So apparently there is a certain, extremely rare situation in which it becomes necessary for a baseball team to make four outs in an inning rather than three.

In well over 20 years of watching baseball, I had never seen this rule in action, or even heard of it, until today’s game between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks.

The rule comes up in a certain case in order to satisfy two other rules. First of all, as we know, when a ball is caught on the fly, runners cannot leave their bases until the ball is caught, after which they may attempt to advance at their own risk in what is known as tagging up. If a runner leaves his base too early, he may be put out by the defending team throwing to the base he left too soon. And second, if a runner crosses home plate before the third out of an inning is recorded, his run counts, unless the out was a force out.

Where these two rules may come into conflict and thus necessitate a fourth out is in the very specific situation in which a runner is on third base, another runner is on either first or second, there is exactly one out, and the batter hits a line drive which looks like it is going to be a hit but is instead caught on the fly by a fielder.

In this case, it may so happen that the runners, believing the ball will be a clean hit, start to advance before the ball is caught, and that the runner on third crosses home plate before the fielder throws back to the base where the other runner started from.

In this case, most baseball fans, and even most baseball players, would assume that the inning is over and that the run did not score, because three outs were recorded, and the runner on third base left illegally before the ball was caught. However, they would be wrong.

This is where the two other rules mentioned above come in. While it is true that the runner on third left his base illegally, he is not considered out until the defending team throws back to third base. Meanwhile, because he crossed the plate before the third out, his run is considered to have scored.

Therefore, the defending team is required to throw to third base and make a “fourth” out in order to prevent that run from counting, in what is known as the “fourth-out rule” (in actual scoring practice, the runner on third takes precedence and is considered to be the third and final out, where as the earlier throw to the other runner’s base is not considered an out, so in the end only three outs were recorded).

You can look it up – it’s part of Major League Baseball rule 7.10.

So anyway, in yesterday’s game, it was the top of the second inning with the visiting Dodgers at bat and one out, with Andre Ethier at third and Juan Pierre at second when Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf hit a lined smash up the middle which was snagged in a very nice play by Diamondbacks pitcher Dan Haren, who then whirled and threw to second baseman Felipe Lopez who tagged Pierre as he attempted to scramble back to second in what was apparently an inning-ending double play.

However, Ethier had broken on contact and had crossed home plate before Pierre had been tagged out. Even though Ethier had advanced illegally before the ball was caught, the Diamondbacks players, thinking the inning was over, walked off the field without ever throwing back to third base to record the “fourth” out, and thus when Joe Torre came out to argue, the umpires correctly awarded Ethier’s run to the Dodgers.

While Torre himself had never heard of the rule, and even the umpires at first seemed uncertain about the call, it turned out that Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer alerted Torre because he had seen a similar play decades before while coaching in the minor leagues back in 1983.

14 Responses to “Crazy weird “fourth out” rule rears its head in Dodgers victory”

  1. Amazing. I recall something like this happened last year. I thought there were exceptions to the obvious way of looking at it. Thanks for clearing this up.

    In my scenario, runners on second and first, one out. The runner on second tags on a deep fly ball to center and is able to score because the centerfielder throws the ball back to first because the runner had broken on contact.

    The runner from second scores before the throw gets to first base to nail the runner was on first and who does not get back in time for the third out.

    Does the run count?

  2. I feel somehow that one of the Steinbrenners had a hand in creating this rule.

  3. Interesting take on an interesting and historically mystifying play, Nick. I’m curious about your reasons for saying “Torre… had never heard of the rule,” and what it was about the way the umpires handled or mishandled the situation that leads you to say they “at first seemed uncertain about the call.”

    What I’m most interested in finding out is why Torre had to come out to ASK that the run be counted. On a play such as the one described here, it would be the plate umpire’s responsibility to line up the runner coming in to score with the out being made at second base in order to determine if the runner scored before or after the out. Having made the determination that the run did indeed score before the out was made, he should then turn immediately towards the backstop so the official scorer can see what he’s doing, point at the plate, hold up a finger to signal “one run,” and SHOUT, loudly and with gusto, “THAT RUN SCORES! SCORE THE RUN!!!” This is what professional umpires from rookie ball to the major leagues are taught to do reflexively on “time plays,” which the play you describe definitely is. It then becomes the responsibility of the DEFENSE, not the umpires, to recognize their dilemma due to the fact that the opposing team’s run has scored on a play in which the third out is not the result of a force play (a runner compelled by rule to retouch a base does NOT constitute a force play, contrary to what many fans and, apparently, ballplayers believe.) The defense may then then appeal the “fourth out” so the run will be disallowed, in which case the plate umpire will signal the official scorer a second time by waving and crossing his hands over his head a couple of times and shouting, “The runner is out on appeal and the run DOES NOT SCORE! NO RUN SCORES!”

