Foul Ball / Foul Tip

   Foul Ball / Foul Tip

I have a pet peeve. Like you, I enjoy watching professional baseball on TV. But nothing irks me more than commentators who call a foul ball a foul tip. Joe Buck is the worst offender, but there are others. Any sharp foul ball that shoots straight back over the catcher's shoulder or off the umpire's mask or otherwise goes uncaught but sharp off the bat, these dingbats call it a foul tip. These are not foul tips, they're foul balls.

Foul balls and foul tips are two distinctly different things. One results in a dead ball, the other is a live ball. One can result in strike three, the other cannot. One of them, by definition, must be caught; the other, again by definition, must not be caught. Foul balls and foul tips could not be more different.

In this article we cover the following:

Let's talk about the foul tip first, because it's the most straightforward.


What is a foul tip

First off, let's look at the rule-book definition of a foul tip [Definitions (foul tip)]. I'm going to add some boldface and italic for emphasis:

"A FOUL TIP is a batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat to the catcher 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."

NOTE: The 2021 edition of the OBR changed the definition of foul tip. Whereas previously the definition read "a batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat to the catcher's hands ...," the 2021 update changed "to the catcher's hands" to read, simply, "to the catcher." The change also removed the following sentence: "It is not a catch if it is a rebound, unless the ball has first touched the catcher's glove or hand."

The upshot, then, is this: Any batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat to the catcher (any part of the catcher) and is legally caught is a foul tip. It is no longer required that the tipped ball touch the catcher's hand or glove first. A rebound off the mask or chest, for example, qualifies as a foul tip so long as the ball rebounds directly to the catcher's hand or glove and is legally caught.

Okay, now plainspoken:

  • A foul tip is a pitched ball that skips off the bat and goes "sharp and direct" to the catcher "and is legally caught." That the ball is caught is the cornerstone of the definition of a foul tip. A ball that is not caught by the catcher is not (and cannot be) a foul tip.
  • A foul tip is always a strike; and, unlike a foul ball, a foul tip can result in strike three.
  • A foul tip is a live ball. Runners can advance (steal) at their peril.
  • If the catcher does not catch the ball, then it's a foul ball (dead ball). Period. For clarity, let's call this a tipped foul ball.
  • When a tipped batted ball is caught by the catcher after the ball hits his mask (for example), his chest, or anything else, this  IS  a foul tip (according to the 2021 rule change noted above).
  • If a tipped batted ball hits the umpire first and then rebounds and is caught, the is NOT a foul tip, nor is it a fly-ball out. The instant the ball touches the umpire in foul territory, it becomes a foul ball/dead ball. (It's the same as a fly ball that hits a backstop or fence or anything else (except the catcher) in foul territory.)
  • The mechanic for a foul tip is to brush the back of your left hand with your right hand, then give the strike signal. Some umpires swipe the back of their left hand two or three times, then give the strike signal.


What is a foul ball

Definitions (foul ball) begins with the longest, most poorly written and awkwardly tortuous sentence in the entire rule book, and also includes an extended "comment."  I won't repeat it here, but ...

Again, plainspoken:

First off, there are three foul ball scenarios (and one special case) and you judge the ball to be fair or foul differently for each scenario:

  1. Batted ball inside the bags. By this I mean a bounding or fly ball that stays or falls inside an imaginary line that's drawn around the infield at the front edge of the bases, but does not touch the bases. On the image below, picture the blue line as a sheet of glass enclosing the area we call "inside the bags."

    Judged fair or foul by the position of the ball when (a) first touched by a fielder, or (b) where the ball comes to rest. It is not uncommon for the ball to fall in fair territory and then spin into foul territory before it is touched (or the other way around). On balls inside the bags, you must wait until the ball is either touched or comes to rest before judging it fair or foul. Until then it's nothing, so don't rush that call.

  2. Bounding ball beyond the bags. A "bounding ball" is a batted ball that touches the ground (bounces) at least one time before it reaches the blue line that defines the area "inside the bags," but then bounds beyond the blue line (breaking the imaginary glass).

    Judged fair or foul by where it crosses (and breaks) the blue sheet of glass. It the bounding ball crosses the sheet on or over the bag (that is, breaks the glass), then this is a fair ball. However, if the bounding ball passes the blue sheet in foul territory (and does not break the glass) then it is a foul ball, despite the fact that it may have bounced one or more times in fair territory before reaching the blue sheet.

  3. Fly ball beyond the bags. We're talking here about any batted ball that passes over the blue line in flight. It does not matter whether it crosses the blue sheet in fair or foul territory. It only matters where the ball first touches the ground or is first touched by a fielder.

