Favorite Baseball Rule Myths, Part 2

Let’s pick up where we left off last month with another handful baseball rules that are frequently misunderstood, not only by fans and players, but sometimes by coaches and even umpires at times.


1. Batter is out if his foot touches home plate

Let’s broaden this one just a bit because what we’re talking about is an “illegally batted ball” — Rule 6.03(a)(1).

First off, let's point out that this is one of the few cases where the OBR rule for an illegally batted ball differs significantly from the high school rule (NFHS Rule 7-3-2). In high school play the batter is indeed out if the player swings and hits the ball (either fair or foul) while the foot is touching home plate. The ball is dead and the batter is out.

Not so in OBR. OBR Rule 6.03(a)(1) simply specifies that the batter is out for an illegally batted ball if his bat strikes the ball “with one or both feet on the ground entirely outside the batter’s box.” Remember, though, that the lines marking the batter’s box (if visible) are part of the batter’s box, so the player’s foot (or feet) would need to be entirely outside the lines.

Of course, on a dirt field these chalk lines are normally unrecognizable fairly early in the game, so enforcing the rule on a dirt field is pretty much impossible, that is, unless a player’s foot is entirely on or beyond home plate. While that sounds oddly impossible, in fact it's not. You might see this in that quirky play where a player is being intentionally walked but the batter tries hitting the ball anyway by stepping and reaching across home plate for a swing at the pitch. That’s a rookie move but you might see it at younger levels. If the bat touches the ball and the player's foot is clearly out of the box (on the plate or beyond it), dead ball, batter out.

To bring the rule full circle, note that the other way in which a player may be called out for an illegally batted ball is if the player enters the batter’s box with an illegal bat, or with a bat that’s been “altered or tampered with ….” [Rule 6.03(a)(5)]. Rule 6.03(a)(5) Comment clarifies that a player has violated the rule and shall be called out when the batter simply enters the batter’s box with said bat.


2. A base runner cannot be called out for interference while in contact with a base

We’re talking here about a base runner who is struck by a fair batted ball while in contact with a base. This one gets lots of arguments so it’s important to be clear on the rule. You need both 5.06(c)(6) and 5.09(b)(7) to parse this one.

In short, a base runner must avoid being touched by a fair batted ball, even if touching a base. That said, there are exceptions and qualifications which apply in all base-runner interference scenarios (see Runner Touched by Live Ball for the details). Importantly, though, there is only one exception that applies specifically to the case of a base runner touched by a live batted ball while in contact with a base: if the umpires have signaled an infield fly. In that one case the runner is protected and need not move to avoid being struck by the ball.

In summary: a base runner must avoid being touched by a live batted ball at peril of being called out for interference, even if the runner is in contact with a base. If the runner needs to step off the base to avoid being hit, that that’s what the runner must do. However, in cases where the umpires call the infield fly rule, the runner is allowed to remain on the base and is not called out for interference if the ball happens to hit him.


3. Overrunning first base on a hit, the runner must veer to the right


I’ll discuss that in a moment but first let’s fold in another popular myth concerning overrunning first base, that is, the mistaken belief that a batter who is awarded first base on balls can be put out if he (or she) overruns first base. I don’t understand why a batter-runner would overrun first base on a walk, but that’s beside the point.

Let’s start with the second item first. Rule 5.09(b)(4) Exception states that “a batter-runner cannot be tagged out after overrunning or oversliding first base if he returns immediately to the base.” Nowhere in the rulebook is there a stipulation that this rule does not apply in the case of a base on balls. So long as the batter-runner returns immediately to the base, there is no out on the tag if he (for whatever stupid reason) overruns the base. End of story.

Overrunning on a walk is a bit of a fringe case, but not so with the mistaken belief that a batter-runner (on batted ball in play) must veer to the right when overrunning first base. That said, he must immediately return to the base.

Rule 5.09(b)(11) is very clear that “if he fails to return at once to first base after overrunning or oversliding,” he is liable to be put out on the tag. Furthermore (and this is important), “if he attempts to run to second” after overrunning, he is out when tagged. This has been interpreted to mean that any motion (even a slight feint) in the direction of second base upon overrunning first immediately nullifies the batter-runner’s protection and he is liable to be put out if tagged. So keep your eye on the runner as he overruns the base and ensure that he returns immediately to the base and that there is no motion whatsoever indicating a move toward second.

There’s another edge case here, and that’s the scenario in which the batter-runner, believing incorrectly that he’s been put out, upon overrunning the base he heads for the dugout or for his position in the field. The instant the runner moves toward the dugout or toward a position in the field (or anywhere, for that matter, except directly back to first base) then “he is out, on appeal, when he or the base is tagged.” Again, don't let yourself go slack on routine plays at first.


4. A switch hitter may not change from one batter’s box to the other during an at-bat

Not so. A switch hitter is allowed to switch batter’s boxes at any time he wishes, except when “the pitcher is in position and ready to pitch.” This interpretation is extrapolated from Rule 6.03(a)(2), which specifies that it’s an “illegal action” on the part of the batter if he does switch batter’s boxes while the pitcher is set and ready to pitch. The interpretation simply reverses the logic of the rule.

An interesting parallel is the case of the switch pitcher, an issue that emerged in the Major Leagues (and caused an OBR rule change) with pitcher Pat Venditte, who pitched from 2015 through 2020 and commonly pitched with both left and right arms. He’s a rarity but not the only one.

The matter of switch pitchers (technically “ambidextrous pitchers”) is covered in Rule 5.07(f). The rule requires that the pitcher not only “indicate visually” to the plate umpire, as well as to the batter and runners, which hand he intends to use on a given at-bat, and also requires that the pitcher may not switch arms in the course of the at-bat.

There’s an edge case here that covers the scenario in which an ambidextrous pitcher sustains an injury to his pitching arm in the course of an at-bat. In that case he is allowed to switch to the other arm; however, he is not then allowed to switch back to the other arm for the remainder of the game. He's also not allowed to take any warmup pitches in this situation. I don't think we'll be seeing this one play out any time soon.