The American National Pastime. The Summer Game. The Game of Nerds. Béisbol in Spanish. Yakyu (lit. "field ball") in Japanese. Whatever its nickname, baseball is a sport that is — regardless of what the International Olympic Committee might think — played throughout the world, although it only has a large professional and spectator presence in North America (the United States and Canada), the northern portion of Latin America (Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador), East Asia (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan), and to a lesser extent Australia and New Zealand.
The Origin of Baseball is something of a Multiple-Choice Past. The "traditional" story (first proposed by fourth National League president Abraham G. Mills and popularized by NL co-founder and sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding around the turn of the 20th century) is that it was created in 1839 by a young Abner Doubleday in his hometown of Cooperstown, New York. Since Doubleday grew up to be a Union Army general during the Civil War, this account of events played well with the Patriotic Fervor of the day, and would be accepted by the public at large for years to come. Unfortunately, it was also based on Blatant Lies told by an old man, and doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. At all.note Meanwhile, the respected sports journalist Henry Chadwick offered his counter narrative, which was that baseball had evolved from earlier English bat-and-ball games such as cricket (which had enjoyed a following among the colonial American gentry; George Washington was an avid cricketer) and rounders. In fact, Chadwick, himself an English immigrant,note had been working as cricket reporter for The New York Times when he'd stumbled upon an early baseball game being played by two amateur NYC teams at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1850s, at which point he fell in love with the sport.
Americans had been playing bat-and-ball games with the name "base ball" or suchlike since at least the 1790s: a document from 1791 was found in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which mentions "base ball" (specifically in the context of its being banned anywhere within the vicinity of the town hall and its expensive glass windows). That being said, this version of the sport probably didn't resemble modern baseball except in the vaguest way (i.e.: a bat, a ball, fielders, outs), and varied wildly across place and time. These variations were critical to the development of what we know today as baseball, but contrary to legend, the general consensus is that the modern game wasn't born in any one place or at any singular moment, but probably developed slowly over time until it finally started resembling the modern game some time around the middle of the 19th century. We can reasonably say that the modern game took shape beginning in the 1840s, with the earliest known written rules that resemble something akin to modern baseball being traced to a New Yorker named Alexander Cartwright, who drew up the rules for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club – an organization of young professionals that played one of these early forms of the sport – in 1845.
Cartwright's "Knickerbocker rules" pulled together some existing rules for bat-and-ball games (games which went by a number of names, of which "town ball" and "base ball" were the most common) into a coherent whole, including the ideas of strikes and strikeouts, fixed batting orders, allowing three outs per inning, and getting an out by catching a fair ball. Cartwright also added a few new wrinkles – most significantly, he cooked up a new rule that fielders could not throw the ball at baserunners to get them out, replacing that traditional (and dangerous) way of getting outs with the newly-invented method of tagging the runner. Cartwright's innovations proved popular, and within a few short years most of the New York-area teams were playing under some version of the Knickerbocker rules – which Cartwright continued to tinker with and update as people saw how different rules played out. Of course, the game was no less of a free-for-all for that, and as New York clubs kept playing under increasingly-modified versions of the Knickerbocker rules in the 1850s, new rules – many of which subsequently made their way into the modern game – continued to emerge. These included the standardization of the distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate and the distances between the bases, as well as the adoption of the nine-inning structure (1857), nearly-modern rules about counting foul balls as strikes (1858), and the strike zone (1858).
You will notice that these nearly-modern rules coalesced in the 1850s. You might also recall that The American Civil War began in 1861. You might think these two had something to do with each other. If so, you would be right. As the most populous city in the country, New York provided a large number of soldiers to the Union Army, and New Yorkers had the opportunity to spread their version of baseball across the Army during the long stretches of encamped boredom the troops experienced. They even exported the game to the South, as many New York units were assigned to guard Confederate prison camps – and, war or no war, they taught their prisoners their favorite game. Thus, over the course of the war, the New York baseball of the previous decade gradually became America's baseball.
While all of this was going on, we had the development of a professional game creating the impetus for a single, steady set of rules. In 1857, the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first thing approaching organized baseball, was founded by 16 clubs in the New York area, later attracting some more clubs from farther away. As mentioned above, it began to standardize the rules of the game into something that began to resemble modern baseball, and these rules began to spread over the next decade. Initially an all-amateur organization, the NABBP began accepting some professional clubs in 1869, and – after that led to a host of problems concerning how to count games between amateur and professional teams and how to handle players hopping around between teams and clubs popping in and out of existence mid-season – the first fully professional baseball league (and, for that matter, the first professional league of any sport), the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, was created in 1871. It has often been a subject of debate as to whether the National Association should also count as the first true "major" league, or whether that distinction belongs to the current National League, which was founded in 1876 after the National Association collapsed.
(If more of the history of the sport is what you're interested in, Ken Burns' Baseball is an excellent and engrossing way to get at it.)
Like all bat-and-ball sports, baseball is, at its core, a pretty simple game. Two teams of nine players each take turns either batting or fielding. One member of the fielding team (in baseball, the pitcher) throws the ball at members of the batting team. The batting team tries to hit the ball with a smooth wooden (or metal) club called a bat to score runs. The fielding team tries to get a certain number of the batting team "out" so they can take their turn to bat. Outs are most commonly accumulated in one of two ways: the pitcher either throws the ball into a "strike zone" and the batter not hitting it, or the other fielders can get outs by catching the ball and some other things. The devil, of course, is in the details.
At the absolutely most basic level (say, to play between friends) you need only two things to play baseball – a ball, and a bat. No, really:
- The ball: An official baseball has a golf ball-sized center made of either cork or rubber, wrapped with yarn, and encased in white leather. These are used in most situations, but in private games for fun, it isn't unheard-of to see tennis balls or plastic balls of a similar size make an appearance.
- The bat: The official regulations of Major League Baseball really do define the bat as a stick. "The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood." The wood is generally ash or maple (hickory, along with ash, is considered traditional, like willow is for cricket bats, but it is rarely used anymore; maple was first allowed in the Majors in the 1980s). You could, in theory, show up with a wooden dowel from the hardware store and legally bat in an MLB game. You probably wouldn't get anywhere with it, but you could do it.
- Note: Amateur baseball generally allows metal bats, generally made from aluminum, and composite bats, typically made of plastic reinforced with carbon fibers but occasionally made of bamboo. These supposedly allow for faster, farther hits. These bats are also tightly regulated—you see, a certain structure and composition of bat makes the ball fly so fast the pitcher can't avoid injury from the flying ball. College baseball also favors metal bats, because they don't break as often as wooden bats, meaning the athletic department doesn't have to spend as much on replacement bats every season.
In organized games, you will also need:
- Gloves: Typically leather, with different types for different fielding positions. There are six basic types, five (pitcher's, catcher's, first baseman's, infielder's, and outfielder's) being based on position. The sixth is for switch-throwers (i.e. ambidextrous ones); it has two thumb sockets. It should be noted that the gloves for catchers and first basemen are traditionally called "mitts".
- Helmets: For batters, so they don't get concussions when accidentally (or intentionally) get beaned by the pitcher.
- Shoes with cleats: In professional baseball, the cleats are metalnote . Certain players gained a bad reputation for deliberately using their cleats as weapons against the opposing team.note
- Uniforms: Home uniforms have been traditionally white, with away uniforms most often gray, although other dark colors are common. At the highest levels of play, the home uniforms bear the team nickname or logo, while the away uniforms typically bear the name of the place from which they hail (e.g.: the Boston Red Sox have "RED SOX" in red on white on home uniforms but "BOSTON" in red on gray for the away ones; the New York Yankees' home uniforms have the "NY" insignia in navy upon a white, pinstriped uniform, but "NEW YORK" in navy on all-gray for the away ones). Most teams will often feature a colored alternate "softball" jersey for home openers and other special occasions.
- Tops are button-up, short-sleeved, have a few distinctive collar styles (most commonly forms resembling 19th-century shirts without their collars—remember, up until the mid-to-late 20th century, most men's shirts had detachable collars—but also including collared shirts at times, particularly in throwback uniforms),note .
- Bottoms were traditionally knee-breeches worn with stockings in team colorsnote with some players opting for team-colored stirrups over white socks. Long pants started being worn regularly in the 1990s, some with tapered legs others with flared legs. Modern players can pick whichever style they prefer. Also, unusually for modern sports, bottoms are secured with belts.
