Move the Goalposts: Dropped Third Strike

Welcome to the first installment of “Move the Goalposts”, a place where we determine some of our least favorite rules in sports and why they need to be removed, replaced, fixed, or anything in between. As most things on this blog are, this is entirely personal views and any data to back-up claims is almost certainly cherry-picked, but we can’t all be perfect. The ground rules are as follows: the rule must currently be in place and enforced at a high level of play for that sport, and it must be come into play moderately consistently to show its need to be changed. Beyond that, anything goes. To start this new series, let’s begin with one of the strangest rules in baseball, the dropped third strike.

The Rule According to the Book:

6.05 A batter is out when— ... (b) A third strike is legally caught by the catcher...

6.09 The batter becomes a runner when— ... (b) The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out…

— Official Baseball Rules, 2014 Edition

The Rule in Words:

If a batter strikes out with no runner on first and less than two outs, the catcher must catch the pitch in order for the batter to be immediately out. If he drops it, the batter has a chance to run to first and get on base. With two outs, it doesn’t matter if there is a runner on first, the batter can go either way.

Why It Needs Changed:

I played baseball for 14 years of my life, and the dropped third strike rule was a governing rule over my games for about 8 of those. All 8 of those years, this rule never made logical sense to me. It’s not a hard rule to grasp by any stretch, and I certainly took advantage of it when it worked in my favor, but it always seemed to be out of place within the rest of the sport. “Three strikes, you’re out” is arguably the most important rule in baseball, but there’s this one little caveat that disputes that entirely.

Logically, the idea of the dropped third strike has no basis anywhere else in the sport. The ball is live on a wild pitch or a passed ball already, so that part makes sense, but a batter can’t just run to first on any ball not caught by the catcher (Not in the MLB at least, the Atlantic League actually experimented with this in the second half of last season along with robot umpires and a few other adjustments). Why do they have to have already struck out in order for the live ball to apply to them?

Morally, a batter should not be rewarded for striking out, especially on the most common pitches that result in this rule coming into play. Typically a batter swings through a slider/curveball that falls out of the zone and bounces in front of the catcher, generally accepted as a well-thrown pitch, but if there’s two strikes and the catcher can’t handle it in time, the batter is rewarded as if they hit a single. Say the catcher is not at fault and it was truly just a wild pitch, then the batter shouldn’t have been swinging in the first place. It’s a flawed system, and somehow it’s un-American, I just haven’t decided how yet.

The Case Against Change:

My father, a baseball purist by all definitions, had this to say about the dropped third strike rule: “It’s obscurity is its allure. I have no idea why it was ever contemplated that it made sense, but it saved me more than a few at-bats. One of the few rules that is pro-batter and no room for interpretation…” which I’ll admit is a compelling counter-argument. Also, in today’s three outcomes style, the dropped third strike adds a level of uncertainty and variety to a game that badly needs it.

Recommended Change:

Even after pondering over what my dad had to say, and remembering how cool the fact is that a pitcher can theoretically throw four strikeouts in an inning, I am still firmly of the belief that dropped third strike needs changed. Rules should make sense, and dropped third strike absolutely does not within the other parameters of baseball. Logically and morally, there are just too many holes in the rule for it to continue. Putting on my commissioner glasses, I would recommend that a passed ball/wild pitch should never be live for a batter, essentially doing away with the rule entirely. A batter has two jobs, get on base and/or drive in runs, and they should have to accomplish something to do that. Getting a hit, drawing a walk, even getting hit by a pitch takes a level of strategy and sacrifice, dropped third strike is a participation trophy.

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