A question for baseball mavens


Here’s a question for knowledgeable baseball fans. Cricket and baseball are similar in many features but there is one difference that puzzles me. In cricket, as in baseball, a batter gets out if he hits the ball and a fielder catches it before it hits the ground. In cricket, a common way this happens is if the batter is ‘caught behind’, i.e., touches the ball with the bat or glove and the fielder directly behind him (known as the wicket keeper) catches it.

Sometimes the contact is so slight that the ball barely deviates in its trajectory, making it hard to tell if there was contact or not. If the fielders appeal for a catch, the umpire has to make a difficult judgment. In international matches we now haul out technology that uses slow motion and sound and heat detectors to second-guess the umpire’s initial decision and determine if there was contact between the bat and ball. Here’s an example of how difficult the decision can be.

But in baseball nothing like that happens. When a batter swings at the ball and seemingly misses and it goes to the catcher, the batter is never given out unless the ball is obviously hit, goes up in the air and is caught by the catcher. As far as I know, catchers never seem to appeal if there is only slight contact that only they and the batter and the umpire might be able to detect. Why is this?

I asked a knowledgeable baseball fan about this and (if I recall correctly) he said that even if there was subtle contact between bat and ball, such contact is treated as merely a ‘strike’ (i.e., a swing and a miss) so the batter is out only if he already has two strikes against him.

This puzzles me. Why is a catch by the catcher, unless it is caused by an obvious hit that results in a fly ball, not treated like any other catch? There must be a historical reason for this.

I hope I have made the problem clear and that baseball mavens will enlighten me.

Comments

  1. spanner says

    That’s a “foul tip” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foul_tip
    Maybe it’s just my poor memory and the fact that I don’t much follow baseball anymore, but I’m thinking that a foul tip used to be an out and the rule must have changed. I’m sure it was an out when I played Little League!

  2. psweet says

    I’m afraid I don’t know the history behind this rule, but at least in the majors, I’ve never heard of it being any different. I’ve always figured that if you can’t deflect the ball enough to make the catcher miss, you may as well call it a strike. The difference may be in the difference in bats — the flat bat used in cricket does make consistent contact a bit easier to achieve than the round bat used in baseball. Or it may have to do with the stolen base, which is a staple in baseball but (If I remember correctly) illegal in cricket. Another possibility might be the fact that in cricket, any ball hit, even straight back, is in play, whereas a foul ball is dead the moment it touches something other than a fielder. (Or touches a fielder then the ground, prior to passing first/third — noone ever accused baseball of simple rules!) Or it may be just a weird bit of history preserved in the eternal search for the balance point between offense and defense.

  3. screechymonkey says

    I gather the question is more “why” this rule exists rather than what the rule says, but in case anyone wants to see the actual rule:

    5.09 Making an Out
    (a) (6.05) Retiring the Batter
    A batter is out when:
    (1) His fair or foul fly ball (other than a foul tip) is legally
    caught by a fielder;

    The Definitions section specifies that:

    A FOUL TIP is a batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat
    to the catcher’s hands and is legally caught.

    Source: MLB Rulebook

    As for the rationale, I suspect that psweet’s explanation that ” in cricket, any ball hit, even straight back, is in play, whereas a foul ball is dead the moment it touches something other than a fielder” is the right one. Baseball sort of treats a foul ball as not being a “true” outcome, hence it can’t count as a third strike (unless off a bunt).

  4. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for providing the actual rule.

    But it looks like a foul tip ball is not dead at the moment it is caught by the catcher, so it looks like it should be out.

  5. says

    Why is a catch by the catcher, unless it is caused by an obvious hit that results in a fly ball, not treated like any other catch? There must be a historical reason for this.

    It’s less historical than about physical reality. From MLB dot com, emphasis mine:

    A FOUL TIP is a batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat to the catcher’s hands and is legally caught. It is not a foul tip unless caught and any foul tip that is caught is a strike, and the ball is in play. It is not a catch if it is a rebound, unless the ball has first touched the catcher’s glove or hand.

    If the foul tip does not change the trajectory of the pitch (i.e. it does not go upward and become a fly or foul ball), it is treated as a strike, the same as if the batter never connected with the ball. Yes, any contact will change the ball’s trajectory, but if the catcher still catches the ball, then the change was only centimetres.

    Here’s a rare case of a thrown ball hitting a bat in a different way. The throwing team wrongly wanted an out when there was no justification for it. Cricket’s and baseball’s rules on obstruction and interference are very much the same (no third link to avoid moderation, but they’re easily found).