- For a time in the 1970s and 1980s, teams switched to wearing pullovers and pants without belts (plus striped socks that mimicked the look of stirrups), but all switched back to belts and button-ups by the turn of the century (some adopted baggier pullovers that looked almost identical to button-ups for a time).
- Baseball is unusual among sports in that managers and coaches suit up and are given numbered uniforms, just like their players. This harks back to when team captains were responsible for what happened on the field, so modern managers and coaches wear uniforms to reflect the origins of their positions.note Aside
- During baseball's early days, uniforms were made of wool or some blend that heavily featured wool. This practice eventually faded away with the innovation of new fabric types and synthetics, surely much to the pleasure of players standing on a baseball field in Atlanta in the middle of the day in late July.
- The addition of player names to uniforms in MLB didn't happen until the Chicago White Sox did it in 1960, and the practice wasn't widely adopted until the early 1980s. As of the 2023 season the Boston Red Sox still don't have player names on their home uniforms and the New York Yankees don't have them at all. The addition of player numbers wasn't universally adopted until 1937 note .
- Caps: Baseball uniforms also give us the baseball cap, worn while fielding. This particular item is, long story short, derived from the floppy kepi hats worn by soldiers in the The American Civil War; the first documented use of soft caps with a forward brim in baseball dates to 1865—right after the Civil War ended.
A baseball field is approximately a quarter of a circle or an oval. Much like cricket fields, the precise overall size is not officially defined, so different fields play to the strengths of different teams/players. The playable area is demarcated on the straight sides by "foul lines" painted in white on the grass. The curved edge of the field is generally marked by a fence or wall; this may meander somewhat to fit space constraints, particularly at higher levels of play.
Because a quarter of a circle or oval is roughly diamond-shaped, fields are often called diamonds. This is reinforced by the division of the field into an "infield" and and "outfield". The infield consists of a grassy square 90 feet on a side plus the dirt/clay (with a few exceptions) running tracks between the vertices of the square, plus a dirt/clay (with a few exceptions) arc-shaped area occupying a curved space between the square and the outfield. (The exceptions come in fields that are shared with sports that call for all-grass fields, e.g. football: in some such shared fields, the running tracks and arc will be grassy as well, and if there is dirt it is in pits around the bases to allow players to slide safely. These were most common in the Major Leagues between the late 1960s and the 1990s, when many teams shared space with NFL teams; the last field with this layout was at Rogers Centre, where the Toronto Blue Jays shared the field with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, but this was changed after the Argos left for BMO Field in 2016; while still artificial turf for now, the base paths are all dirt, like at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field).note The outfield is everything not in the infield, and is entirely grassy unless the field is enclosed by a wall (as with virtually all professional parks), in which case it is almost always entirely grassy except for a fifteen-foot-wide dirt "warning track" around the edges (the idea being that the difference between stepping on grass and stepping on dirt gives outfielders running backwards to catch a fly ball an indication that they're about to smash ass-first into a giant barrier).note
At the four corners of the infield are the eponymous bases, marked by (usually) white "plates".note Aside At the vertex of the diamond is home base, marked by home plate. Home plate is in the shape of a pentagon with three right angles, i.e. the prototypical elementary school drawing of a house (coincidentally). In organized baseball, this is usually made of rubber. It is flanked on either side by batter's boxes, painted-on rectangles in which the batter (see below) stands while batting. The remaining three bases are marked by square plates, numbered first, second, and third counter-clockwise; in upper-level baseball, these are traditionally canvas sacks stuffed with something, hence "bag" an alternative term for "base". Lower-level games may use rubber for the numbered bases, as well. In lower levels of organized baseball (particularly youth leagues), most now mandate a "double" first base, with half of the enlarged base in foul territory. When a play is being made on a batter-runner, defenders are only allowed to tag the "fair" portion, and runners from home are only allowed to touch the "foul" portion; this is to prevent collisions and injuries. This is not an idle fear — bases are often sources of collisions and serious injuries, being places where very large men running very fast come together, with wrists and ankles often suffering from the resulting collisions. You'll occasionally see arguments that MLB and other high-level leagues should adopt the double first base system described above — there's no real momentum for that, but it could happen in the future. The recently created Baseball5 variant, discussed in more detail in the "Baseball around the world" section, also uses the double first base. That said, MLB is expanding the size of first, second, and third bases from 15 inches (38.1 cm) to 18 inches (45.7 cm) square starting in 2023. This is being implemented mainly to reduce the risk of collisions, although it will also give a tiny advantage to base-stealers.
The outfield is roughly divided into thirds, as well, with the divisions being called "left field", "center field", and "right field". Much like cricket positions, the precise lines between these are somewhat fuzzy; unlike cricket positions, all three are always manned.note
Another key element is the pitcher's mound, a raised area which marks the area from which the pitcher (again, see below) can legally pitch. The pitcher's mound is slightly off-center; at its center is a slab of rubber known in the rules as the "pitcher's plate" but more commonly called the "rubber". The slab's front edge is exactly 60.5 feet from the rear point of home plate. The pitcher must have at least one foot in contact with the rubber during his deliverynote . A fixed rule is that the outer edge of the curved region of dirt/clay between the foul lines and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd bases must be 95 feet from the center of the front edge of the rubber. There are minimum standardized dimensions for the outfield fences, but these are ignored even in the major leagues for aesthetic and historical reasons (particularly when dealing with old parks). Traditionally, a dirt strip called the "keyhole" would connect the mound and home plate at many ballparks, but today, only two major-league ballparks (Comerica Park in Detroit and Chase Field in Phoenix, both neotraditional/"retro" parks) have it.
Speaking of the mound... the Atlantic League, an independent minor league that MLB has used as a test bed for rules changes in recent years, moved the rubber back 1 foot in the second half of its 2021 season, making it 61.5 feet from the rear point of home plate. This was intended to give hitters a tiny amount more time to react to pitches, therefore (hopefully) reducing strikeout rates.
The minute ways in which ballparks differ from each other can make considerable differences in how batters and pitchers fare against each other, or even different types of batters can fare. Coors Field in Denver, due to its higher elevation, is regarded as the ultimate "hitter's" park, as the lower air pressure combined with the low humiditynote leads to less movement on breaking pitches, causes balls to travel farther because there's less air resistance to slow them down, and many balls that would curve foul in lower altitudes staying fair. In the early years of the park, this led to regular games there with very high scores. This was toned down somewhat when a humidor for storing the baseballs was installed in the park in 2002, causing the balls to become somewhat heavier and softer than they were before and reducing how hard they were hit as a result, although even with the humidor in place, Coors Field still consistently elevates hitting more than almost any other ballpark. Meanwhile, the West Coast parks in LA, San Francisco, Seattle, and San Diego are strong pitcher's parks due to the ocean climate depressing temperatures. Oakland is similar, but even worse due to its large foul territory enabling many more flyouts (the diamond is in the middle of a football field). Yankee Stadium's "short porch" (remodeled much later, then ultimately demolished) gave up many "cheap" home runs to left-handed hitters (e.g. a certain George Herman "Babe" Ruth, who just happened to be the Yankees' star hitter when the stadium was built), while Fenway's "Green Monster" (an elevated wall to account for short left field dimensions) similarly gave up many "pop-up" home runs to righties, as well as doubles when the wall bounced balls back into play. This would in fact be Older Than Radio, as the 19th-century Polo Grounds (being a rectangular, well, polo ground) had extremely short distances to the fences along the foul lines, leading to what newspapers of the day would call the "Chinese home run". First generation artificial turf parks such as Riverfront Stadium similarly emphasized speed over power, as the low-friction, low-give surface would enable players to run faster than on grass, and balls would bounce much more predictably.
Nine players are legally allowed to defend the field, and bat (one exception, see below). Substitutions are allowed any time the ball isn't in play, but a substituted player is not permitted to return to the game.note Defending players may swap positions at will. Batting order is not fixed by position, and determined at the start of the game; generally, contact hitters with high on-base percentage will bat early, power hitters will bat in the middle of the lineup (with the #3 and #4 (cleanup) spots generally being the strongest hitters on the team),note and the team's weakest hitters will bat last. Once the game starts, batting order may only be changed by substitution.
