The rules for awarding bases are probably the most misunderstood in baseball. No doubt this is due, at least in part, to the large number of rules references (28 rule references), as well as the many nuances in the application of the rules. Trying to learn base awards from the Official Rules will drive you to … well, it'll drive you to lacrosse.
Under a given set of circumstances, an umpire can award a runner (or batter) one, two, three, or even four bases. In some cases, the award is made from the time of the pitch (TOP), while in other cases the award is from the time of a fielder's throw (TOT). Also, while most base awards are dead-ball awards, in a small number of cases the ball remains live (on a base on balls, for example). We'll point out these exceptions.
Important: Most of the base award situations that cause confusion (and arguments) result from a live ball thrown out of play. So let's be sure we're clear what we mean by "out of play." We're not talking about an overthrow into foul territory. We're talking about a ball that goes entirely outside the field of play – over a fence, into the stands, into a dugout, or beyond whatever out-of-play boundaries are established by ground rules at the field you're on. On amateur baseball fields, these boundaries are sometimes arbitrary. It is very important that you clarify out-of-play boundaries at your plate meeting.
The best way to cover this broad canvas is to group by the number of bases awarded – one, two, three, and four. Within each group, where appropriate, we'll discuss TOP vs. TOT situations.
- Base on balls [ Definitions ("base on balls"), 5.05(b)(1) ]. A base on balls is a live ball award. The batter is protected to first base, as are runners who are forced to advance. However, because the ball is live, the batter-runner and other runners may advance beyond the base to which they are protected at their peril. Once they advance beyond the base to which they are protected, runners are liable to be put out, even if they're trying to return to the base they were awarded.
- Batter hit by pitch [ 5.05(b)(2) ]. Batter hit by pitch (HBP) is a dead ball award. Runners on base advance only if forced. Be sure that you're familiar with the exceptions to the HBP base award, which we discuss at length in the article Batter Touched by Live Ball. Because the ball is dead, runners may not advance beyond the base they were awarded, or to which they were forced.
- The pitcher balks [ 6.02(a) ]. A balk can occur only when there are runners on base. It's a delayed dead ball (except in high school rules, where balks are immediate dead ball). On a balk, all runners are awarded one base. The pitch does not count, so no ball or strike applies, and the batter remains at the plate. Note that in some cases balk awards are ignored. For a thorough discussion of balks, see Balks and Illegal Pitches.
- A pitch goes out of play, or an overthrow by the pitcher (while on the rubber) goes out of play [ 5.06(b)(4)(H) ]. It may seem hard to picture a pitch so wild that it goes out of play, but here's how it typically happens: A wild pitch or passed ball defelects off the catcher or umpire and goes into the dugout. Dead ball. All runners advance one base. The batter stays at the plate (unless it was ball four, of course). The other portion of the rule is more common: where a pitcher makes a pick-off throw to first base while engaged to the rubber and throws wild out of paly. You see this on amateur fields that are not fully enclosed.
Important: If the pitcher disengages the pitching rubber before throwing wild out of play, the award is two bases, not one. We'll cover that in the section Two-base awards, #4.
- Fair batted ball strikes a base runner or umpire before passing infielder [ 6.01(a)(11) ]. A base runner who is hit by a fair batted ball is out for interference (and the ball is dead), but the batter himself is awarded first base. If other runners are on base, they advance if forced – unless, of course, the interference causes the third out. In the case of an umpire who is hit by a fair batted ball (again, before the ball passes an infielder), you have umpire interference, which is handled differently. There is no out (obviously), the batter is awarded first base, and other runners advance if forced.
Note: There are some important nuances to bear in mind when calling offensive interference. Be sure to read Offensive Interference carefully.
- A fielder, after cathing a fly ball, falls into dead-ball territory [ 5.06(b)(3)(C) ]. In this scenario, a fielder having made a legal catch while in live-ball territory, is carried into dead-ball territory, where he then falls. The ball is dead and all base runners advance one base. The batter remains at the plate because it's no longer a catch, but rather simply a foul ball.
Important: Normally, we'd include here a note about "catch-and-carry." However, in 2016, Major League Baseball amended the rule, such that catch-and-carry no longer exists. Any live ball that is carried into dead ball territory is now considered a dead ball and is not a legal catch. Rule 5.06(b)(3)(C) Comment reads: "If a fielder, after having made a legal catch, should step or fall into any out-of-play area, the ball is dead and each runner shall advance one base, without liability to be put out, from his last legally touched base at the time the fielder entered such out-of-play area."
- A pitched ball lodges in the catcher's or umpire's clothing or gear [ 5.06(b)(4)(I) ]. This one is pretty straightforward. If a pitched ball lodges in the catcher's or plate umpire's clothing or gear, it's an immediate dead ball. Runners advance one base. The batter remains at the plate (unless it's ball four or a called strike three).
