Baseball, for Europeans

Ninety percent of baseball is mental; the other half is physical

    Yogi Berra


Baseball is a beautiful game of data-driven micro-strategy executed on the field by real-life chess pieces, who spring into action to chase down a fly ball or to sprint around the diamond. For data people like me, who grew up as baseball fans in the US, it's a treasure trove of statistics, extrapolations, trends and trend-defying events. Now that's action!

Baseball is more international than you may think. In addition to the US, it's a top sport in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, Japan, South Korea and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan). But in Europe, baseball is mostly unknown and mysterious. And boring.

In fact, the idea for this article came from a confused chat message in a WhatsApp group from an Australian couple at a baseball game in San Diego.

image: WhatsApp screenshot

As one of the only US-Americans in the group chat, and born and raised into a baseball family, I felt that I needed to share my opinion about discovering baseball as an adult:

Baseball is a beautiful game of strategy and statistics but I wouldn’t want to have to learn the rules as an adult. Like grammar in a foreign language, it’s built on exceptions to the rule, and those exceptions have their own exceptions (for example, three strikes and you're out, EXCEPT if you hit a foul ball, EXCEPT EXCEPT if that foul ball was hit while bunting).

If you keep reading, I'll explain more about the rules that govern the beautiful game of baseball. To make an article about baseball for non-baseball people less boring, I'll sprinkle in baseball gifs. Here's Ozzie Smith's trademark backflip.

gif: Ozzie Smith backflip

If that's too much athleticism for your pre-conceived notions about baseball players being out of shape, how about this professional athlete?

gif: #dadbod

Now to the serious stuff. How can you learn the rules of baseball as an adult?

tl;dr don't bother

Professional Major League Baseball (MLB) has 162 regular season games, and a never-ending post-season of playoffs and a "world" championship that follow. Then comes Christmas, and the pre-season "Spring Training" starts. Yes, it's a summer sport with a season so long that it can snow at both the beginning AND end of the season.

gif: snowy game

The earliest a normal game will start on the East Coast of the US is 1pm, meaning 7pm in Central Europe. Those games are often on Sundays, and it's not a bad time to watch a game if nothing else is on. The remaining 5 to 6 games on the East Coast start at 7pm local time, so 1am in Europe. Games from the West Coast of the US that start at 7pm there will start at 3am in Europe. That means at 6am, when the rest of us are dreaming about waking up, you could turn off the TV and question the decisions you've made in your life. One-hundred-and-sixty-one more games to go.

If you've read this far, and you have the existential craving to know how and why baseball functions, keep reading.

gif: umpire flex

the written rules

9 innings

Each game consists of nine innings. An inning gives each team a chance to hit the ball with the bat and score runs (offense), as well as a chance to switch sides and to pitch the ball and try to prevent the other team from scoring runs (defense).

The home team, who is hosting the game, bats in the bottom half or second part of each inning. The visiting team bats in the top half of each inning. The game is exactly 9 innings long.

  • EXCEPT: if the home team is winning after 8.5 innings, the game ends after 8.5 innings.

  • EXCEPT: if the teams are at a draw after 9.0 innings, then the game shall continue forever. Baseball is a discrete of incremental play, and baseball promises you no end.

  • EXCEPT: if a game has started but can't continue due to bad weather, then for the game to be "official", then at minimum 5 innings must have been completed. Or 4.5 in case the home team is winning.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT: there are no rain-shortened games in the post-season. All games must be played to completion.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT: if the game has no significance for the post-season, and was started but can't be finished due to weather, and the teams have an equal score after a minimum of 5 innings, it can be deemed a tie by Major League Baseball. There is no room in the standings for a draw, like there is in soccer, so in the rare case that it happens, the teams show 161 games played but the players have 162 games worth of stats.

3 outs

Each inning, whether the game has 9, or 4.5, or ∞, has six outs. Each team in their half-inning gets three outs. An out can come from: (1) a strikeout, where the batter fails to put the ball into play - more later about strikeouts. The second way to record an out is ground-out, where the ball is hit on the ground and the defensive player either (2a) tags the player with the ball either with the glove hand if the ball is in the glove, or with the ball in the non-glove hand, or (2b) throws to a base where a runner is forced to run and the player who catches the ball touches the base with any part of his body (perhaps a toe).

Here's an example of a pathetic ground-out that was an embarrassment to even the player's mom and grandma.

gif: ground out

The third way to record an out is a fly-out (3a) to the outfield or a pop-out (3b) to the infield. In this case, the ball is hit in the air and caught by a player without touching the ground.

It's possible to get more than one out per play, for example a triple play, where all three outs of the inning are recorded in one play. It's not very common. Double plays are more common and a great way to kill your team's momentum by canceling out baserunners.

So three outs to a half-inning, and three ways to make an out. If you're a baserunner, you can also make an out by being tagged out when you aren't touching the base. But let's skip that for now.

  • EXCEPT: ground-outs (out-type #2) must be inside the field of play, or between the painted white lines that are first and third base.