    So my question is: did Charlie Reliford, the plate umpire in this game and a former instructor at the Harry Wendelstedt Umpiring School, signal initially that the run had scored? Because he should have; this would have alerted the defense to the fact that they needed to appeal for a fourth out so the run would be negated. If he didn’t, he should have, and if he didn’t, his gaffe is just one of several committed by umpires past and present on this exact play. The thing that confuses most people, and sometimes even the umpires, is that a force play occurs when a runner is forced to ADVANCE, not GO BACK. Colloquially, a play where a runner returns to a base he has left before a fly ball is caught is indeed referred to as a “force out” or a “force,” but a true force play, by definition, occurs only when a runner is forced to ADVANCE because he legally loses his right to occupy a base by reason of the batter becoming a runner. When a run is scoring (or not) as a tag play that may become the third out of a half-inning is being made on a baserunner, the plate umpire will line up the runner crossing the plate with the out being made on the baserunner so he can see which happens first. If Reliford didn’t do this, and didn’t signal immediately afterwards that the run should be counted regardless of whether the runner had tagged up or not, he and his goof are in good company.

    Ed Montague, one of the senior major league umpires, did the same thing last year, only he allowed a run to be put up on the scoreboard for the team that was on defense! He was alerted to the fact that a run should have scored on a play that ended the previous half-inning when the team that scored the run was already back in the field. A similar play is recounted in Charles Einstein’s wonderful memoir, “Willie’s Time,” when umpire Satch Davidson also had the scoreboard record a run for the team on defense at the time because of a similar omission on his part when the run actually scored.

    So historically, this is a confusing play. It’s too bad the Diamondbacks – and by all indications, most ballplayers, managers, and coaches – devote so little time and energy to studying the rules and learning how to take advantage of them. If just one Arizona infielder had remained on the field after that third out, the Dbacks could have had as long as they needed -until the last infielder, including the pitcher, crossed the foul line – to figure it out and appeal properly that the runner left too soon so his run would not count. Instead, they will now probably blame it on the umpire, who does bear some culpability for the confusion, and will deny their own role in the scenario that gained the opposing team a run that should not have scored. Charlie Reliford was my classmate and later on, my instructor at the Wendelstedt school, and he is a fine umpire with an excellent track record for accuracy and honesty. The fact that he and his crewmates (two of whom, Larry Vanover and Sam Holbrook, have also been Wendelstedt instructors) left their assigned tasks for this specific play undone puts them in some pretty illustrious officiating company.

    It sounds as if the Diamondbacks allowed a run to score that they could easily have appealed for a fourth out and gotten nullified if only they had known the rule. (Or remembered a play from 1983, as the Dodgers’ Bob Schaefer did.) Baseball is a beautiful game, and its mysteries are myriad and often impenetrable. But knowing the rules is one of the keys to divining the secrets of baseball and being able to play (or umpire) it with total focus and delight no matter how the score turns out.

  4. My bad, Nick – when I saw the dateline on your post, Sunday, and you referred to the game in question as having been played “yesterday,” I was looking at the umpire line in the box score for the game on Saturday for which Charlie Reliford served as plate umpire. The play you discuss occurred in Sunday’s game when Larry Vanover was the plate umpire, not Charlie Reliford. Reliford was on third for this game, so he would have been the umpire responsible for determining that Ethier had not tagged up on the line drive, and if Arizona had appealed for the fourth out, he would have been the one to call Ethier out and alert the official scorer that his run was subsequently nullified.

  5. That’s pretty wild. I had never heard that rule myself, much less seen it enforced. I’m going to have to see if there was video on it in order to see it for myself.