Since the 2021 season, MLB teams have been allowed a maximum of 26 players on the active roster. Before 2020, the limit had been 25. On days of scheduled day-night doubleheaders—i.e., two games on the same day, but with the stadium cleared between games and separate tickets sold for both—teams may carry a 27th player for that day only (up from 26 in 2019). The 27-man roster also applies for any scheduled game at a neutral site. In a change that had originally been planned for 2020 but was not enforced until June 2022, MLB limits the number of pitchers a team can carry on its roster. Teams are limited to 13 pitchers on their regular-season roster. Another significant change in roster rules, this one made in 2021, involves games from September 1 to the end of the regular season. Through 2019, teams were allowed to expand their active rosters to 40—not coincidentally, the number of players each team is allowed to sign to major-league contracts. The roster expansion allowed playoff teams to rest starters and all teams to evaluate prospects in major league play. In the shortened COVID-19 season of 2020, all teams were allowed 28-man active rosters throughout the season. Since 2021, teams must have exactly 28 players on their September rosters, though they are still allowed 40 players under major-league contracts. Additionally, the limit on pitchers increases to 14 during this time.note
Postseason rosters contain 26 players (up from 25 before 2020), with the same 13-pitcher restriction as the bulk of the regular season, and can be constructed from any player who appeared in at least one game for the team during the season, with one restriction: the player must have been on the active roster, injured list, bereavement list, or suspended list as of August 31. Players who do not meet this requirement but were in the team's minor league system can be added to the postseason roster as injury replacements (again, provided they appeared in at least one game during the season), while players acquired via trade or free agency after August 31 are not eligible for postseason play. Teams can make unrestricted roster changes between postseason series, but replacing a player in the middle of a series carries a hefty penalty: the replaced player must sit out not only the rest of that round, but the entire next round as well should his team make it that far.
Since a team must have a considerable number of pitchers on the roster (Generally 13 or 14 now, but the number of pitchers on a typical roster greatly varied over time, increasing as pitchers gradually threw harder and needed more rest in between starts- a team in the first half of the 20th century would have likely had 4 starting pitchers and a few relievers, but as time went on that became 5- or 6-pitcher rotations with at least 5 and sometimes as many as 9 relievers, or even more after September 1st), and at least one back-up catcher note many second string position players will be "utility" players adept at a number of roles. Occasionally, a position lacking any real star power will be played by a "platoon", a duo consisting of a right- and left-handed batter who swap out depending upon the opposing pitcher.
Handedness, in general, is a big deal when it comes to baseball players. Because of the way most "breaking" pitches move, a player that bats at the side of home plate opposite the pitcher's throwing hand will have a noticeably better time than one who bats on the same side. As a result, many players who are otherwise not ambidextrous will learn to "switch" hit, being able to hit from either side. Interestingly, while batters (on the whole) consistently perform better against opposite-side pitchers than same-side pitchers, right-handed batters do perform somewhat better against same-side pitchers than do lefties. This is thought to be because hitters in general see more right-handed pitchers and thus are more familiar with the motion of right-handers' pitches. Another interesting sidelight is that left-handers are far more numerous in baseball than in the general population—roughly 30% of pitchers are southpaws, and 40% of batters hit left-handed, compared to about 10% of the general population. Incidentally, left-handed batters enjoy one significant advantage over righties due to the structure of the field. Because the bases are run counterclockwise, a left-handed batter stands about 4 feet (1.3 m) closer to first base than a righty. Also, the follow-through from a lefty's swing will naturally take him toward first base, while a right-hander must change direction before even crossing home plate.
The fielding positions are assigned by tradition, rather than the rulebook; nothing states that a second baseman has to play between first and second, or where in the outfield the outfield positions have to stand. This often leads to fielding positions being used strategically. For example, if there is a runner on third base with less than two outs, the infielders and outfielders will play much closer to the batter, as any long ball to the outfield will allow the runner to score on a sacrifice fly. In recent years, this has led to heavy use of the "Ortiz shift" (named after retired slugger David Ortiz), which (for a left-handed hitter such as Ortiz) moves the third baseman to the shortstop position and moves the shortstop into right field, providing extra coverage for balls hit right. Widespread and effective use of the shift has led to criticism and occasional movements to fix the infield players in place, something that MLB has experimented with using the independent Atlantic League. The effective MLB takeover of Minor League Baseball in 2021 gave MLB another platform to experiment further. In 2021, all three Double-A leagues required that all four infielders be positioned with both feet on the infield dirt (more accurately, on or within the outside edge of the infield), and MLB further mandated at midseason that two infielders be positioned on each side of second base in those leagues. MLB will adopt these shift restrictions in 2023, further mandating that infielders cannot switch sides of the infield while a pitcher is making a pitch. Another rule that MLB trialed in the Low-A Florida State League in the second half of the 2022 season added a "pie slice" to the infield—chalk lines extending from second base to the outfield grass, creating a pie slice-shaped area where no infielders are allowed to stand before a pitch is released. This is intended to allow for more hits up the middle; with this rule in place, a middle infielder cannot play up the middle unless he stations himself by the bag, in turn making it harder to cut off hard-hit balls to either side of the infielder.
In Japan, each NPBnote team is allowed a 28-man active roster, but only 25 of these are eligible to play in any given game; the manager must designate three players on the roster who will be ineligible to play. Almost invariably, one of the three will be the starting pitcher from the team's previous game. In NPB's Pacific League, each team must also announce its starting pitcher on the day before game day; NPB's other league, the Central League, does not require this. When CL and PL teams play against one another, whether in the regular season or the Japan Series, the CL rule is used on this specific point.
Player positions are usually referred to by number for scoring purposes.
- Pitcher (1): Responsible for pitching the ball to the batter, and fielding the pitcher's mound, as well as backing up first base on balls hit right. A successful pitcher typically has several pitches in his arsenal; which can be broadly sorted into 3 types, a fastball (a pitch designed to defeat the batter by sheer speed with little to no movement, most commonly the four-seam fastball, which is your vanilla fastball with the maximum speed), a changeup (a slower pitch thrown with the same delivery as a fastball, intended to confuse a batter into swinging before the pitch arrives), and a breaking ball (a pitch that changes direction in flight, and notably slower than the fastball, taking advantage of the fact that a baseball isn't perfectly spherical but rather has seams; these are most commonly the slider—named after its swooping horizontal movement—and the curve—named after its sudden "dropping" movement at the plate).
Of course, there are pitches that don't fit into any of these 3 categories, namely the spinless knuckleball, which doesn't break in the conventional sense so much as it wobbles, and the eephus pitch—a slow, high arching trick pitch. These two unconventional pitches are even slower than breaking balls, so they are sometimes referred to as "junk pitches" as they are so slow, though it doesn't necessarily make them any easier to hit if pitched at the right time. At the moment, no active MLB pitcher throws a knuckleball and the few who throw an eephus pitch do so very rarely, so you'll most likely see them employed by position players pitching at the end of a blowout, because they can't throw any non-junk pitches effectively or don't want to risk injury from throwing harder. There were once a wide variety of pitches that involved adulterating the ball's surface (spitballs, cut or emery pitches, shine balls), giving an unpredictable pattern similar to the knuckleball, but these are banned now at all levels of play.
Generally, pitchers are divided into two categories. Power pitchers succeed by the speed of their pitches and win games by striking out batters, relying heavily on fastballs. Control pitchers win games by preventing solid contact with their pitches and delivering few walks, typically relying more heavily on "painting the corners" (working the outside portions of the strike zone) with their fastballs, as well as breaking pitches, changeups, and trick pitches (a pitcher with strong trick pitches is sometimes called a "junk-ball" pitcher). A team's pitching staff can usually be divided up as follows:
- Starting pitchers are usually the most effective pitchers on the roster, and are the ones who begin each game. Statistically speaking, the starting pitcher is usually the most significant factor in whether a team wins or loses the game, and they are paid accordingly. While pitchers once pitched entire games, most teams will now keep pitch counts, and try to replace a starter at around 100 pitches or if he becomes ineffective before that. Thus, pitching a complete game will now only even be attempted if the starter is pitching spectacularly even into the late innings. Pitching is a strenuous activity—one of the most strenuous in sports—and a major league starter will often require four to five days to recover in between games.note Anything less is seriously damaging to both physical and mental health. Teams typically maintain a rotation of five starting pitchers, and over the course of a season will move pitchers in and out of the rotation to account for injuries or loss of effectiveness.
