Next to the enigmatic balk, the infield fly is about as mysterious as the rules of baseball get to managers, announcers, players, the average fan, and, sometimes, even umpires. The infield fly is so commonly misunderstood that it has been the subject of a law review article at the University of Pennsylvania.
Purpose of the Rule
The purpose of the infield fly rule is to prevent the defense from dropping fly balls in order to turn a double or triple play. Before the rule was implemented in 1894, an infielder could allow a fly ball to fall, and runners had to risk guessing whether the ball would be caught. The typical example is: R2, R1, fly ball to F6. F6 allows the ball to drop, quickly throws to F4 who tags R2 (one out) and then F4 tags second to force out R1. The infield fly is meant to protect the offense and prevent the defense from turning these easy double plays by immediately declaring the batter out and removing the force play.
The infield fly rule is actually found in three places in the rulebook: 2.00 definitions, 6.05(e, l), and 7.08(f). Rule 2.00 describes the conditions of the infield fly, Rule 6.05(e) states that the batter is out when an infield fly is declared, and Rules 6.05(l) and 7.08(f) discuss exceptional circumstances.
Not every fly ball in the infield is an infield fly. There are two situations that must occur for an infield fly: (1) the infield fly cannot be applied unless there are runners on first and second; or first, second, and third; and (2) there must be less than two outs. If these two “situational” conditions are not met, the infield fly cannot be applied. If an umpire erroneously declares an infield fly, when it cannot apply, the batter is not out. The players must know that the situation is not an infield fly, despite the umpire’s declaration. See J/R; see NFHS 10.2.3f; see BRD, 265.
An infield fly must also meet the umpire’s judgment criteria:
The batted ball must be a fly ball. A fly ball is defined in Rule 2.00 as “a batted ball that goes high in the air in flight.” Therefore, a line drive (“a batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat to a fielder without touching the ground,” Rule 2.00) cannot be an infield fly. A bunted ball cannot be an infield fly.
Whether the ball goes “high in the air” is a judgment call. In some cases reasonable minds can differ on matters of judgment. For instance, in this play the umpires determined that the ball did not go high into the air. A double play resulted when the fielder allowed the ball to drop.
The batted ball must be able to be caught by an infielder using ordinary effort. By rule, “the pitcher, catcher, and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.” But what about the first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman? They’re infielders, right? According to Rule 2.00, an infielder is a fielder who occupies a position in the infield. "Infield" is not defined in Rule 2.00, but is described in Rules 1.04 and 1.06. The infield is a 90 foot square. First and third bases are entirely within the infield, but second base is only partially within the infield. So are players who are stationed outside of the 90 foot square “infield” infielders? The OBR strikes again!
The rule does not require that an infielder catch the infield fly, only that an infielder is able to catch it using ordinary effort. Therefore, an outfielder can catch an infield fly.
Ordinary effort is also defined for us in Rule 2.00 as “the effort a fielder of average skill at a position in the league or classification of leagues should exhibit on a play, with due consideration given to the condition of the field and weather conditions. The umpire must also assess the skill required to catch the ball with ordinary effort, and the playing conditions. Wind and precipitation are factors that are considered, sun and natural darkness are not. See the Jaksa/Roder Manual for more information.
An infield fly must be a fair ball. If all of the conditions of an infield fly are met, except the ball is not fair, it is not an infield fly. Rule 2.00 and proper umpire mechanics require the umpire to declare, “Infield fly, if fair!” when there is doubt whether the ball will land fair or foul. An infield fly that meets all the criteria and is declared by the umpire, but lands foul and then rolls untouched into fair territory before passing a base is a fair ball and is also an infield fly, and the batter is out.
The rulebook addresses a couple special circumstances when dealing with infield flies. First, Rule 7.08(f) states that if a runner is hit with an infield fly while touching his base, the ball is dead, the batter is out, but the runner is not out. If the runner is hit with an infield fly while not on base, the ball is dead, and both the runner and batter are out.
Rule 6.05(l) states that if an infield fly is intentionally dropped (e.g. guided to the ground), the infield fly rule supersedes the penalty for an intentionally dropped ball. The intentional drop is ignored, the batter is out, and the ball remains alive. However, if the infield fly is allowed to drop (as opposed to intentionally dropped), the batter is out and the ball is live.
Runners advance at their own risk when the infield fly is declared. If the ball is caught, the runners must retouch, or be in jeopardy of being out on appeal. If the ball is not caught, the batter is still out, and the runners may advance without retouching. Below is a video example of runners advancing after an infield fly is dropped. Since the batter is out, there is no force out for other runners.