The Infield Fly Rule Is Trickier Than It Seems
Take a moment and watch this play from Saturday’s North Carolina-Virginia Commonwealth game.
Before you click the video, realize that there are runners on first and second with one out.
As the video shows, a short pop fly found the grass despite the sliding attempt of second baseman Marcus O’Malley. That led to a double play that got VCU out of the inning, because neither runner on base could comfortably run when the ball was hit.
So here’s the question: should the infield fly rule have been applied here?
If it had, the batter would have been called out, but the baserunners would have known to stay tethered close to first and second to avoid being doubled off.
Many have and many will watch this and believe that the infield fly rule undoubtedly should have been applied here. After all, the intent of the infield fly rule is to avoid situations just like this. Because the ball landed, VCU got two outs instead of one. The North Carolina baserunners were presented with no viable options while that ball was in the air.
But this is not nearly as clear in reality as it seems at first glance. Here’s the definition of an infield fly from the NCAA rule book:
SECTION 48. A fair fly ball (not including a line drive or an attempted bunt) that 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 is positioned in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule. In the case of a declared infield fly, the ball is live and runners may advance at their own risk. If a declared infield fly becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul.
With runners on first and second with one out, it meets the parameters of when the infield fly rule is applied. The ball did land in fair territory and it was neither a line drive or an attempted bunt.
For many, this is one of those “you know it when you see it” type calls. The ball was a fly ball in the infield. By failing to catch the ball, VCU got a double play. Therefore, obviously the infield fly rule should have been applied.
But umpires officiate by the rule book, and there are three words that make this a judgment call rather than a clearly defined rule. It says the ball can be caught by an infielder “with ordinary effort.”
Go back and watch this play again.
Can this ball be caught with ordinary effort? There are only two infielders who have a shot to catch this ball. Theoretically a pitcher who read the ball immediately off the bat, read the trajectory perfectly and is comfortable making a catch while running away from home plate maybe could have caught this, but by no sense of the word could that be called an ordinary effort.
So it really comes down to whether you believe that O’Malley or a run-of-the-mill second baseman could have caught the ball with “ordinary effort.”
We don’t get to see O’Malley’s first step, but with the batter taking a big swing, it wouldn’t be surprising if he had taken a step back before he realized that the ball was actually going to land in front of him.
By the time the camera angle switches to show the infield, O’Malley is sprinting in. He leaves his feet, sliding on his knees to attempt to catch the sinking fly ball, but fails to catch it. Could a second baseman with ordinary effort make the catch? One could argue the case, but the fact that O’Malley sprinted before sliding when attempting to make the grab does make the case for it requiring extraordinary effort. It makes this a judgment call, and a trickier one than it looks at first glance.
This isn't the first infield fly rule controversy and it likely won't be the last. Defining ordinary effort is a very difficult standard for umpires.