- Relief pitchers, known collectively as the bullpen, are the ones who replace the starter. These are generally less effective pitchers, or possess less stamina, than the starting pitchers. Some pitchers become relievers because they don't have as varied a repertoire of pitches; throwing one pitch extremely well can work for an inning or two. They can usually be divided into long relievers (responsible for relieving ineffective pitchers early in the game, generally the most expendable reliever, although starter-level stamina is required), middle relievers, late relievers, left-handed specialists (one-inning or one-out pitchers often used to put out a strong lefty hitter late in the game), set-up men (responsible for maintaining a close lead in the later innings; the team's second-best reliever), and closers (responsible for maintaining a close lead in the final inning; the team's best relief pitcher). The use of closers has been heavily criticized, especially since the recording of the "save" statistic (awarded for maintaining a close lead); many feel that "saves" are more due to the team's offensive ability and the law of averages, and that more games could be won by using the best reliever in any close situation rather than just the last three outs. On the other hand, some argue that keeping the best relievers scarce prevents hitters from getting wise to their pitches, and ensures their effectiveness.
- Some more MLB rule changes in 2020 dramatically affected the use of relievers. The most notable, which took effect despite COVID-19, is that once a pitcher (starter or reliever) enters the game, he must pitch to three batters or until the end of that half-inning, whichever comes first. (Exceptions are allowed for incapacitating injury or illness.) While it didn't completely eliminate the "left-handed specialist" role, it dramatically changed it. The 2020 season was intended to be the first for a new rule that prohibited position players from pitching unless the game was in extra innings, or either team had a lead of at least 7 runs when said player assumed a pitching role. This change instead took effect in 2021, and was further changed for 2023. Now, position players can only be used as pitchers in extra innings, when a team is behind by at least 8 runs at any time, or a team is ahead by at least 10 runs in the ninth inning. (This is enforced by requiring that all teams designate players as "pitchers" or "position players" before the season.) The 2020 rules also create a new category of "two-way player". A player earns this status by pitching 20 MLB innings and playing in at least 20 games as a position player or designated hitter, with at least three plate appearances in each of those games, in a given season. Once he qualifies, he can be used as a pitcher at any time for the rest of the season, plus all of the following season. Additionally, two-way players do not count against the limit on the number of pitchers on an active roster.note
- We should note here that the pitch and the batter's response to it is where a lot of the strategy comes in a baseball game. The nature of the pitch, and what the batter does with it, fully determines what the fielders do, and a smart batter can seriously back a pitcher into a corner if he can force the pitcher into a situation where his only option is to pitch a pitch he doesn't have. Here's Bill Lee, a great junk-ball pitcher who played on the 1960s-70s Red Sox, discussing this kind of strategic thinking (in a clip from the aforementioned Ken Burns' Baseball).
- Catcher (2): Takes up position behind the batter, wearing protective gear. The catcher is the only defensive player permitted in foul territory at the time of the pitch. Will usually signal desired pitches to the pitcher, and is the most defensively-oriented position player on the team; responsible for fielding home plate, coordinating the infield players, and catching base stealers. As a result, most catchers (but not all) post poor offensive stats. A non-pitcher with a strong right throwing arm will usually end up as a catcher; southpaw catchers are rare enough to be a non-entity.note Because of the coordination aspect, catcher is considered the most cerebral position in the game, with catchers having a reputation for being the brains of the infield at the very least, and it's not uncommon for retired catchers to go on to be managers (baseballese for "head coach") (Yogi Berra being the most famous instance, and successful modern managers Mike Scioscia and Bruce Bochy carrying on the tradition). Ironically (and probably an intentional irony at that), the mask, chest pad, shin guards, and specialized mitt a catcher wears for protection are collectively known as the "tools of ignorance".
- First baseman (3): Takes up position at first base. Since this is the first base touched in the event of a base hit, he will take up position very close to the bag, and uses a special glove to field throws to first base. First basemen are always left handed because of the way they have to position themselves on the bag, if the first baseman had their fielding glove on their left hand a lot of throws to first would hit the runner in the head. The importance of this position defensively tends to decrease as you move up the ladder. At the youth level, having a competent first baseman is incredibly important, since they are responsible for converting a huge percentage of basic putouts, and you can't take for granted that every Little Leaguer can reliably catch a throw from an infielder. Once you get into higher-level competition, however, the position becomes more of a dumping ground for immobile sluggers, as it doesn't require much speed or mobility. Responsible for warming up the infield at the beginning of their defensive half-inning, which is why the first baseman is thrown a ball when their team retires from the field in order to bat.
- Second baseman (4): Takes up position between first and second base. Almost always right-handed.note Fields grounders hit by left handed hitters, covers second base on balls hit to left, and backs up first base when needed. Usually requires a good mix of defensive and offensive skills. Emphasis on the former, since second base is the key man for any kind of double play. This is a fairly new thing; in baseball's early days, double plays were much rarer and second base tended to be a slugger position. Typically, if a shortstop is moved due to defensive concerns, the ones who can move go to second base and the ones who can throw go to third.
- Third baseman (5): Fields third base, or the "hot corner". Requires quick reflexes and a very good throwing arm, as he is closest to the batter on any balls hit by right-handed batters, and must make the long throw to first. Third base often tends to be played by right-handed sluggers, the reason being that baseball has needed more offensive power since the live ball era of the 1920s. Shortstops and second basemen who show good offensive ability will often be moved to third base if their defensive skills decline due to age. An example is Cal Ripken Jr., who came up as a third baseman but played most of his career at shortstop before moving back to third in the twilight of his career. However, the best fielding third baseman is generally agreed to be Brooks Robinson, who was so good getting balls heading to his base that he was nicknamed "The Human Vacuum Cleaner".
- Shortstop (6): Fields between second and third base, and covers second on balls hit right. Always right-handed.note The name is something of an artifact, as early balls couldn't be thrown very far and a player was necessary to relay throws from the outfield to the infielders ("stopping them short"). When better balls were developed, it evolved into the fourth infielder position seen today. Since most batters are right-handed, and pull the ball to the left, this is the most defensive of the infield positions, and shortstops are usually selected for their defensive qualities, although some display impressive offensive ability as well. Because shortstop is arguably the most demanding and important defensive position in the game, outside catcher, the best and most athletic players on the team usually end up there, especially at the lower levels. If a high school team has a player good enough to be drafted by a big league club, there's a good chance he's playing shortstop for them (at least if he's right handed), even if that's not going to be his future in the pros.
- Left/center/right field (7,8,9): Outfielders. Take up position in the grass well outside of the infield. Responsible for catching fly balls, as well as any grounders or line drives that the infielders miss. Center field is the most demanding position defensively and is responsible for coordinating the outfield. The center fielder will generally be the fastest and most agile of the outfielders due to having the most ground to cover. Left field requires a decent amount of running speed. Right field requires a very strong throwing arm to make the throw to third. (Assuming a symmetrical field, the left and right fielders have equidistant throws to second and home; the left fielder's throw to first is as long as the right fielder's throw to third, but the need for such a throw to be made hardly ever arises.) All outfielders are generally very strong hitters, and the center fielder will often be one of the team's best baserunners. Since the infield is usually dominated by right-handed players, left-handed hitters that aren't placed at first due to injuries or rotundity will usually play outfield.
- Designated hitter: In leagues that allow the DH (most high school and college teams, all of MLB starting in 2022, and NPB's Pacific League), the DH bats in place of the pitcher, and does not field a position. Something of a controversial position, as many baseball fans still believe in the "everybody hits, everybody fields" ethic taught to them back in Little League. From 1973 to 2021, the American League used the DH and the National League didn't; there were movements to normalize the rules between the two MLB leagues in this regard, especially after 2013 as interleague play was scheduled throughout the season. note Shortly before the delayed start to the 2020 season, MLB and its players' union agreed to allow the universal DH for that season only. As part of a new collective bargaining agreement that ended an owners' lockout during the 2021–22 offseason (with no regular-season games ultimately lost), the NL adopted the DH starting in 2022. Leagues that permit the DH usually post much better offensive statistics than corresponding non-DH leagues, and the position is a way to allow power hitters who no longer possess the speed needed to field to continue their careers. George Brett and Frank Thomas would be notable examples, moving from the diamond in their last years in MLB. Many teams using the DH in the present no longer have a dedicated DH, but rotate among several very strong hitters to alternate a day off from fielding and provide a better matchup for the opposing pitcher.
