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The Rules

By Ed Botti, May 29, 2020

Baseball is a “game of inches”, we often hear during a broadcast, and it’s very true. Like every sport, it is also a game of rules. And the rules often times are not static, and can change from year to year.


Like many of us, I have from time to time tuned in to watch a classic game that I already know the result of just to get away from the other 500 channels all showing essentially nothing of interest to a baseball fan in late May with no baseball to watch or listen to on the radio.

One thing that I find myself doing while watching these classic games is to note the differences in the game from then to now, (much to the annoyance of anyone sitting with me while viewing the game).

Some of the differences are pretty obvious. When you take a look at a game from the 1960’s or 1970’s up to the early 1990’s, for the most part, the players were built like Willie Randolph or Derek Jeter, with a lesser degree sprinkled in that were built like David Wells. There are a few exceptions, for sure, but the vast majority of the players were built with wirier frames than we see in today’s game. A lot of Lou Piniellas and Ray Knights back then, not that many Giancarlo Stantons.

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Another big difference is the overall pace of play. Games had a much better flow to them with much less down time for a variety of reasons. The biggest difference I see is that the batters seemed to stay in the batter’s box between most pitches. As I mentioned previously, I watched Game 2 of the 1969 World Series recently, and counted the time between Jerry Koosman pitches (yes, I actually do that). Many times less than 10 seconds elapsed from the time the catcher threw the ball back to him. Today’s game is almost twice that amount of time.

Other obvious differences are the style of play with much more action on the base paths, starting pitchers pitching into the 8th inning and beyond, the strike zone being from arm pit to knees, the neighborhood play still existed, home plate collisions (no Buster Posey rule) and very obvious to me is that runners ran hard all the time, nothing was taken for granted. The old expression still ruled; “run hard until someone yells out”!

If I heard that once when I was playing, I heard it a thousand times. A lesson today’s players could use.

It’s funny how it happens, but over time these subtle differences fade off in our memory year by year, as we become more accustomed to the current game and its nuances. None of them were overnight changes, they crept in slowly at an almost unnoticeable pace.

Nonetheless, rule changes from one era to another are not quite as subtle and have impacted the way the game is designed. I saw a game from 1962 recently (Yankees vs Giants) and the pitcher’s mound was 6 inches higher than it is today. The mound was lowered after the 1968 season, when pitching dominated baseball, and the powers that be wanted to generate more interest in the game by infusing more offense into it. Which makes me laugh when I hear some of the talking heads on TV or radio try to compare guys like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams to current players. If the mound was 6 inches lower when they played, how long would DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak gone? How high of a batting average would Williams have had? How many more home runs would Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron have hit?

Thinking about the rule changes, I thought it might be interesting (since the only real baseball news we have right now is about a money fight between labor and management) to look at some of the odd, hard to understand and unique rules in the game’s history.

The first rule that comes to mind, is one we all hear about frequently and see enforced quite a bit. The balk rule.

It’s a rule that has many ways of being violated, and also seems to be one that not many fully understand.

When it comes to analyzing pitching, we here in the New York market are fortunate to have Yankee and Met broadcast teams that include two guys that I personally love to listen to when they talk about pitching; David Cone for YES, and Ron Darling for SNY. I don’t think either of them fully understands the rule.

Simply put a balk is when a pitcher deviates from the legal pitching motion while a runner is on base.

The purpose of the balk rule is to preserve a balance between base runners attempts to steal bases and the defenses attempts to get them out.

If a pitcher balks, the base runner is given one base.

A balk can occur on both a pitch or on a throw to a base during a pick-off attempt.

Easy enough. However, there are several ways a pitcher can balk, according to the MLB rule book (Rule 5.07 (a) thru 5.07 (f)). This rule runs 4 full pages long in the rule book.

When a pitcher does any of the following, a balk is called.

1. The pitcher makes his natural pitching motion but fails to pitch to home.

2. The pitcher feints (fakes) a throw to first base, while touching the rubber, but fails to make the throw. The pitcher may, however, fake a throw to second or third base as long as there are runners on those bases. If the pitcher steps back off the rubber, they are not obliged to throw.

3. The pitcher fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base. Note that you cannot throw then step. Umpires judgement is the determining factor as to whether they stepped towards the base. The general rule of thumb is did they step within a 45 degree angle to first base.