  6. And now I’ve actually seen the replay of the play, and Larry Vanover was not properly positioned to gauge the chronology of what happened. I also see no indication that he initially signaled that the run should score on the time play, as he should have. As Ethier crosses the plate, Vanover is standing on the third base side of the edge of the dirt circle surrounding the plate area; to correctly judge the sequence of events and line up the out with the run coming in to score, he should have been positioned towards the first base side of the circle, as the tag was applied to the runner about fifteen feet beyond the second base bag towards third. What should be even more illuminating to the Diamondbacks is that they had TWO chances to nullify Ethier’s run, and took neither. Their first opportunity was when the Arizona second baseman who caught the line drive, Felipe Lopez, chose to run PAST the second base bag and tag the runner for the third out of the half-inning instead of simply stepping on the bag, which would technically have been an appeal that the runner left too soon without tagging up and would have ended the half-inning right then, before Ethier “scored.” If Lopez had stepped on the bag, Ethier’s run would not have counted no matter how glibly Joe Torre protested, because he hadn’t crossed the plate by the time the fielder passed in front of the bag. The second chance came, as I explained earlier, when the Dbacks did not appeal for a fourth out. As soon as the last infielder crossed the foul line, the half-inning was over and no appeal could be allowed. But the restoration of the run, which for purposes of the rule had technically, if not legally, scored, could and did take place when Torre came out and argued that it should. Such are the vagaries of baseball, and the marvelous irony of this play is that the team that should have appealed didn’t, thus handing their opponents a run, and the team that shouldn’t have had to appeal did anyway, thereby gaining a run that wouldn’t have been counted if the other team had known the rule. There’s something profound and almost perfectly circular about that, just like a baseball. I shall say no more!

  7. Nick Kapur says:

    Hey Perry, thanks so much for the further elaboration from an umpire’s perspective! Very interesting and enlightening. Sorry about the date mix up. You see, I live in Japan, so even though it was still Sunday on the East Coast, it was already Monday in Japan. I’ll fix that line to avoid further confusion…

  8. Sarah Green says:

    This sort of stuff is why I enjoy watching when the umpires *don’t* make a call. Sometimes, you’ll see a guy run to home plate, and the ump won’t do anything. Won’t call him safe, won’t call him out. A smart catcher knows what this means – the runner must not have tagged the plate – and can then tag the doofus-y baserunner out at his leisure. Dave Pinto has a proposed rule change up on BaseballMusings to “fix” the fourth-out problem, but I suppose I enjoy these strange moments because it gives the veterans a leg-up on the younger guys. The young guys have everything going for them – health, speed, arrogance, upside. But the ol’ greybeards with the gimpy hips can still show ’em up from time to time, just by knowing the ins and outs of the game a little better.

  9. tagging up should be a force play. that would fix this ludicrous rule.

  10. Nick Kapur says:

    Russ, I actually don’t know what you mean when you say tagging up should be a force play. How could you force a runner to run on a fly ball? And even if you would some how make it a force play, are you saying the catcher would then not have to tag the runner, but just step on home plate? Would the runner then not be allowed to run back to third? It all makes no sense.

    I actually have no problem with this rule. It makes sense. It’s not actually a fourth out, and in a sense it’s not even actually a new rule. It’s just saying that if a guy leaves early, you actually have to put him out before you leave the field if you don’t want any run he scores to count.

    In baseball, the onus is always on the fielders to make outs, and the Diamondbacks never put Ethier out.

    And just because most inning ending double plays end on force outs doesn’t mean they all do. Every player knows under normal situations that tagging up is not a force – you don’t see catchers forgetting they have to tag runners normally. There’s not really any excuse for not knowing basic baseball rules just because certain situations don’t come up that often.

  11. Nick, you live in Japan! I umpired a couple of games, Daiei Hawks @ Orix Braves (now the Blue Wave, or is it Buffaloes?) at Nishinomiya, and Orix @ Hanshin Tigers at Kobe Green Stadium many moons ago (1989,) and have very fond memories of my time over there. How is the young lady currently pitching for an independent league team doing?

