By Matthew Kory
That's the reaction of the home fans when an opposing pitcher tries the fake-to-third-throw-to-first move. This is understandable, as through its long history, the move has a success rate of never*. It works so infrequently that it's personally insulting to the runner on first: "You think so little of me that you believe I'd fall for that?" (Crosses pitcher off Christmas card list.) The move is tantamount to thievery of 15 seconds by a man who decided he didn't like the sign he just accepted from his own catcher. Or maybe his grip on the ball was just off. Either way, we know it wasn't because he was trying to pick the runners off. Ha ha. No. That'd be silly.
*OK, almost never.
So it is to our unbounded joy that the fake-to-third-throw-to-first move is no more. Major League Baseball has decreed that henceforth, faking a throw to third base is a balk. I lobbied for it to be a felony, but we can't always get what we want in life.
Baseball's decision is a victory for those of us who want fewer rules in our sports. Games require rules to function, but when superfluous rules can be eliminated, it's always for the better. The less interference, the quicker, more organic and better the game is, in just about any sport. With that in mind, here are some other rules that baseball should look to eliminate.
The Infield Fly Rule
Chipper Jones had a Hall of Fame career. The man hit .303/.401/.529 with 468 home runs over parts of 19 seasons. He won the 1999 MVP award and played on 12 different teams that reached the postseason. Despite gleaming with distinction, Jones' career ended with a smudge, thanks at least in part to the infield fly rule. During last season's wild-card play-in game, which the Braves lost to the Cardinals, umpire Sam Holbrook invoked the famous rule that automatically calls the batter out if a popup can be "easily handled." This particular play was, it turned out, not easily handled, mostly because it wasn't handled at all. The ball, which landed harmlessly between two fielders (one of them an outfielder), should have loaded the bases for the Braves, who were down three in the bottom of the eighth. Instead it was the second out of the inning and a screaming release of the pressure the Braves were putting on the Cardinals.
That the rule marred baseball's first-ever wild-card game and effectively tripped Chipper Jones as he headed out the door into retirement is bad -- but not bad enough to eliminate the infield fly rule altogether. One isolated incident, even one like that, shouldn't be the standard. The standard should be whether or not the rule is unnecessary, and it's under that criterion that the Infield Fly Rule falls.
You can find the text of the rule here, but the gist is: An umpire can invoke it to automatically call the batter out and the play dead when a batter pops up with force-able runners on base and less than two outs. The point is to prevent the team in the field from intentionally dropping the ball so that they might start a double or even triple play. Heaven forbid we see more triple plays.
The infield fly rule puts the play in the hands of the umpires when there's no good reason to do so. It removes the fielding team's ability to make multiple outs and thus fully extract itself from a potential run-scoring situation. It eliminates an important choice that the defensive player must make. Should he field the ball? Should he let it drop? There's risk in letting a pop-up hit the ground before making a play on it. That risk creates interest. Reading the runners and the ball simultaneously in order to make the right play is a skill. The rule takes a potentially interesting play and removes everything interesting from it. It eliminates the players' ability to showcase their skills in favor of watching an umpire stop the action.
So yes, the infield fly rule should be stricken from the rule book. To drive this point home, I present two one-act plays.
Play, The First: The Benefit of the Infield Fly Rule
First Fan: [sitting down] Phew, that beer line was long. Did I miss anything?
Second Fan: Nope, absolutely nothing interesting happened.
Both [together]: Thanks, Infield Fly Rule!
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Play, The Second: A World Without the Infield Fly Rule
First Fan: [sitting down] Phew, that beer line was long. Did I miss anything?
Second Fan: A triple play!
First Fan: [shoots self]
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The Intentional Walk
Remember Barry Bonds? Ignore, if you can, the steroid use (are we still saying alleged? Alleged!) and remember the prodigious otherworldly power. In 2002, the year after he hit 73 homers, Bonds hit .370/.582/.799. He played in 143 games, yet only officially came to bat 403 times. That's because he was walked 198 times, 68 of which were intentional. The next season Bonds was walked intentionally 61 times and then, in 2004, Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times. Unlike the infield fly rule, the reason is quite clear: Opposing teams decided that Bonds was too good. The damage he could inflict through batting outweighed the negative of putting him on first base. My question is, why are they allowed to do that? Why allow a team to bypass a great hitter? More to the point, why allow a team to deprive the fans of watching a great hitter impact the game?
Had Bonds been allowed to bat legitimately instead of being walked 120 extra times that year, he would have hit more than the 45 homers he wound up with that season. In the course of his career, Bonds homered once every 13 at-bats. He was walked intentionally 688 times in his career, so as a rough estimate, by those numbers, fans were deprived of 53 extra Bonds homers. The number could actually be higher, as 306 of those walks came during the 2000-2004 seasons when Bonds was homering every 8.2 at-bats. Either way, the fans missed out, as they do every time a player has his bat taken out of his hands by an opposing manager in a crucial situation.
The answer is simple: The catcher must squat for every pitch. If the pitcher wants to try to throw four in the dirt and take the chance that the catcher misses one or more of them, fine, but he's going to have to throw something in the general vicinity of the plate. Weakly lobbing the ball toward the other side of the opposite batter's box to a standing catcher, while the batter shows everyone what his batting stance looks like when he doesn't care, should stop.
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Excessive Pitching Changes
I don't watch much basketball. When I do, I find that the first 95 percent of the game takes about the same amount of time as the last five percent. This is due to foul shots. Nothing makes me want to watch a different sport more than foul, stand around for two minutes, everyone get ready, foul, stand around for two minutes, rinse, repeat.
Baseball's answer to basketball's foul problem is the pitching change -- more precisely, the constant late-inning pitching switch-around jamboree, where each team uses four pitchers in the span of two innings. Baseball isn't a game of momentum and constant action like basketball, so a little slow-down isn't as bad, but pitching changes take far longer than shooting a couple foul shots.
The problem with pitching changes isn't the pitching change itself. It's the ceremony that surrounds the pitching change. First, the pitching coach comes out and jibber-jabbers with the pitcher and the catcher. This continues until the umpire saunters out to tell everyone that they'd better stop their jibber-jabbering. Then they all go back to their spots. As soon as they do, the manager comes out. Slowly. He points to his arm and the reliever jogs in from the bullpen. Slowly. Finally he gets to the mound, takes the baseball, and is then allowed to throw eight warm-up pitches before the batter steps into the box. All of this takes considerable time and is even more boring to watch than it was to read about just now. When the ritual is repeated two or more times in an inning, the only one happy is the TV network blessed with more ad time.
Baseball isn't necessarily a quick game, and that's all right, but you shouldn't be able to step away from the game for 20 minutes and only miss two at-bats. Unlike the other two suggested changes above, this issue won't go away without a big, intrusive rule. But if a big, intrusive rule is what's required, who am I to say no?
The problem is, what rule could you devise to solve the problem? Relievers could be required to finish the inning, but that creates real problems in the game -- what if the reliever is terrible? An arbitrary number of pitchers per inning or a batters-faced minimum could be written into the rules, and that might cut down on excessive and inessential pitching changes. Still, I'm not a big fan of arbitrary limits.
Maybe there isn't a great solution, and we'll just have to live with lots of pitching changes. In the grand scheme of things, it's not so bad. Certainly it's better than the infield fly rule.
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Matthew Kory is an author at Baseball Prospectus, a writer at SB Nation's Over The Monster Red Sox blog, a stay-at-home dad, and the author of the books "How Dare I: An Unauthorized Autobiography" and "The Best Things In Life Are Stolen Which Is Why You Just Paid For This Book," neither of which will ever be published. He lives in Portland, Ore.