4. The pitcher throws or fakes a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play. For example, if a runner breaks for second, it is acceptable to throw to second base even though he turned toward first as long as it is a continuous motion toward second.

5. The pitcher makes an illegal pitch. A quick pitch is illegal, pitching from off the rubber is illegal.

6. The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while they are not facing the batter.

7. The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with the pitch while they are not touching the rubber.

8. The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game.

9. The pitcher fakes a pitch without the ball; it does not matter whether he is on the rubber or not.

10. The pitcher, after coming to a legal pitching position, (usually sets), removes one hand from the ball (other than releasing the ball on the throw).

11. The pitcher accidentally or intentionally drops the ball while on the rubber.

12. The pitcher, while delivering an intentional walk, pitches when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box. The catcher has to start in the catcher’s box and then move outside after the pitch leaves the pitchers hand to catch the ball. This has been called a “catcher’s balk” in the past.

13. The pitcher delivers from the set position without coming to a discernible stop. A change in direction is not a stop (called rolling through the pitch).

Thanks to Commissioner Manfred, number 12 is now obsolete, so we have to only make believe we understand 12 of the infractions.

Andy Pettitte mastered number 3 to the point of having one of the best pick off moves throughout the League.

A rule that has had some controversy over the years is the infield fly rule. It is applied when a ball is hit in the air (not a line drive or bunt) in fair territory that, in the judgment of the umpire, can be caught by an infielder, pitcher, or catcher with ordinary effort, when there are runners on first and second or first, second, and third and less than two outs.

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When the umpire calls “infield fly” the batter is out, regardless of whether the ball is subsequently caught or dropped. The ball is live, and runners already on base may advance (at their own risk) if the ball is not caught, or tag up and advance if it is caught.

Not nearly as difficult to understand, but it does contain an element that gives umpires discretion, and that can be an issue.

Take a look at this critical play in the 2012 NL Wild Card Series, and decide if the “it can be caught by an infielder, pitcher, or catcher with ordinary effort” consideration was properly applied by the umpires.

I’d say that was a pretty bad call by that umpire. He’s pretty lucky Billy Martin or Earl Weaver wasn’t the manager of the Braves!

Here are a few other rules that we don’t see applied to often.

Runners advance one base if a pitched ball “lodges in the umpire’s or catcher’s mask or paraphernalia, “Rule 5.09(g)”.

A designated hitter is specifically prohibited from sitting in the bullpen, unless serving as a bullpen catcher. Rule 6.10(b)(15).

A runner is out when they are hit by a fair batted ball, whether they are on a base or not, except when the infield fly rule is called. In that case they are not out if hit by the ball while on base, but are still out if hit by the ball off a base. Rule 7.08(f).

When a manager, coach or player are ejected, they are permitted to take a seat in the stands, as long as they change into street clothes and are “well removed from the vicinity of his team’s bench or bullpen. Rule 4.07.

If a fielder deflects a fair ball into the stands, it counts as a home run; unless the deflection somehow manages to occur 250 feet or closer to home plate, in which case all runners only advance two bases. Rule 6.09(h).

If a player pinch-hits for a batter in the middle of an at-bat with two strikes, and strikes out, the at-bat and strikeout are credited to the replaced batter. Any other outcome is credited to the pinch-hitter. Rule 10.15(b).

The umpire has the specific authority to, in the case of wet weather, instruct the pitcher to put the rosin bag in his pocket. Rule 8.02(a).

All runners, including the batter, advance three bases if a fielder intentionally touches a fair batted ball with their cap, mask or any other part of their uniform “detached from the proper place on his person.” All runners advance two bases if the same thing happens on a thrown ball. Rule 7.05(b-e).

If there are two strikes on the batter, and a runner steals home, and the pitch hits the runner in the strike zone, the batter is out. The run does not score if there are two outs; if there are less than two outs, it does. Rule 6.05(n).

Pitchers are allowed to switch their throwing arm in the middle of an at-bat, but only if they have injured the other arm. If one does, they do not get an opportunity to warm up with the other arm. Rule 8.01(f).

When catcher’s interference is called, the manager of the offense may advise the plate umpire that he elects to decline the interference penalty and accept the play. Such election shall be made immediately at the end of the play. Rule 6.08 (c).