  • EXCEPT: Fly-outs (3a) and pop-outs (3b) can be either fair or foul - basically anywhere the players can reach, including the stands.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT: According to the "infield fly rule", if there are one or more runners on bases that would be forced to run when the ball is hit, and the ball is hit in the air near enough to the runners that the fielder could drop the ball on purpose or pretend to fail to catch the ball, or actually fail to catch the ball, so as to create a double or triple play, than the umpire can call the hitter out and the runners are allowed to stay on their base.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT: Foul balls in the air that are first caught by a fan do not count as outs.

gif: Foul ball?

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT: If the ball is touched by a fan in the field of play, and affects the course of the game, the umpire can decide what to do. It's called "spectator interference" and as stadiums have recently been built to put fans close to the action, it happens often.

One infamous example prolonged the 71 year-old "Curse of the Billy Goat" on the Chicago Cubs, and made Steve Bartman a pariah in Chicago. Did I mention that baseball players and fans are superstitious? Did you know if you wear a "rally cap", you can impact the outcome of the game from the sidelines?

image: Rally Cap

With all those exceptions, the one thing is constant. A half-inning has three outs. Right?

  • EXCEPT: An inning can have a four outs. I had never heard of this rule, so I asked a serious baseball fan.

image: Fourth out

Let's skip this one.

3 strikes

Balls thrown by the pitcher are categorized by the home-plate umpire as either balls or strikes. You may have heard the cliché Three strikes and you're out. A batter is indeed out if they have three from the following:

  • swing and miss

  • swing and hit the ball out of play (a.k.a. foul ball)

  • don't swing but the pitch is determined a strike by the umpire, for passing over the home-plate between the knees and chest-high "letters" of the hitter.

Well, that's true most of the time.

  • EXCEPT: The batter is not out if the 3rd strike is a foul ball. The first two strikes can come from foul balls, but the third strike can't come from a foul ball. And the hitter can remain hitting as long as they can hit foul balls. Baseball again approaches the infinite.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT: If 3rd strike is made with a bunting attempt, specifically running a hand up the bat to tap the ball into the field of play, and that bunted attempt goes foul, then the 3rd strike counts and an out is recorded.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT: If the 3rd strike is recorded and the catcher, who catches the ball thrown by the pitcher, drops or misses the ball, then the batter is entitled to run to first base, and the catcher or another defense player may try to throw the ball to first base. If a position player tags first base with the ball before the hitter reaches first base, then the out is recored. Otherwise, no out is recorded and the hitter remains at first base.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT: If first base is already occupied, then the batter may not attempt to reach first base.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT: If first base is occupied, but if there are already two outs, then the batter may attempt to reach first base, and the previous occupant of first base must attempt to advance to second base.

  • EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT EXCEPT: to quote directly from the rulebook

Rule 5.09(a)(2)   Comment: A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle surrounding home plate

The rule is called "the dropped third strike", if you insist to know more. Here's the full 184 page rulebook (pdf), in case you can stand any more.

The rulebook contains such thrilling excerpts as:

3.07 Pitcher’s Glove(a) The pitcher’s glove may not, exclusive of piping, be white,gray, nor, in the judgment of an umpire, distracting in any manner. No fielder, regardless of position, may use a fielding glove that falls within a PANTONE® color set lighter than the current 14-series.

hit-by-pitch

If the batter is hit by the pitched ball, then he/she is awarded first base.

  • EXCEPT: if umpire determines that the pitch was a strike, despite hitting the batter. This means that it was over the plate and between the knees and the "letters". In this case, a strike is called.

  • EXCEPT: if the batter swings at a pitch, even if it still hits him/her.

  • EXCEPT: if the umpire determines that the batter did not make an effort to avoid being hit by the pitch.

the unwritten rules

Wikipedia has an entire article about the unwritten rules of baseball. Many are about respecting the game, and violating the rules can get cause the opposing pitcher to intentionally hit one of your players with the ball.

  • EXCEPT: the pitcher shouldn't throw at the head of the hitter

In turn, throwing at a hitter can also cause a bench-clearing brawl. I don't condone violence, but all I can say is that if you charge the mound, at least know the skills of the player you are going after.

headlock


make it stop

At this point, you may feel like you are in a headlock and being punched repeatedly in the head. Let's agree that it's easier to ignore all the rules, written and unwritten, and their exceptions, and their exceptions to their exceptions. We can still enjoy the game. Go to a stadium, enjoy the summer weather, cheer with the fans, eat a hot dog, drink a beer, and if you do all of this in in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you may even get to see sausages in a footrace.


want to know more?

What happens when you pitch a no-hitter on LSD?


What happens when you charge 10 cents for a beer?

"Ten cent beer night" is what happens.

NBC newscaster Tim Russert, then a student at the Cleveland–Marshall College of Law, attended the game. "I went with $2 in my pocket," recalled the Meet the Press host. "You do the math."


What happens when animals enter the field of play?


What is the baseball version of soccer's own goal, when scored by a header?


What happens when a bird and a ball collide?


What is the "hidden ball trick"?


What happens if you return to the dugout with a disguise after you were ejected from the game?


Thanks for reading.