- In Minor League Baseball, the mechanics of the DH rule are identical to those of MLB, meaning that starting in 2022, it's used in all games. Before then, its use or non-use differed by league. Also, in the leagues that did use the DH, its use was governed by the teams' MLB affiliations.
- At Rookie, Low-A, and High-A levels, the DH was used in all games.
- In Double-A leagues, the DH was used when at least one participating team was an American League affiliate. Games involving two National League affiliates did not use the DH.
- In Triple-A, the use of the DH was mandatory in all games involving at least one AL affiliate. In Triple-A East (successor to, and later renamed, the International League), the DH rule was not used in games between NL affiliates. In Triple-A West (successor to, and later renamed, the Pacific Coast League), the DH was optional in games between NL affiliates, but in practice no such games used the DH.
- The independent Atlantic League, which became an "MLB Partner League" after MLB reorganized Minor League Baseball for 2021 and beyond, trialed what's called the "double-hook" rule in 2021. Once a team removed its starting pitcher, it lost the DH for the rest of the game.
- The DH is subject to a number of obvious rule patches. If the DH is moved to a fielding position, the team forfeits the DH and the pitcher must bat. If substituted, a DH must occupy the same spot in the batting order as the preceding DH. These forestall a common tactic, known as the "double switch", used to push an undesirable batter to later in the batting order, and prevent the DH from cycling around more than once per nine at-bats. As a result, leagues without the DH feature more later-inning substitutions and managerial strategy regarding batting order.
- In some leagues, the DH can at least theoretically be used to bat in the place of a player other than the pitcher if so designated before the start of the game, since in amateur leagues the pitcher might not even be the worst batter in the lineup. At the high school level it's also not uncommon for a player to be pitcher and DH at the same time, and even continue to play in one position even after being substituted out in the other (though once substituted out, he can't return). At the professional level, this is a non-issue since position players who hit worse than pitchers aren't going to get pro contracts, and MLB rules explicitly state that a DH cannot bat in place of anyone except a pitcher.
- Also note that the DH "rule" is technically an option: in MLB, no team is obligated to use the DH, but for a practical matter, when allowed, it is almost always used. The San Francisco Giants made an attention-grabbing decision to decline the DH when they played the Oakland Athletics on June 30, 2016, and allow their pitcher Madison Bumgarner to hit. The last time a team intentionally waived their right to a DH before this was in 1976. In 2021, the Los Angeles Angels started encouraging their two-way star Shohei Ohtani to hit when he pitches, even though it meant giving up the DH for that game. Given his established skills at the bat, this could have been an acceptable tradeoff... until a rule change for 2022 allowed teams to list their starting pitcher as the DH. (This rule change had been trialed in the 2021 All-Star Game, in which Ohtani was chosen as starter at both DH and pitcher.) Ohtani is likely the only beneficiary of this rule for the immediate future.
- In Minor League Baseball, the mechanics of the DH rule are identical to those of MLB, meaning that starting in 2022, it's used in all games. Before then, its use or non-use differed by league. Also, in the leagues that did use the DH, its use was governed by the teams' MLB affiliations.
Sequence of play
A baseball game is divided into a number of innings. The number of innings varies by level of play:
- Major league games are always scheduled for 9 innings.note The same applies for single games in international men's play and in college/university play.
- International women's games are 7 innings. While college games are usually scheduled for 9 innings, some doubleheaders will see the second game scheduled for 7. International men's doubleheaders may also be scheduled for 7 innings.
- High schools most often play 7 innings, though 5- and 6-inning games are not unheard of.
- Little League (i.e., the flagship 12-and-under division) plays 6 innings.
In Minor League Baseball, and from 2022 in regular-season MLB games, every half-inning after the ninth starts with a runner on second base. The regularly scheduled batter comes to the plate, with the runner being the player preceding him in the batting order (almost always the one who made the team's last out of the previous inning). MLB first used this rule in regular-season games in 2020 due to time constraints. However, this rule isn't used in postseason games (and wasn't in the 2020 postseason either). International men's baseball plays the 10th inning under standard rules, but at the start of the 11th, the batting order resets. Each manager selects a place in the batting order to start that inning, regardless of the last batter put out in the 10th. The batter immediately preceding the designated leadoff man becomes a runner on first, and the next preceding batter becomes a runner on second. In subsequent innings, the batting order continues as normal, with the two batters that precede the scheduled leadoff man becoming the runners on second and first. In US college baseball, no rule changes are made in extra innings.
Many competitions have a "mercy rule" that ends a lopsided game early. Professional leagues (MLB, NPB, Minor League Baseball, et al.) don't use this rule.
- In international play, games end once either team has a lead of 10 runs, provided that the trailing team has completed 7 innings (5 innings in scheduled 7-inning games).
- College baseball sometimes uses the international mercy rule in regular-season play, but mostly uses it only in the final game of a series (for travel reasons) or during conference tournaments (to allow the next scheduled game to start sooner). The NCAA, however, requires 9-inning games in its championship tournaments.
- In high schools (assuming the most common 7-inning game), the international rule for 7-inning games is used. Many state/provincial associations further modify the rule by ending a game after 3 or 4 innings if the lead is at least 15 runs.
- Little League, with its 6-inning games, invokes the mercy rule if the winning team is ahead by 15 runs after 3 innings or 10 runs after 4 innings. Again, the innings count refers to the number completed by the trailing team.
The pitcher throws balls towards the catcher, and the batter (taking up position in front of the catcher in one of the batter's boxes) will attempt to hit these balls. One of the following will happen:
- If the batter swings at the pitch and misses, or the pitch passes through the strike zone (over home plate, within an arbitrary set of vertical limits), a strike is called.
- In 2023, MLB introduced a pitch clock, a feature that had been trialed in several minor leagues for a few years perviously. The clock is 15 seconds with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on base. The batter must be in the box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark, with a violation by the hitter an automatic strike. See below for what happens when the pitcher violates the clock. The clock exists to make games shorter and more exciting—and to test the batter and pitcher's quickness of both body and mind. (In a way, given the high-level strategic thinking around a pitch and hit, it's a lot more like a chess clock than anything else.)
- If three strikes occur, the batter is out, and the pitcher is credited with a strikeout. If the third strike is not cleanly caught, with either two outs or no runner on firstnote , the batter may attempt to "steal" first base. This is relatively uncommon in the big leagues, but this play famously cost the Brooklyn Dodgers a World Series in 1941.note
- While usually, if a batter is hit by a pitch it is an automatic walk, if they make a full swing as they are hit it is declared a strike. It will also be declared a strike if the pitch passed through the strike zone; you can't finagle a walk by standing over the plate.
- A strike is also called if the batter hits the ball into foul territory without it being caught (called a "foul ball"). The only exception to this is if there are already 2 strikes against the batter, and the batter hit the ball with a "real swing" rather than a bunt.
- If the pitch is not swung at, and outside the strike zone, a ball is called. A player's combined balls and strikes are referred to as "the count" and are listed with balls first in the USA; a count of 2-1, for example, means two balls and one strike.
- Under rules with a pitch clock (including MLB since 2023), if a pitcher violates the pitch clock, defined as failure to start the pitching motion before the clock reaches zero, an automatic ball is called. The timer resets if the pitcher steps off the mound or attempts a pickoff—but see below for further restrictions.
- Since 2023 (in MLB at least), an automatic ball can be awarded if the infield is improperly positioned while the pitcher is on the rubber. In case of a violation, the hitting team can take either the result of the play or an automatic ball.
- In non-American leagues, for example the Korean Baseball Organization, the count is sometimes given as strikes and balls.
- If four balls are called, a "base on balls" is declared (informally known as a "walk"), and the batter is awarded first base unopposed. Any player on first base advances to second, and other runners take one base if the batter or a runner behind them moves to their base; if the bases are loaded and the batter walks, a run is scored. A walk may be "intentional", in which the catcher stands far outside the strike zone and the pitcher makes four soft throws in rapid succession. The batter can still technically swing at these, but few ever try.
