Odd, but not out: Baseball's most bizarre rule

January 4th, 2021

When Justin Verlander notched his 3,000th strikeout in September 2019, the crowd at Angel Stadium rightly recognized that such a milestone is something to be celebrated -- even when the man of the moment is wearing road gray. They saluted Verlander long enough to compel him to doff his cap in recognition of their recognition.

It was a magnanimous moment … mostly. Because even in the midst of Verlander adding to his strikeout total, Angels fans had something to celebrate.

The strikeout victim had reached first base.

Though Kole Calhoun had swung through Verlander’s 88-mph slider for strike three, the ball had dived into the dirt and bounced away from catcher Robinson Chirinos. And by virtue of perhaps the strangest rule in professional sports, Calhoun was able to sprint to first unaffected by the otherwise ineffectual nature of his at-bat. (Calhoun then scored when Verlander’s next pitch to Andrelton Simmons was swatted over the left-center-field wall … but Verlander and the Astros went on to win, anyway.)

Weeks later, when asked how it felt to become the first pitcher to join the 3K Club on a wild pitch that allowed the batter to board, Verlander laughed.

“If I can make a pitch that’s so bad that the catcher can’t catch it but you still swung at it,” he joked, “you probably shouldn’t get to go to first base.”

Ah, but you do, thanks to Rule 5.05(a)(2), which states that the batter becomes a runner when “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.”

The rule echoes that timeless tune we sing in the middle of the seventh at ballparks across the country. C’mon, you know the words. Go ahead and sing along …

“It’s one! Two! Three strikes you’re out … unless the ball is not caught and first base is unoccupied or is occupied with two out … at the old ballgame!”

The dropped third strike rule is one of those oddities you don’t think about until you think about it.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an unfair rule,” said veteran reliever Sergio Romo. “But it’s definitely a wacky rule.”

If advancing on a dropped third strike is wacky, imagine batters advancing on any dropped pitch. The independent Atlantic League temporarily experimented with that concept in 2019 as part of a series of revolutionary rule changes. Tony Thomas of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs became the first player in professional baseball history to “steal” first on a passed ball on an 0-1 pitch.

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“That,” Nationals catcher Yan Gomes said, “is a cheap way of getting to first.”

Dropped first strikes probably aren’t coming to a Major League ballpark near you. But the dropped third strike has managed to hang around since the game’s inception.

How did we get here, exactly? How did this eccentric, indiscriminate scrap of the sport’s rulebook come to be? And does our continued acceptance of this purposeless precedent qualify as an unhealthy marriage to tradition?

OK, there are certainly bigger issues in ball and in life. Especially these days.

But seriously, what’s up with the dropped third strike rule?

Let’s explore.

* * * * *

The story of this seemingly random rule begins not with Abner Doubleday or Henry Chadwick or Alexander Cartwright or any of the other stateside souls rightly, wrongly or debatably heralded as baseball pioneers.

No, according to an essay by Richard Hershberger of the Society for American Baseball Research, the rule traces back to Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, a German teacher and physical education advocate.

In 1796, GutsMuths published the snappily titled "Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden," which translates to “Games for the exercise and relaxation of the body and mind for the youth, their educators and all friends of innocent joys of youth.”

GutsMuths was known as the “grandfather of gymnastics,” but this book of children’s games expanded to other endeavors, including “Ball mit Freystäten -- oder das Englische Base-ball” (“Ball with freestates -- or English Base-ball”).

The game he describes might sound familiar. Two teams alternate between batting and fielding, with the game divided into innings. A member of the fielding team delivers the ball to a batter, who attempts to hit it. Upon contact, the batter attempts to run around and complete a circuit of bases while the fielders attempt to get him out.

Here's the crucial difference between ball mit freystäten and the game we know and love: There were no walks or strikeouts.

The pitcher, as it were, stood five or six steps from the batter and delivered high, arching tosses intended to induce contact. As such, there was no need to have a defensive player -- a catcher -- positioned behind the batter. But in order to prevent the game from being brought to a screeching halt by an unskilled hitter, the batter was allotted a maximum of three swings to try to hit the ball. And on the third swing, the ball was considered in play, whether the batter made contact or not.

“In the 1790s,” said John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, “they had the right idea that strikeouts are boring.”

With the ball in play even after a third swing and miss, the pitcher could retrieve it and throw it at the batter-turned-runner to try to get the out. Because of the close proximity of the pitcher to the ball, most times, that third swing and miss did indeed result in an out. But every so often, the batter was able to evade the out and overcome his own inability to make contact by reaching base.