- Defensive (catcher's) interference [ 6.01(c) ]. Catcher's interference is a special case for two reasons. First, it's a delayed dead ball; second, the manager has the option of accepting either the base award or the result of the play (if, in fact, the ball is put in play). But not both. If the award is accepted, the batter is awarded first base and other runners advance if forced; however, runners who are not forced must return to their time-of-pitch base. We discuss this at length in the article, Defensive (catcher's) Interference.
- Runner from third is touched by a pitched ball while attempting to steal home [ 5.09(a)(14) ]. If you want to really stump an ump, this is your go-to rule. I've seen very experienced umpires get the details wrong on this one – partly, of course, because it's such a rare scenario, and also because the rule has so many moving parts. You can go a lifetime without seeing this one.
If a runner from third tries to steal home when there are two outs AND two stirkes on the batter, AND IF the ball strikes the runner in the strike zone, then (a) call strike three (batter's out), (b) inning over, (c) run does not count. However, in the same scenario, but before there are two outs, you call strike three (batter's out), runner scores, and the ball is dead. If other runners were moving on the pitch, they must return.
- The "catcher's balk" [ 6.01(g) ]. There is a twist on item #9 that deserves it's own section – what's known as the "catcher's balk." Actually, that's a misnomer because the infraction is interference by the catcher – defensive interference. This is the one that almost nobody gets right on the umpire exam first time through. Here's the scenario:
A runner on third base tries to score by means of a squeeze play or steal. The catcher sees him coming and encroaches on home base to get the ball quickly, or else touches the batter or the bat in a rush to get the pitch to make the out. But what the catcher has done is interfere with the batter's opportunity to offer at the pitch, which is defensive interference. In this special case, you do four things: (a) Call "Time" to kill the play; (b) charge the pitcher with a balk ("catcher's balk"); (c) score the run on the balk (other runners also advance one base); and (d) award the batter first base on the defensive interference.
- Fair batted ball bounds out of play [ 5.05(a)(6, 7). A "bounding" ball is a fair batted ball that touches the ground at least once in the field of play, but then continues out of play. This is the rule that is known generally as the "ground-rule double," although the rule applies more broadly than our image of a ground-rule double. The ball is dead the moment it passes out of play, and all runners, including the batter-runner, advance two bases from the base occupied at the time of pitch (TOP).
The second part, 5.05(a)(7), extends the ground rule to fair bounding balls that leave the field in foul territory, or that lodge in a fence, scoreboard, "shrubbery or vines," or that otherwise escape the field of play. Note that we're talking about a fair bounding ball that leaves the field in foul territory. Again, the ball is dead and all runners, including the batter-runner, advance two bases from their TOP base.
- Bounding ball defelcted out of play by a fielder [ 5.05(a)(8) ]. This pertains to a fielder deflecting a fair bounding ball out of play. Again, dead ball. All runners advance two bases from TOP.
- Fly ball deflected out of play by a fielder [ 5.05(a)(9) ]. Similar to 5.05(a)(8), except that it pertains to a fielder deflecting a fair fly ball out of play into foul territory. Again, dead ball and two-base award for all runners from TOP base.
- Ball overthrown out of play [ 5.06(b)(4)(G) ]. Now we're talking about a thrown ball going out of play. This is going to take a few minutes because it's a really common scenario on amateur fields that aren't fully enclosed. Except for base-on-balls, this is probably the base-award situation you'll deal with most often. It's also the one that most often causes arguments because most coaches (and umpires, too) do not fully understand the nuances.
- Let's start with the pitcher, because we already saw this scenario in our discussion in #4 in the section above. When the pitcher steps off (disengages) the pitching rubber, he is no longer a pitcher, but is now simply another fielder. That's an important distinction. So if he steps off the rubber and throws wild out of play (on a pickoff attempt, for example), instead of a one-base award, the award is now two bases for all runners. The ball is dead, of course. Important, too, is that the award is from where the base runners were at the time of the pitch (TOP). There's more to come about TOP vs. time of throw (TOT).
- First throw from the infield. This is the most common scenario that you'll see – a batted ball to an infielder (F6, for example) who then throws wild to first base and the ball goes out of play. The instant the ball goes out of play call "Time" (dead ball) and award all runners, including the batter-runner, two bases from the time of the pitch (TOP). This places the batter-runner on second base; any runner whose TOP base was second or third will score.
There's one wrinkle that you need to keep in mind. Rule 5.06(b)(4)(G), Approved Ruling stipulates that "If all runners, including the batter-runner, have advanced at least one base when an infielder makes a wild throw" then the award is two bases from the time of the throw (TOT) instead of TOP. Seems simple enough, doesn't it? But here's the rub. You (all umpires) must see the release at the same time you have clear awareness of runner positions. Not an easy task, but fortunately this is a pretty rare case.