- As of 2017, pitches are no longer needed for any intentional walk.note Confusingly, while these unthrown balls are excluded from pitch counts in the majors, where the pitches don't actually mean anything, they're still counted in Little League and the WBC, where limited pitch counts are mandatory.
- A count of 3-2 (three balls, two strikes) is called a "full count". At the right time, a full count is often a very dramatic situation—since it means the only way for the batter to go is to run or to strike out (or hit a foul ball...)—and thus beloved of media. A full count with two outs generally results in the runners on base starting to run with the pitch, since the only reason they'd need to return to their base is for a foul ball.
- If the batter is hit by the pitch, made a reasonable effort to avoid it, and is hit outside of the strike zone, the batter is awarded a base in the same manner as a walk.
- If, in the umpire's judgment, the pitcher deliberately threw at the batter with the intent to hit them the umpire may warn the pitcher and both teams that any further "purpose pitches" will result in ejection from the game.
- If the catcher commits an illegal action preventing the batter from hitting the ball, "catcher's interference" is called, and the batter is awarded first base.
- If the catcher interferes, and the batter still hits the ball, the batter has the option of taking the result of the play or taking first base.
- If the pitcher commits an illegal action misdirecting baserunners as to whether or not he is making a pitch, a "balk" is declared, each runner advances one base, and the batter remains at bat with the previous count.
- In another experimental minor-league rule implemented in 2021, pitchers in the three Low-A leagues could only attempt a pickoff or step off the rubber twice per at-bat. An unsuccessful pickoff on a third attempt was called a balk. This was made permanent throughout MiLB in 2022 and will be implemented in MLB starting in 2023. In the MiLB version, this limit was absolute; in MLB, the limit is reset if a runner advances during the at-bat.
- Also in 2021, High-A pitchers had to step off the rubber before throwing to any occupied base. This eliminated a go-to pickoff move for many lefties; since they are facing the first-base side of the field, they could make a pickoff move while on the rubber. (Righties must take their foot off the rubber so they can turn toward first; while they enjoy the same advantage when a runner is at third, the vast majority of pickoff attempts are made at first.)
- If a third out is reached while the batter is still up (due to a runner being picked off or caught stealing), that batter will make the first plate appearance in the next inning with a new count.
- If the ball is hit into foul territory (outside the first and third base lines) and not caught before it hits the ground, it is a "foul ball". The ball is declared dead, and a strike is counted if the player has fewer than two strikes. If the foul ball is caught, the batter is out. If the ball is only "tipped" (light contact that doesn't impede the balls travel to the catcher's mitt), it is treated as an ordinary strike, even a third strike. A bunt into foul territory is also counted as a third strike.
- If the ball is hit and is caught in the air by a fielder — whether that fielder is in fair or foul territory — the batter is out. If there are less than two outs, any runners must "tag up" to their original base after such a catch. If the ball is thrown to the base before the runner "tags up" then the runner is also out. Runners may attempt to advance after the tag-up, even on a foul ball. A long fly out that allows a runner to advance home is referred to as a "sacrifice fly" and does not negatively impact the batter's netting average.
- A pop fly into the infield, with runners on first and second and less than two outs, is treated as a fly out even if not caught (the infield fly rule). This is an Obvious Rule Patch to prevent fielders from dropping an easily caught ball to provide for a double play. The infield fly rule is not in effect on a bunt.
- If the ball is hit into fair territory and is not caught in the air, the batter becomes a runner and may attempt to advance to first base. Any other runners on base may also attempt to advance. A runner who is advanced to at least second base is considered to be in "scoring position"; a decent baserunner on second is expected to be able to score on a base hit that goes into the outfield. If the batter reaches at least first base, this is, with two exceptions, known as a hit. The exceptions are:
- Base on error: The fielding team makes a mistake in fielding the ball, allowing the batter to advance to first when he likely would have been put out.
- Fielder's choice: The fielding team opted to put out a runner other than the batter, effectively giving up first base.
- A batter-runner may also attempt to gain additional bases, known as a double or triple. In extremely rare cases, the batter may advance the entire way around the park for an inside-the-park home run. The fielding team attempts to put runners out by either tagging them with the ball, or tagging a base the runner is forced into by runners behind him.
- If a batter-runner is put out at second, third, or home, they are credited with a hit and the number of bases they reached safely. Likewise, if a fielding error permits the batter-runner to reach a base beyond the one the player would have reached without that error (in the case of a single, second, third, or home), they are credited with a hit, although not any bases they reached via that error.
- If the pitcher throws to an occupied base, and a fielder tags the runner while he is not on (due to taking a lead in preparation for a hit or steal), the runner is out. This is referred to as a "pickoff", and is used more to keep runners close to their base rather than to actually get players out. Any out scored on a pickoff is officially scored as "caught stealing" (see below).
- Runners on base may attempt to "steal" bases while the ball is in play. If the runner is not tagged out, he is awarded the base and credited with a "stolen base". Note that the ball is in play even before the pitcher throws it. If the fielding team does not make an effort to put out a stealing baserunner, it is considered "defensive indifference" and the runner is not credited with a steal.Example
- If a runner is struck by a batted ball before it is touched by a fielder, the runner is declared out for "interference". It is also interference if the runner deliberately obstructs the path of the ball or hinders a fielder from making a throw. If the purpose of the interference is to prevent a double play, both the batter and runner will be called out. Interestingly, if the runner struck by the ball is the third out of the inning, the batter is credited with a single.
- However, if an infielder other than the pitcher has made a play on the ball but failed to do so, and no other infielder is in position to make a play on the ball before it hits the runner, the ball remains in play. Also, if a runner advancing from third to home is hit by the ball while in foul territory, it's a foul ball, with all runners returning to their former bases. Finally, in an extremely rare situation still covered in the rulebook, if a runner is standing on a base and is hit by an infield fly, the batter is called out by rule, but the runner remains safe.
- On the other hand, if a fielder who does not have the ball or is not involved in the current play prevents a runner from advancing to the next base the umpire can call "obstruction" and declare the runner safe at the base they were advancing to.
- If the fielding team gets the third out on a fly out or force out (or any other situation where the batter-runner does not reach first base safely), play ends immediately and no runs can score. However, if the third out is a putout, any runs scored before the putout count.
- If the ball is hit into fair territory outside the field of play, a home run is declared, the batter and all runners advance to home, and sportswriters write articles on whether or not it would have been possible without something—the players in the '90s and '00s, the balls in The New '10s—being "juiced". If this is done with the bases loaded — i.e. there are already runners on first, second, and third — this is called a "grand slam", and is kind of a big deal.
- As noted above, despite the era of performance-enhancing drugs having ended, The New '10s saw a humongous jump in home run rates. At decade's end, 11 of the 25 highest team home run totals note came from the 2019 season, including the four highest totals.
- If the ball is hit into fair territory, bounces on the ground in the field of play, and then exits the field of play without being handled, this is an automatic double, usually referred to, somewhat inaccurately, as a "ground-rule double".note All runners are entitled to advance two bases, and the batter-runner goes to second base. The same occurs if a spectator touches a ball in play. Befitting the name, there are other stadium-specific methods of obtaining a ground-rule double; e.g., a ball becoming trapped in the ivy covering the outfield walls at Wrigley Field, or a batted ball hitting one of the myriad of catwalks at Tropicana Field.
- One of baseball's unique features is that it's a game without a clock — with the various mercy rule exceptions detailed above, a baseball game continues until the final out is recorded. This means that, theoretically, no game is ever out of reach — an MLB team could be down by 50 runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and they could come back and win just by successfully avoiding the final out of the game. This is in sharp contrast to other major team sports, where the presence of a clock essentially renders some games unwinnable for the trailing team at a certain point in the game.
(NOTE: This section under construction. Please help.)