  6. says

    Yes, combining those answers works. Your cricket is incomprehensible to us Yankees. We have a weekly news program called “60 Minutes.” Around 20 years ago, correspondent Morley Safer attempted to explain cricket to Americans. The conclusion was that we’d never get it, so don’t even try.

    Baseball limits at-bats for batters, which I understand cricket does not. Throws by the pitcher must arrive at home for the batter in what’s called the “strike zone.” A batter is called “out” (loses his turn at bat) when he gets three strikes at bat. He can also be called out for a few other reasons, mostly about baserunning, but that’s irrelevant. These are the ways a pitcher can be called out of his turn at bat:

    1. Pitcher throws ball; batter swings a full swing and misses, and the catcher catches it. That’s a strike. See below for third strike exception*. There are also “checked swings,” but that’s different. They may or may not be strikes, as determined by the umpire.

    2. The “foul tip” that screechmonkey wrote about is: the batter hits the ball sharply and it’s directly caught by the catcher with no bounce. A caught foul tip always counts as a strike. Don’t confuse it with a “foul ball,” which is something else entirely, and isn’t called as a strike for the batter. I’ve heard Americans confuse the two, so that’s why I’m emphasizing that. I know screech wrote the same, but I’m a stickler about baseball rules, having scored many a game.

    I found this on Wikipedia, which might explain the “why” in your question:

    The foul tip is roughly equivalent to caught behind in cricket except that whereas in cricket a batsman caught behind is immediately out, a caught foul tip only counts as one strike so a batter would only be out from a foul tip if he was already on two strikes. Caught foul tips are rarer than caught behind in cricket for two main reasons. The round shape of a baseball bat means that slight deflections are more likely to deviate significantly making it more difficult to catch compared to edges from the flattish edge of a cricket bat. Also a baseball catcher must take position immediately behind the batter meaning that he has less time to react to a tip. There are no restrictions as to where a cricket wicketkeeper stands and can often be as much as 15 yards behind the batsman giving him more time to react to edges, especially when facing fast bowlers. Furthermore, it is not unusual for there to be extra fielders beside the wicketkeeper called slips who can catch bigger deflections. Extra fielders behind home plate are not permitted in baseball and would probably be of little use anyway.”

    *Strikes #1 – This rule can be complicated, but it’s an exception to #1. It’s an “uncaught third strike.” The pitcher throws, the batter swings and misses, but the catcher doesn’t catch it directly (catches it and drops it, e.g.). Then the batter immediately becomes a runner and must try to get on base. There are many permutations and strategies to deal with when this happens, and this isn’t the place to discuss that. This only counts on a third strike, not any other.

  7. tbrandt says

    Here’s an analogy that Mano might like better. In cricket, you are out if you miss the ball and it hits the stumps. This is equivalent to a strike in baseball. In cricket, you are also out if you deflect the ball so little that it hits the stumps, even if no fielder catches it. This is somewhat equivalent to a foul tip in baseball, where the deflection is so slight that the pitch is still effectively a caught strike. Remember in baseball that a dropped third strike is treated differently from a caught third strike whether or not it is a foul tip.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    OT, but falling under sports quandaries; what the hell is wrong with the Netherlands men’s football team? In the Euro qualifiers, two losses to Iceland, and they’re down 0-2 in Turkey as I type. Their defense looks non-existent.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Thanks to everyone who contributed. The foul tip rule and its applications is much clearer to me now.

    While there may not be complete understanding of the origins of this rule, its practical benefits are clear. By treating it as a strike, one avoids the kinds of very difficult umpiring decisions one finds in cricket.

  10. moarscienceplz says

    This is just a guess, but I think it has to do with the fact that in cricket the batter’s first objective is to defend the wicket, while in baseball the only objective is to get a hit. So in cricket, any contact with the ball that defends the wicket is a successful hit, but in baseball a “foul tip” is fundamentally the same as a missed pitch, i.e., a strike.
    However, I don’t understand how a “caught behind” could be hard to detect. Aren’t all throws by the bowler aimed at the wicket? If so, if the batter deflected the ball enough to avoid hitting the wicket, that should be pretty obvious, shouldn’t it?

  11. screechymonkey says

    Mano @4,

    I’m not sure how that follows. “Dead” vs. live ball in baseball has to do with when runners can advance, not whether the batter has become a batter-runner and must attempt to reach first base.

  12. Mano Singham says

    moarscienceplz,

    Not all deliveries are aimed to hit the wicket. Some are aimed to initially go towards the wicket to force the batter to play at it but then swerve away so that the ball hits the edge of the bat and is then caught behind by a fielder. In this clip, the ball did just that.

    At other times the bowler may accidentally or even deliberately aim away from the wicket, the latter in order to draw the batter into making a poor shot.

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