Sound familiar?

Fast forward half a century, and the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club put its rules to writing in 1845. By now, the pitcher was delivering actual throws, not lobs, and there was a catcher positioned to receive the throws.

But the spirit of the GutsMuths rule was still intact. A third strike was in play, essentially a fair ball. If the receiver caught it on the fly or on one bounce, the batter was out. If the receiver did not catch it (a stronger possibility than now, given that the catcher had no mitt or protective equipment), the batter could attempt to run to first base safely.

Things got a little confusing in the 1860s. New rules confined outs on fair balls to catches on the fly, not on one bounce. But foul balls could still be caught on one bounce for an out. Though considered a “fair” ball, third strikes were lumped in with foul balls, in that catchers could still catch the ball on one bounce for an out. Yet third strikes were still similar to fair balls in that the runner could advance if the ball went uncaught.

The rules, in other words, made no logical sense. The third strike was this weird hybrid of fair and foul, taking on certain aspects of each. The Knickerbockers clung to the GutsMuths principle even as so much about the sport was changing.

Ultimately, when further alterations were made in 1879 to eliminate outs on one-bounce catches of foul balls, the one-bounce catches of third strikes for outs were eliminated, as well. This removed the aforementioned logical discrepancy, but it did not remove the dropped third strike rule itself. Batters were still allowed to advance if the third strike went uncaught.

For a time, there was occasional incentive for the catcher to drop the third strike on purpose. With a runner on first, a skilled catcher could muff the catch of a third strike and throw the ball to second to initiate a double play. And as equipment improved, this play became easier to execute. So in 1887, the rule had to be amended to essentially its present form, with a runner on first base and less than two outs removing the dropped third strike rule. (For a similar reason, the infield fly rule was enacted eight years later.)

No longer could wily catchers try to get free outs. But batters could still occasionally get free trips to first.

All these years later, the dropped third strike rule still has not been dropped. It remains a de facto defibrillator capable of resuscitating strikeout victims.

“It is, perhaps, the oldest surviving rule, and it’s an odd rule,” Thorn said. “Except that the game that we love is not called bat ball or pitch ball; it’s called baseball. That’s because it was a game designed to feature running around the bases -- running in a daring way so as not to be put out between them.”

When viewed in that context -- as a vestigial connection to the sport’s earliest roots -- the dropped third strike rule is a charming anachronism, akin to a confused time traveler reporting to the ballfield in a collared jersey made of weighty wool.

A Major Leaguer on the mound -- or behind the dish -- isn’t thinking in those terms. To them, the dropped third strike is a bit of a gut punch.

“You’re excited,” Romo said. “You make a pitch, you get the strike. And then it’s … ‘Ugh!’”

They’ve been dealing with it since they were kids, so the idea that a batter can reach first even when striking out is fully ingrained. Nobody is seriously questioning whether the rule ought to exist. It is great-great-great-grandfathered into the rulebook at this point.

Some pitchers even view it as an opportunity.

“It gives you the chance to punch out four in an inning,” Braves reliever Will Smith said with a smile.

Indeed, 88 pitchers -- from Ed Crane of the New York Giants in 1888 to Luke Bard of the Los Angeles Angels in April 2019 -- have turned that trick. The oft-overlooked Orval Overall even did it in a World Series game, in 1908.

So overall (and Overall), the dropped third strike rule has given us some great trivia … even if some of those involved don’t even realize it.

Utility man Gerardo Parra, for instance, had no idea that, until he signed with a Japanese team last offseason, he was the active Major Leaguer who had reached safely on the dropped third strike more than any other (10 times), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“That’s a good note for me!” he said when informed. “I like that!”

Perhaps that’s the way we should all appraise the strangest rule in sports.

Consider: The leaguewide strikeout rate has risen unabated for more than a decade now, and, in a related development, 10 of the 50 lowest leaguewide on-base percentages of the modern era have been logged since 2010. Anything that contributes to more people getting on base (though it doesn’t actually improve their on-base percentages, which is a whole other weird topic for another time) ought to be applauded … even if the occasion, as Verlander can tell you, is occasionally awkward.

This blip in the rulebook, this curious canon, this precious little postcard from baseball’s past has long since outlived the logic behind its creation. But one must admire its persistence and its potential to breathe life into obsolete at-bats.

“It’s lurking there,” Thorn said. “It is fascinating not so much for the merit of the rule but for its survival.”

No GutsMuths, no glory.