One of the more difficult situations in softball are those involving the infield fly rule. While all the codes agree on when the rule is in effect, they don’t all agree on which umpire is responsible for it or even how it is signaled. Throw in the level of play on any given day, turf versus natural grass and a little wind, and it can become convoluted. Here are some tips and techniques to help nail this call every time.
Pregame with your partner(s).
This should go without saying as you should never take the field unprepared. A solid, thorough pregame with your partner(s) can usually keep you out of trouble the majority of the time. However, it is especially important to communicate about the infield fly rule before taking the field. This is your chance to discuss the weather for the day, the level of the participants and how the crew is going to handle this crucial call. We will cover the mechanics of this a little bit later.
Know the rule.
The four codes all agree on the infield fly rule. Any time there are runners on first and second or the bases are loaded, and there are less than two outs, the infield fly rule is in effect. If the batter hits a fair fly ball (not including a line drive or a bunt) that can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, the infield fly rule should be invoked.
The confusion often comes in because of the definition of “ordinary effort.” What may be ordinary for a Division I college athlete may not be so ordinary for the local recreation league. And what may be ordinary on a perfect weather day may not be so ordinary when wind is involved. The purpose of the rule is to protect the offense and the runners on base by preventing an easy double play. Err on the side of calling it rather than not calling it to prevent unnecessary double plays. That doesn’t mean call it every time the ball goes into the air. It does mean to use some common sense and protect the offense.
It doesn’t matter where the ball would land. Too often, umpires think because the ball is beyond the infield cutout, they can’t rule an infield fly. Where the ball is located has no bearing on the rule. It simply states if an infielder could catch the ball with ordinary effort, it is an infield fly. More and more teams play on turf fields and where the “infield” turf becomes “outfield” turf seems to have become some line of demarcation. It should not. If the shortstop or second baseman is playing deep and can get to a ball with ordinary effort in the outfield, it should still be an infield fly, even if the outfielder ends up being the fielder who catches it.
Every umpire in every game at every level should pre-pitch prepare. Part of this is being on the same page with your partner(s). Before every batter, when the infield fly situation is in effect, the umpires should give each other the infield fly signal to gently remind each other the potential is there (as seen in PlayPic A). If the plate umpire fails to give the signal, the base umpire(s) should give it to clue the plate umpire in and clue each other in if there is more than one base umpire. Once this signal is given, pre-pitch your responsibilities if a fly ball occurs and what factors may go in to calling an infield fly.
Read the fielders.
This goes hand in hand with pre-pitch preparation. Know where the fielders are located. Are the infielders playing in or are they deep? Are they shaded one direction or the other? Once the ball goes up, umpires should read the infielders and see their movements. Are they sprinting after a ball or are they camped underneath it? Is the wind making it difficult for a player to make an ordinary effort on the ball? Remember, you don’t make the infield fly declaration until the ball reaches its highest peak, so you don’t need to rush the call. Give yourself some time and make sure you get the call right. On blustery days, nothing may be “ordinary” and you may never invoke the rule. At the end of the day, this is a judgment call and if you judge an infielder cannot make a play with ordinary effort, don’t call it.
Read your partners.
While the codes have different mechanics on how to signal and who calls the infield fly, all umpires should gather as much information as possible to make the call. In NFHS and USA Softball, the plate umpire is responsible for making this call while NCAA and USSSA give concurrent authority to all umpires. Sometimes, the plate umpire may lose the ball as it comes off the bat or may simply not have a good angle to determine if a fielder can make a play on the ball with ordinary effort. The base umpire may have the best look as depth sometimes is tough to judge from behind home plate. In NCAA and USSSA, the base umpire may call it at any time. In doing so, the other umpires on the field should signal and echo the call (as shown in PlayPics C and D). In USA Softball and NFHS, the plate umpire should make the call (as shown in PlayPic B). However, if it is an obvious infield fly situation and the plate umpire forgets to call it, the base umpire should signal and declare it. If all umpires forget to signal or declare the infield fly, you can get together after the play and rule on it if you put a team at jeopardy. By pregaming with your partners on how to handle these situations, it will make you more comfortable to make these calls when they happen during the game.
Verbalize it loudly.
The proper mechanic is to signal, as described in the last paragraph, and to verbalize, “Infield fly, the batter is out.” It is important to verbalize as runners, fielders and coaches most likely aren’t looking at umpires to see if they are signaling an infield fly. They are waiting to hear the declaration. In loud environments, it may be hard to hear so umpires should be loud when vocalizing the situation to leave no doubt. It is also important to add a couple of extra words to the declaration if the ball is near a foul line. In those situations, the umpire should say, “Infield fly. If fair, the batter is out.” If the ball lands foul and stays in foul territory, it is simply a foul ball.
Prepare for chaos.
Depending on the level of play, a lot can happen during infield fly situations, especially if the ball is dropped by a fielder or it simply lands uncaught. Try not to get caught off guard. Even though you may have declared an infield fly, runners tend to think they are forced to run when they see the ball on the ground. Remember, in these situations, the batter-runner is already out. There is no longer a force play at any base. This includes advancing toward a base or retreating to a base. If the ball is not caught, baserunners are not required to return to a base to tag up. If they are off the base and the ball drops, they can advance or retreat, but at either base it is a tag and not a force situation.
Also, if the ball does ultimately land uncaught, the offensive team is going to question why you called the batter out. Be prepared to have to explain to a coach why you ruled the batter out. Use the terms, “In my judgment,” and avoid saying things like “I thought” or “It looked like.” If you explain to a coach that you judged it to be normal effort and you were protecting the runners, they should accept that. Most coaches would rather have one out than potentially two in this situation.
At the end of the day, the rule is there to protect the offense. Use all the tools in your toolbelt (pregame discussion, pre-pitch preparation, read your partners, know the weather, read the fielders) and make your best judgment. No two situations are ever alike and the more you can prepare for each one, the easier the decision will be for you to make.
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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.
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