Game of Nerds, Redux: Stats and sabermetrics
For the last 150 years of its existence, baseball has lent itself quite well towards the accumulation of individual statistics, being mostly a contest between batter and pitcher. The traditional "baseball card" stats are as follows:
- Batting Average (AVG): Safe hits divided by at-bats. It sounds simple enough, until you look into how "safe hit" and "at bat" are defined. Being walked, hit by a pitch, or reaching base on catcher's interference, are not considered hits, but the hitter is not charged with an at-bat. The hitter also is not charged with an at-bat if he performs a sacrifice bunt or hits a run-scoring fly ball (known as a sacrifice fly). Reaching base on an error or through a fielder's choice are not hits, but they are considered at-bats, so a hitter who does one of these things is basically charged with a hitless at-bat. A league-average player will probably have a batting average somewhere between .240 and .280 (in super-layman's terms, hitting the ball roughly once every four times you come to the plate—remember, it's not for nothing that people often call batting the most difficult act in sportsnote ). Hitting at least .300 is usually considered an indicator of great skill, while hitting less than a point called the "Mendoza Line" (named after shortstop Mario Mendoza, who had a career .215 batting average but managed to play for a while by being a really good defensive shortstop), which lies somewhere between .190 and .220, depending on who you ask, will generally make you a bench player at best unless you're a really good defender or hit a lot of home runs. Anyone who consistently bats below the Mendoza Line is assumed to be hurting his team so badly on offense that his defensive prowess can't possibly make up for it.
- On-Base Percentage (OBP): Times reached base divided by plate appearances. Like batting average, except that walks and hit-by-pitch plate appearances count. Sacrifice Bunts don't count, as the batter-runner usually isn't trying to get on base when they bunt, but Sacrifice Flies (when the ball is caught by an outfielder, but a runner on base scores) do count as plate appearances. Despite being called a "percentage", it's usually written as a three-digit decimal, e.g. .355. It's probably written like this because batting average and slugging average are also written like this. The best players will usually have an OBP somewhere in the neighborhood of .400, with the average being somewhere between .320 and .330 and the worst at about .250.
- Slugging Average (SLG): Like Batting average, but adjusted for how many bases you got from the hit: each safe hit is multiplied by the number of bases earned during that play. Hitting a single counts as 1, a double counts as 2, a triple counts as 3, and a home run counts as 4. Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Average are sometimes referred to as the "Triple-Slash Stats" and are put next to each other in that order when referring to a player (e.g., .265/.341/.458).
- OPS: On-base percentage Plus Slugging average. Widely considered to be the best all-around measure of a batter's performance, although quite a few stats geeks and general managers feel that it undervalues OBP (a 1.000 slugging percentage for an inning can mean anything; a 1.000 OBP for an inning is an infinite number of runs scored).
- Runs Batted In (RBI): The number of runs generated while the player is a batter-runner. Sacrifice plays count. Solo home runs also count, because the player batted himself in. It's one of the three stats of the hitting triple crown, along with Home Runs and Batting Average. Old-school statisticians like this stat a lot, but more modern ones like to point out that it depends heavily on the skill of a player's teammates and where in the batting order they hit (as does Runs Scored, but to a slightly lesser extent). Obviously, it's hard to bat many runs in if your teammates suck and don't get on base much. The players at the top of the batting order tend to have higher OBPs than the players at the bottom, so a player hitting 3rd - 5th will have more opportunities to get RBI's than a player hitting 8th-9th, or even 1st or 2nd.
- Double plays, however, don't count. A batter that comes up with no outs and multiple runners on base is not credited with an RBI if the lead runner scores, but both the batter-runner and another runner are called out.
- Runs Scored (R): Runs that the player personally scores.
- Earned Run Average (ERA): This is a pitching statistic. It's how many runs have been earned against a pitcher per 9-inning game. If, as is the case in most modern games, a pitcher doesn't play all 9 innings, his ERA is "pro-rated" for the fraction of a game he did play; i.e. it's the number of earned runs divided by innings pitchednote and multiplied by 9. Pitchers rarely have anything to do with defense once the ball is put into play, and a pitcher's ERA may fluctuate wildly as a result, making it a questionable metric for pitching effectiveness. Various sabermetric replacements, called "defense-independent pitching statistics" have turned up, but none are in mainstream use.
- Wins and Losses (W-L): Awarded to pitchers, and attempts to credit them with winning or losing the game. A loss is awarded to the pitcher that gives up the run that puts the winning team into lead they hold for the rest of the game, and a Win is awarded to the pitcher that pitched the half-inning before that winning run scored. There are a few exceptions, the most commonly seen being that Starting Pitchers need to pitch at least 5 innings to get a winnote . Collectively, Wins and Losses are referred to as "Decisions". If a starter gets neither a win nor a loss, he gets a "No-Decision". Modern statheads consider this stat to be nearly worthless, because of the large number of ways a pitcher can fail to win a game they pitched well or win a game they pitched poorly- namely run support and the skill of the bullpen.
- Strikeouts (K)note : Both a hitting stat and a pitching stat, though the pitching version is much more commonly used. For hitters, it's the number of times they strike out, and for pitchers, it's the number of batters they strike out. It, Wins, and Earned Run Average are the three stats that make up the pitching triple crown. It might be the only stat that old-school and modern statisticians can agree on the usefulness of. (The ability of a pitcher to record an out without having the ball put into play is considered extremely valuable.)However... A forward facing K is for strikeouts where the batter swings and misses on the third strike; for the third strike where the batter doesn't swing, it's noted with a backwards K, or K-L, CK, or Kc (the 'c' for 'called' strike).
- Bases on balls (BB): Walks, charged for the hitter and against the pitcher. For most of baseball's history, walks were not considered an offensive statistic, changing only with the focus on on-base percentage.
- Saves (S): Awarded to pitchers for pitching the end of a close game that they didn't start and didn't win, and came into with a lead. There's a few other additional requirements to define "close" (either pitching at least the last three innings, or entering with a lead of 3 or less and pitching at least one full inning, or entering with the tying run on base, at bat, or on deck). It may be the only case of a statistic creating a job in sports: Starting in the 1970s, teams started assigning the job of finishing games to one specific pitcher, the "closer". The position evolved into its current usage in the 1990s: a pitcher who pitches almost exclusively in situations where they can get a save, usually only in the 9th inning of a close game. Modern closers hardly ever enter a game earlier than the ninth inning (closers in the 70s and 80s would frequently pitch multiple innings), and a closer whose team is on the road playing in extra innings will usually be held back until his team takes the lead (since the game automatically ends if the home team takes the lead, the home team can afford to bring in its closer earlier). Some deride this stat for the current job of closers, pointing out that they rarely come into a game at a point where the lead is an any serious danger of being lost. That it's possible to get a save for doing nothing more than pitching the last three innings of a game, regardless of the score, also occasionally leads to saves being awarded in total blowouts, notably a game in 2007 in which Texas Rangers pitcher Wes Littleton earned a save despite his team winning the game 30-3.note
- The opposite of this is a Blown Save (BS), where a pitcher in a save situation gives up enough runs to tie the score, regardless of if he actually let the tying run on base (in other words, inherited runners do count). This is possibly an even more useless statistic, as many blown saves are pretty much unavoidable for the pitcher.note Because of how they're awarded, saves and blown saves also leave middle relievers with something of a raw deal–if you're generally coming in with the lead in the 7th or 8th inning but not the 9th because that's the closer's job, you can't get saves (even if the situation you were in was just as important or more important than when the actual closer comes in later on), but you can still get a blown save if you give up the lead.
- Error (E): Charged by the official scorer when he or she feels that a fielder misplayed a ball, allowing a batter or runner to advance, when that advance would have been stopped given "ordinary effort". This is a very chancy and subjective statistic for measuring fielding, not in the least that it requires the fielder in question to do something right (being in position to make an "ordinary effort") in order to do something wrong. Also, the definition of "error" excludes most mental errors, such as throwing to the wrong base or failing to cover a base.
However, starting in the 1970s, a new generation of amateur stats jockeys, led by Baseball Abstract publisher Bill James, began to call into question the utility of many of these stats for determining the effectiveness of a team's offense and defense.
Take, for example, batting average. For most of baseball's existence, it has been the prime metric of offensive production, and players like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Ichiro Suzuki have been paid millions upon millions of dollars for their ability to hit for a high average. However, batting average corresponds poorly to a team's total runs scored (total runs scored and total runs allowed correspond very well with the number of games won in a season- a formula using runs scored and allowed as inputs known as the "Pythagorean Formula of Baseball" tends to give a number very close to the team's actual winning percentage, usually to within 5 games, although not always). High-average hitters are more often than not contact hitters, and since they don't have the power to intimidate pitchers, they draw few pitches and few walks. Meanwhile, the fat power hitter with an eye for good pitches is wearing out pitchers left and right (forcing a team into less-capable relievers earlier), and with all the walks he is drawing, getting on base the same or better as the contact hitter. And, when he is hitting, he's driving extra-base hits and home runs.
