses it. J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts both advanced, but Devers was called out.
I can’t stand this. I’m not blaming the umpire for making a bad call. According to MLB Rule 2.00, an infield fly must be called if the pop fly can be ordinarily handled by an infielder. Even if an outfielder ends up making the catch, an infield fly must be called if an infielder could’ve made the play with ordinary effort. It’s not based on where the outfield grass starts.
Correa was camped underneath the ball for quite some time before it dropped. I’d call that ordinary effort. It was the right call. But it got me thinking about the infield fly rule in general. Why does it exist? Obviously, it exists in order to prevent double plays on pop-ups. After the “tag-up” rule was implemented in 1859, it didn’t take long for defenses to take advantage of it. Over the next 35 years, several instances appeared of fielders bending the “tag-up” rule in order to turn double plays. It was a lose-lose situation for baserunners, and the two players who took advantage of this rule most often were Cincinnati’s Bid McPhee and Louisville’s Fred Pfeffer. The modern day infield fly rule was implemented into Major League Baseball in 1894 to prevent guys like Pfeffer and McPhee from taking advantage of the “baserunner’s dilemma” any further.
Sounds great, right? Yeah, but as the game has evolved the need for the infield fly rule has diminished. Once again, take a look at the play from last night’s Astros-Red Sox game. Notice how Bogaerts is standing in the perfect spot waiting to see if the play is going to be made. He puts himself in a perfect situation that gives him a chance to reach second on a dropped ball or get back to first on a pop-out. Let’s imagine for a second that the infield fly rule didn’t exist last night, and Correa attempted to let the ball drop right in front of him in order to get an inning-ending double play by forcing Martinez out at third and Bogaerts out at second. That would have been very difficult to do. Martinez isn’t exactly a speedster, so it’s likely he would’ve been out at third, but Bogaerts would’ve been near impossible to double up. At the very worst, the Red Sox would have still had runners on first and second with two outs — the same outcome that would’ve occurred had Correa just caught the ball as normal.
Now, I understand that not every pop fly will be similar to the one from last night. There are bound to be some that happen in the infield and are therefore much more difficult to avoid the double play on. Well, frankly, tough luck. If you don’t want to hit into those kinds of double plays, don’t hit pop-ups. It’s a skill that can absolutely be learned. From 2010 to 2019, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto hit just eight infield pop-ups. Five of those came with nobody on. None came with runners on both first and second. Basically, he didn’t hit an infield fly for an entire decade.
Nowadays, with the launch angle movement taking over baseball, pop flies should — theoretically — be at an all-time high. As players attempt to lift the ball more, they should get under it more, leading to more infield pop-ups. However, infield fly ball percentages have stayed relatively stagnant — and maybe even dipped — throughout the 2010s. In 2010, there were 18 qualified players with an infield fly ball percentage of 13 or greater. There were also 22 players with a percentage of less than four. In 2019, there were 20 players that fell into the first category, and just ten in the second.
Secondly, why after 100 years of this rule are we still penalizing pitchers for getting the hitter to pop out? Think about it. With runners on first and second, the worst outcomes for a hitter are 1) striking out, 2) hitting a pop-up/shallow fly ball that doesn’t move the runner on second over, or 3) hitting a hard ground ball to an infielder. So, why is scenario number two treated differently than the other options? It’s a pitcher’s job to create weak contact, but instead of rewarding the pitcher for popping the hitter out and forcing the baserunners into a difficult situation, it’s the hitter who’s rewarded… for a pop up. That’s not right. In no world should an infield fly ball be a better outcome than a hard hit ground ball. We should be promoting hitters to make hard contact all of the time, but as long as the infield fly rule exists, that won’t always be the case.
On the surface, the infield fly rule is a great concept that prevents infielders from forcing baserunners into a no-win situation. However, in doing so, it rewards hitters for poor contact and punishes pitchers for doing their job. Abolishing the infield fly rule would not only enable another way for pitchers to work out of jams, but also would create some fun, interesting fielding and baserunning mind games for the fans to enjoy (as long as you’re not rooting for the team that’s up to bat). If you think abolishing that rule would hurt the integrity of the game… well, hey, pop-up rates are declining as is, so that rule might just disappear on its own soon enough.
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