Besides odd rules, there are strange situations that can be a result of a rule or multiple rules.

Last year I heard Buck Showalter tell this story on WFAN.

According to Buck, when he was a minor league manager the following play happened.

Runners were on first and second base with no outs. The batter hit a fair ball that could have been caught by one of the infielders, and was correctly called out by the infield fly rule. The runner on first base (not paying much attention) passed the runner on second base. Two outs (rule 7.08). The runner at second not knowing where the ball was is then struck by the batted ball as it landed (rule 7.08 again, it covers a lot of base running circumstances).

So there you have it; a Triple Play without a fielder touching the ball.


Here’s one for the ages. It used to be possible to steal first from second. Yes, you read that right. It was a strategy used to try and steal a run. Here is how it worked. With runners on second and third, the runner on second would break for first trying to distract the catcher, if the catcher bought in, the runner on third would race home and try to beat the throw.

The rules committee outlawed the play as they thought it made a mockery of the game.

Some rules, although still in the book, are not enforced.

Rule 3.09 states that “Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform”.

Rule 4.03 states that “When the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory.

This season, if and when it ever starts, will have a couple of rule changes.

Three-Batter Minimum

The starting or any relief pitcher will be required to pitch to a minimum of three batters, including the batter then at bat (or any substitute batter), until such batters are put out or reach base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire crew chief’s judgment, incapacitates him from further play as a pitcher.

The weird thing with that rule is that it was supposed to be enforced in 2020 Spring Training beginning on Thursday, March 12th.

In case anyone forgot, that’s the day it all come crashing down and camps were closed.

Rosters through August 31st and Postseason

Active Roster limits from Opening Day through August 31st and including Postseason games shall be increased from 25 to 26. In addition, Clubs will be permitted to carry a maximum of 13 pitchers from Opening Day through August 31st (plus Postseason games).

September Rosters

From September 1st through the end of the season (including any tiebreaker games), all Clubs must carry 28 players on the Active Roster. In addition, Clubs will be permitted to carry a maximum of 14 pitchers during this period.

Two-Way Player Designation

I am not sure why this one was added, is it just for Shohei Ohtani?

Players who qualify as “Two-Way Players” may appear as pitchers during a game without counting toward a Clubs’ pitcher limitations. A player will qualify as a “Two-Way Player” only if he accrues both: (i) at least 20 Major League innings pitched; and (ii) at least 20 Major League games started (as a position player or designated hitter) with at least three plate appearances in each of those games, in either the current season or the prior season (for 2020 only, this will include 2019 as well as 2018). The Club must designate that player as a “Two-Way Player” in advance of that game. Once a Club designates a qualified “Two-Way Player” that designation will remain in effect, and cannot change, for the remainder of that season and Postseason.

Position Players Pitching

Any player may appear as a pitcher following the 9th inning of an extra inning game, or in any game in which his team is losing or winning by more than six runs when the player enters as a pitcher.

Injured List Reinstatement and Option Period for Pitchers

Teams may not reinstate pitchers or two-way players from the Injured List until 15 days have elapsed from the date of the initial placement for such injury, increased from 10 days. In addition, the option period for pitchers will be lengthened from 10 days to 15 days.

Reduction in Challenge Time

Managers will now have up to 20 seconds to challenge a play, instead of 30.

How will these rule changes impact the game?

I have no issue with the roster changes or even the two way player rules and the video challenge timing rule. They seem to be reasonable. The roster rule effectively eliminates a terrible rule that we have seen every September, when the rosters were expanded up to 40 players. That was ridiculous, so it’s a good thing.

In my opinion the three batter minimum rule is foolish and will impact many games, and even end careers.

It’s designed to improve the pace of play, by eliminating the late game pitching match ups managers use in game changing situations.

Gone from the game will be lefty specialists. Guys that simply were put on the roster to face certain lefties late in the game, will no longer have jobs, and that’s too bad. At the same time, removing the late game “chess match” managers used alters the games’ strategic approach, and removes an effective strategy from the game.

If pace of play is the issue, maybe Commissioner Manfred should tune in and watch one of the classic games, and see how it was done during the previous eras. Instead of adding a rule, that seems to lack any real substance.

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