- Second throw from the infield. On the second throw from the infield (for example, on the back end of a double play), if the throw goes out of play the award is two bases from the time of the throw (TOT), not TOP. Again, this requires that you (1) be aware of the release of the throw (an absolute necessity in all circumstances), and (2) that you're aware of runner positions at the time of the throw. Note that this would also apply to the third (or more) throw from the infield.
- All throws from the outfield. All throws from the outfield that go out of play are treated the same as second throw from the infield. That is, the ball is dead and all runners, including the batter-runner, are awarded two bases from the time of the throw.
- Thrown ball illegally touched [ 5.06(b)(4)(D, E) ]. This rule covers the case of a fielder who intentionally touches a thrown ball using a cap, clothing, or equipment, or by throwing a glove or anything else that touches a thrown ball. The award is two bases from TOP. This is a live-ball infraction, so wait for action to conclude before calling "Time" and making base awards.
Note: This rule only applies if the item actually touches a thrown ball; if an item is thrown but does not touch the ball there is no infraction.
Touching a fair batted ball with quipment or clothes [ 5.06(b)(4)(B, C) ]. This is the only three-base award in baseball. Any fair batted ball that is touched by a fielder using detached equipment, thrown equipment, hat, or othe paraphenalia, is an immediate dead ball ("Time") and a three-base award for all runners and the batter-runner. This rarely happens any more now that most catchers use the bucket helmet/mask. Back in the day, you'd have the situation where on a bunt or dribbler in front of home plate you might see a catcher reach out with a mask to snare the ball. Compare this with the matter of the thrown ball touched with detached equipment, which gets you a two-base award.
Home run [ 5.05(a)(5), 5.06(a)(4)(A) ]. There's only one four-base award – what's better known as a home run.
Actually, there are some little-known nuances to the home run rule. For example, the wall in fair territory that a fair batted ball must cross "in flight" must be at least 250 feet from home plate. If not, the batter doesn't get a home run, but instead is awarded only second base (ground-rule double). Of course, the 250-foot restriction doesn't come into play at any of our Major League stadiums, so this is more trivia question than restriction.
But there's another issue. If a fielder in fair territory deflects a fly ball into the stands or over a wall in fair territory, you have a home run (think Jose Canseco deflecting a fly ball off his skull). If a fielder in fair territory deflects a fly ball into the stands into foul territory, on the other hand, you have a ground-rule double. This isn't a very common scenario, but it's one to be mindful of.
Finally, 5.06(a)(4)(A) restates the obvious – that on a home run the runnner must touch all four bases; if not, he is subject to an appeal, which, if upheld, nullifies the run (but not runs scored by preceeding runners). The rule also stipulates that an umpire can award a runner four bases (home run) if the ball "in flight" is prevented from going into the stands by a fielder deflecting it with thrown glove, hat, or other paraphenalia.
Obstructions: A special case
We learn in our article, Obstruction, [ 6.02(h) ]that for Type 2 (Type B) Obstruction (where the obstruction takes place away from the play), the umpire has complete discretion in making the base award [ 6.06(h)(2) ]. The directive is to make base awards so as to nullify the act of obstruction. In many cases, this means no base award at all. On the other hand, this can mean a one-base award, more rarely a two-base award, and (theoretically, at least) a three-base award, although it's hard to imagine circumstances that would call for a three-base award.
Spectator Interference: Another special case
Awarding bases when there is Spectator Interference [ 6.01(e) ] is similar to how you handle Type 2 obstruction, in that the objective is to nullify the interference. There is a twist, however, because while obstruction only affects base runners, spectator interference affects the defense. So awarding bases when there is spectator interference usually involves placing runners back (or stopping them from advancing), and in some cases requires that you call a batter out.
On spectator interference, the ball is immediately dead. Call "Time" right away. The directive then (in the language of the rule) is that "the umpire shall impose such penalties as in the umpire's opinion will nullify the act of the interference." In the case of a fair bounding ball that a spectator touches by reaching into the field of play (live ball territory), place runners at the base they last touched at the moment the interference occurred.
In the case of a specator disrupting a fielder's opportunity to catch a fly ball, it is very important to note whether the disruptive act takes place over live-ball territory or dead-ball territory. If over live-ball territory (that is, a fan reaches out into live ball territory – typically foul territory, but live nevertheless), then you have spectator interference and you judge that the interference prevented the fielder from catching the ball, you should call the batter out. If you judge that the fielder likely would not have caught the ball, then the ball is dead and you have a foul ball.
However, if it is the fielder reaching into (or entering) dead ball territory, then you cannot have spectator interference; the ball is dead and is simply a foul ball. Note that we cover this subject in much greater detail in Spectator Interference.