    Cooler Head, in your play, if the runner from first who left “on contact” (I’m assuming you mean when the ball made contact with the bat) did not pass the runner on second who was waiting to tag up – in which case he would be called out as soon as he passed the runner in front of him – and was thrown out or tagged out going back to first after the runner from second, who had legally tagged up, crossed the plate, THE RUN SCORES. In this play, the third out is NOT a force play, therefore a run may score if it crosses the plate before the third out is made. This is a “time play.” In your scenario, the plate umpire would signal the pressbox that the run scores by doing what I described earlier. Wow, I’d love to see a runner from second tag up and score before a runner on first who didn’t tag up gets thrown out retreating to the bag. That would be an exciting play! More often, it occurs when a runner on first leaves early and a runner on THIRD tags up and crosses the plate as the runner from first is being tagged for the third out, or the bag to which he is retreating is touched by a fielder with the ball securely in his hand or glove (neither of which are force plays; these are both technically “appeal” plays, the kind where the continuous action speaks for itself rather than the fielders having to actually state that they are appealing that a particular runner left too soon.)

    Baseball is intricate, yet simple; that’s one of its beautiful mysteries. The rules are baseball’s “Rosetta Stone”; deciphering and understanding them can lead not only to the occasional run, but to a deeper appreciation of the game itself as well as of the role umpires play out there.

  12. Vincent Kapur says:

    Nick, you identified the applicable portion of rule 7.10, but equally important in this case is rule 7.12, which states: “If such third out is the result of a force play, neither preceding nor following runners shall score.”

    If the D-backs had put out Juan Pierre at 2nd base (which is a force play) than the “preceding” run by Ethier would have been negated. Rule 7.12 explicitly allows Ethier’s run because Pierre was TAGGED out between bases due to the common assumption that there was no difference.

  13. Vincent, you’re correct that there are several rules directly applicable to the situation under discussion. But when you say “If the D-backs had put out Juan Pierre at 2nd base (which is a force play) than (sic) the “preceding” run by Ethier would have been negated,” you are making a common mistake which I have tried to clarify in my previous comments. Putting out Pierre by stepping on the second base bag rather than tagging him would NOT have been a FORCE PLAY!!! it is an technically an APPEAL play, and Pierre’s out would have negated Ethier’s run ONLY because the act of stepping on the bag (implying an appeal that Pierre did not tag up before he left the base) would have happened before Ethier crossed the plate. This is a TIME PLAY, not a force play. A force play, by definition, can happen only when a runner is forced to ADVANCE because he legally loses his right to the base by reason of the batter becoming a runner. When you have a catch of a fly ball or line drive, the batter is out, therefore there can be no force play subsequent to the catch because the runners are not forced to advance. They are, however, required to tag up if the ball is caught, and if they don’t they must go back or risk being put out by being tagged or having the base they left too soon tagged by a fielder who has secure possession of the ball. These types of plays, as I said, are colloquially referred to as “force plays” or “a force” in the sense that runners are forced to GO BACK, but they are technically NOT FORCE PLAYS.

    No run may score when the third out is the result of a force play; that is one of the immutable rules of baseball. (4.09.) But a run certainly may score when the third out is the result of a runner being forced to retouch a base, because this is not a “force play”: it’s an appeal. An implied appeal, not the kind where the fielder actually steps on the base or tags the runner and says “I’m appealing that the runner left too soon.” If the runner attempting to score has crossed the plate before the runner or the base is tagged, his run counts. If he crosses it after the runner or the base is tagged, it doesn’t. There is no “force play” involved in this scenario!

    I’m trying to make this as simple as possible, because I know from having attended umpire school six times how confusing the concept can be to people who are wedded to the idea that a runner going back to retouch after a catch is a “force play.” That is announcer’s jargon, nothing more, and has little to do with the actual application of the rules to the situation Nick describes. If Lopez had stepped on the bag instead of taking five or six additional steps to reach Pierre, Ethier’s run would not have counted, not because the act of “stepping on the bag” would have been a force play – it would NOT! – but because it would have happened before Ethier crossed the plate, negating his run. That is clear from watching the sequence of events on the replay. Those extra steps are what cost the Diamondbacks a run. It’s a time play, not a force play.

  14. Jeffrey Resnick says:

    Perry I’ve been talking until I’m blue in the face about what a force play is. Thanks. You did a great job. I would also like to say to Nick that a runner can leave the base as soon as a fielder touches the ball, not catches the ball.

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