    Judged fair or foul by where the fly ball first touches the ground, or where a fielder first touches the ball in flight. If the ball first touches the ground in fair territory, it is a fair ball. If in foul territory, then it's a foul ball. Similarly, if a fielder first touches the ball while the ball (not the fielder) is over fair territory, then it's a fair ball. Likewise, if first touched over foul territory, it's a foul ball.

  4. Special case: Batter hit by his own batted ball while still in the batter's box5.09(a)(7) ]. So long as the batter is still in the batter's box, any batted ball that strikes him is simply a foul ball (not interference). Sometimes the ball goes directly from the bat to the leg or foot (ouch!); other times, it bounces on or near the plate and then bounces and strikes the batter. That's still a foul ball. Of course, once the batter steps out of the batter's box, any batted ball that touches him is interference and he is out.

    Judged fair or foul. The only judgement is whether the batted ball hit the batter while he is still in the batter's box. If it did, then you have a foul ball. Come up fast, big and loud: "FOUL! FOUL!" This call belongs to any umpire who sees it.

    This is sometimes difficult to see, particularly for the plate umpire. It can also be tricky because sometimes a batted ball will hit off home plate and come out oddly, making it look like it came off the batter's foot. Experience alone will help you see this clearly. Along with experience comes the ability to infer certain things from the batter's actions. Be careful with this because, at upper levels particularly, batters will try to manipulate you with their acting skills. At lower levels, however, the batter's reactions run truer.

A few important points about foul balls

  1. Foul lines are fair territory. So is the foul pole, first and third bases, and home plate. If a batted ball comes to rest with any part of the ball in fair territory, it's a fair ball.
  2. If any part of the ball is over a foul line it's a fair ball. On a ball that comes to rest in contact with the foul line, it is a fair ball if any portion of the ball is over the foul line. Of course, this also applies to a ball that is in motion and is first touched by a fielder while the ball is over the foul line. That said, this latter case is nearly impossible to see in real time, especially if the fielder is running hard toward foul territory to field the ball. That is one of the most difficult judgment calls in baseball.
  3. The position of the fielder has no bearing on whether a ball if fair or foul. Unlike football, it does not matter whether the fielder who first touches a ball is in fair territory or foul. The judgement of fair/foul is based entirely on the position of the ball relative to the foul line.
  4. A batted ball becomes foul (and a dead ball) the instant it touches the backstop, a fence, or any other structure, person (e.g., the umpire) or player while over foul territory.
  5. A fly ball that is caught in foul territory is not a foul ball. A foul ball, by definition, touches the ground, a fixture, or a person in foul territory. A fly ball caught in foul territory is simply a fly ball out; the ball is live and runners may advance (at their peril) after tagging up.
  6. A batter-runner who intentionally deflects a ball that is in foul territory should be called out, the ball is dead, and other runners, if any, may not advance [ 5.09(a)(9) ].
  7. An infield fly is waved off if the ball drops uncaught in foul territory. When calling an infield fly that is close to the foul line, you signal and verbalize loudly "INFIELD FLY IF FAIR!" If the ball drops uncaught in foul territory, or is first touched (but not caught) by a fielder in foul territory, it is no longer an infield fly but just a foul ball and the batter is not out. Of course, if the ball is caught this is an ordinary caught fly ball out: the batter is out but the ball is live and runners may advance after tagging up.


Mechanics for calling a foul ball

The basics

In our articles on Umpire Mechanics we'll discuss at length which umpire owns the fair/foul call, when and where. For now, let's concentrate on the mechanics.

You verbalize a foul ball ("FOUL!") and raise both arms, palms forward. For a foul ball in the outfield you then point in the direction of the foul.

You never verbalize a fair ball. Instead, you simply point into fair territory. If the call is a close one, point emphatically.


Beyond the basics

Using the basics for a foundation, amend your mechanics as follows:

  • On a "stadium call" you do not need to signal nor verbalize a foul ball. What's a "stadium call"? It's a call that a spectator could accurately make from the top row of the nosebleed section at Yankee Stadium. It's a ball that sails ten rows into the stands, or that shoots up behind the backstop and lands on a car in the parking lot.
  • Only one umpire should ever make the initial fair/foul call. Everyone on the crew (whether two, three, or four) should know which umpire has responsibility for any given batted ball. Be sure to discuss this at your pregame meeting to ensure you're all on the same page with regard to fair/foul responsibilities. We'll talk about this more in Umpire Mechanics. Once the initial foul call is made, however, other umpires on the field should echo the call if necessary to stop action on the bases.