How to Appreciate Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 2: Now Things Get Exciting

Last time, I explained the central drama of a baseball game, the duel between pitcher and batter. I covered that one first because 90% of the time in a baseball game is spent watching just the pitcher and the batter, and if you know nothing else, you can at least appreciate how this conflict builds the tension in the game.

Now to explain how that tension pays off.

Let’s look again at the field.

You can see three small squares in the field forming a diamond with home plate. The square along the right foul line is 1st base, the one in the middle is 2nd base, and along the left foul line is 3rd base. A team scores a point (called a run) by advancing a batter around the three bases and back to home plate. Here are the basic rules:

  • The batter can attempt to reach first base when he puts the ball in play. If he instead draws a walk by taking four balls, he automatically moves to first base, and any player on first base moves to second, and so on.
  • The batter (now called a baserunner after he puts the ball in play) can be put “out” by the defense unless he is touching one of the three bases.
  • In order for a run to count, he must touch each base in succession.
  • A baserunner cannot advance past another baserunner who is ahead of him.
  • Only one baserunner may be on a specific base at a time.
  • A baserunner may attempt to advance to the next base at any time the ball is “live” or “active”. I’ll discuss some of the implications of this rule in another post.
  • If a baserunner has no open bases behind him, when the ball is put in play he must attempt to advance to the next base; his current base is no longer safe.
  • If a defender holding the ball touches the base that this baserunner is attempting to reach, the runner is out–this is called a force out. The most common play in baseball is a force out at first base.
  • Two force outs can happen in a single play, most often second and first bases. This is called a double play. Double plays typically happen once or twice per game. Three outs can also happen on a single play, but these are exceedingly rare (on average, about once in every 500 games).
  • If a defender touches the baserunner
    • With the ball or a glove holding the ball,
    • Maintaining full control over the ball,
    • While the runner is not touching a base,
    • Then the runner is out. This is called tagging out.
  • And finally, there is a very common exception to the rules that must be explained: a runner who has just hit the ball can run past first base and be considered safe as long as he makes no attempt to advance to second base. This rule exists to prevent injuries.

So what does this all mean?

When the batter is able to put the ball in play, the distance and direction he hits it makes a HUGE difference. The different situations that can happen are too many to enumerate, but they can boil down to four basic outcomes:

  • He could hit the ball beyond in fair territory beyond the barrier marking the field of play (in Major League Baseball, usually a spectator area). This is called a home run and the player may advance around the bases to score without the threat of being tagged out. If there are one, two, or three runners on bases when he hits the home run, then each of those runners score a run as well, meaning a home run may be worth up to four runs. A four-run home run is called a grand slam, and is quite unusual (there is a grand slam on average only once every 20 games).
  • He could hit the ball and a defender catches the ball before it hits the ground for an out. This is usually called a fly out. The effort that defenders make to catch a fly ball for an out makes for spectacular plays:
  • He could hit the ball so that it touches the ground but is picked up by a defender who then relays the ball as necessary to force him out or tag him out.
  • He could hit the ball to that it touches the ground and is able to run fast enough to reach first, second, or third base. The runner has to be able to judge whether it is wise to attempt to reach the next base or remain at the current base.

I’ll go back to what I said before: the pitcher-batter confrontation builds the tension of the game, whereas the payoff to that tension, the exciting part, comes when the ball is put in play and the defense must orchestrate their actions to create an out. While some plays in the field are pedestrian (so pedestrian, in fact, I had a tough time finding an example on Youtube!):

Others make your fist pump:

And still others you wish would happen far more often:

Incidentally, since I’ve only mentioned outs as something to avoid, let me expand on their meaning. There are nine periods of play in the game, known as innings. During each inning, the visiting team gets an opportunity to bat and score as many runs as possbile before receiveing 3 outs. Then any remaining baserunners are cleared, and the home team has a chance to bat; again, to score as many runs as possible before receiving three outs. The two halves of the inning are the top and bottom. If the home team is ahead after the top of the ninth inning, the bottom half is not played as the home team cannot be beaten. There is no clock for the game, and play only advances by recording outs.

In these first two posts, I’ve talked about the basic idea of the game so you can follow the action. In the next posts, I’ll talk about a) some important exceptions to these rules that make the game a bit more interesting, and b) some of the strategies used by pitchers, batters, baserunners, and defenses to accomplish their objectives.

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