Sabermetricians (the name comes from the Society of American Baseball Research) have dismissed stats like ERA and RBI under similar arguments. For most of their existence, sabermetricians have been ignored by the baseball establishment, settling for mutual contempt. However, in the 1990s, the Oakland A's, under general manager Sandy Alderson, began rebuilding their minor league system along sabermetric lines (particularly a high demand for on-base-percentage). Alderson's replacement, Billy Beane, was able to reform the major league team in the same manner, using sabermetrics to find winning players on the cheap, and with the lowest payroll in all of baseball, was able to regularly produce winning seasons and playoff appearances despite losing all their best stars to free agency, star in a bestselling book, and be played by Brad Pitt in a major Hollywood production. The A's success did not go unnoticed, and as the 2000's went on many other teams began using similar "Moneyball" tactics, but supplemented the A's sabermetric knowledge with much higher payrolls, a strategy often referred to as "Moneyball with Money", which ended up pricing the A's out of the markets they established (being the A's, they went on to establish new ones). One of the most notable early adopters among the richer teams being the Boston Red Sox, who used these Moneyball-but-with-more-money tactics to end their 86-year World Series drought in 2004 and win it 3 more times over the next 14 years, but they're far from the only example; these days every team uses sabermetrics to evaluate players, usually in ways far beyond what the A's were doing in the 90's and early 2000's.
Commonly Used Sabermetric Stats:
There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of different stats that sabermetricians have invented over the years, of varying accuracy and utility. Listed here are a few of the ones that are most commonly used that you will likely see mentioned at some point if you pay much attention to sabermetrics. They're all generally agreed to be more useful than most traditional statistics by sabermetricians, but even among them there are plenty of disagreements over which ones are better.
- Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA): Although OBP, SLG, and OPS are all more useful than Batting Average as a measure of hitter value, they all have problems- OBP assumes all methods of getting on base are equally valuable, SLG assumes the value of extra bases is linear when it's much less than linear (Two singles are worth considerably more than a double and an out, for instance), and OPS assumes SLG and OBP have equal value. Weighted On-Base Average attempts to correct for this by calculating the approximate value of every result of a plate appearance except intentional walks (Walks, Hit by Pitches, Singles, Doubles, Triples, and Home Runs) and setting it on a scale so that the average wOBA is close to the average OBP (generally somewhere in the neighborhood of .320). Because offense levels vary from year to year, the exact calculations for wOBA also vary from year to year.
- Runs Created (RC): One of the oldest sabermetric statistics, created in the 1980s by Bill James. It basically tries to look at the Run Value of all of the things a player does offensively, and sum them all up to get the total number of Runs Created over a season. It has in recent years largely been replaced by the more accurate Weighted Runs Created (wRC), which was based of of the original Runs Created formula and wOBA.
- Defense-Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS): A catch-all term for a number of different statistics that attempt to calculate what a pitcher's ERA would be if they pitched for a league-average defense. Usually looks most closely and Strikeouts, Walks, and Home Runs, the so-called "Three True Outcomes" that are almost entirely in control of the pitcher and hitter- ignoring the receiving abilities of the catcher and the occasional home run robbed by an outfielder, the defense never touches the ball on any of these plays. The most commonly used is probably Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), though all have their strengths and weaknesses. (One interesting weakness of FIP is that it can actually be negative over a sufficiently small span of innings, which is completely illogical.)
- Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP): Exactly What It Says on the Tin, the total of the walks and hits given up by a pitcher divided by the total number of innings pitched. A sort of inverse to the OBP, it gives a rough estimate of how likely a pitcher is to allow base runners.
- Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP): Both a hitting and pitching statistic, it measures batting average only on balls hit into the field of play- basically, it ignores strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Usually considered to be a good indicator of how "lucky" someone has been, since both hitters and pitchers usually don't have much control over exactly what happens once a ball is put in play. The League Average BABIP is around .290-.300; while some hitters can sustain a BABIP higher than this through making consistently good contact or being fast enough to get infield singles on balls that would ordinarily be outs, the vast majority of pitchers can't sustain a BABIP very far off the average, so if a pitcher has a BABIP significantly outside the norm, there's a strong chance that it will regress towards the mean. There are some exceptions, though, the most common being pitchers who are really good at getting opposing batters to hit infield pop-ups - the San Francisco Giants' Matt Cain, for instance, consistently maintained a BABIP around .260 for six straight seasons through this skill. Unlike other types of batted balls, where tiny shifts can mean the difference between a hit and an out, infield pop-ups are nearly automatic "free" outs nearly all the time, and sabermetricians consider them to be basically the equivalent of a strikeout.
- Wins Above Replacement (WAR): A statistic that attempts to capture every single thing a player does — hitting, baserunning, fielding, and pitching — and put it into one statistic. Other elements, such as park affects and positional adjustment and teammate ability, are factored in as well. As you might guess from the name, it tells you how many wins that player was worth, relative to a hypothetical "replacement player" who has value roughly equal to that of a player that could be acquired for basically nothing, such as waiver-wire players or the best minor leaguers. There are a few approaches used to calculate this number, most notably those put out by FanGraphs (called fWAR) and Baseball Reference (called bWAR); nevertheless, WAR is considered to be a valuable catch-all statistic to employ.
- Adjusted ERA (ERA+): A pitching statistic that attempts to normalize Earned Run Average in relation to league average ERA and include park adjustment. A league-average ERA+ is always 100, with higher numbers being better. The stat allows the user to compare ERA numbers across different run environments. Essentially the pitching analog to OPS+.
- Adjusted OPS (OPS+): A hitting statistic that attempts to normalize On-base percentage Plus Slugging average in relation to league-average OPS and include park adjustment. A league-average OPS+ is always 100, with higher numbers being better. The stat allows the user to compare OPS numbers across different run environments. Essentially the hitting analog to ERA+.
In addition to its published rules, baseball has assembled a collection of "unwritten" rules over the years. These dictate, to some degree, the conduct and sportsmanship required of those playing the game.
- When hitting a ball fair, the hitter is expected to hustle to first base regardless of how obvious an out it is. Easy catches can always be muffed.
- When hitting a home run, the hitter is expected to treat it as another fly ball; i.e., jogging, as opposed to showcasing any sort of celebratory action (e.g. flipping the bat, taunting the opposing players). The pace of jogging is expected to be brisk.note
- No matter how many people call it a "walk", similarly, jog to first base.
- As a general rule, hustle everywhere on the field.
- When facing a pitcher who has given up a home run, don't swing for the fences on the first pitch, lest his second one be aimed at your head.
- If it's made indicative that a no-hitter or a perfect game's set to happen, if you're at bat, take earnest swings at the plate, and don't bunt. However, if the game is still close (within one or two runs) or in the early innings, nobody's going to argue the point very hard.
- Don't steal bases if your team has a large lead.
- Similarly, don't try to run up the score.
- However, this particular unwritten rule ran head-on into a written rule in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, in which run differential was used as a tiebreaker, giving teams a potential incentive to run it up and resulting in a bench-clearing brawl between Canada and Mexico. In an effort to prevent a repeat occurrence, the tiebreaker for the next World Baseball Classic in 2017 was changed to only use runs allowed.
- Don't cross in front of the umpire or catcher when going to the batter's box.
- Don't fraternize with the opposing team or the umpiresnote .
- Don't take clubhouse matters outside of the clubhouse.
- If your team is losing the game, don't act like you're having a good time.
- The strike zone belongs to the pitcher, don't try to crowd it. Pitchers have ways of uncrowding it in a hurry.
- Rules for "acceptable" and "unacceptable" times a pitcher can throw at the batter:
- If their pitcher plunks your hitter, it's perfectly acceptable to plunk a batter in retaliation. Keep it at or below the uniform numbers, and don't aim for limbs.
- Throwing at a hitter simply because you can't get anyone out, however, is considered poor form.
- If hit by a pitch, don't show pain or rub the area while on the field.
- Except for whomever it is that's playing catcher, players should stay clear of home plate when a pitcher is warming up.
- When a batter from your team gets into a fight, everyone is to clear the dugout and break up the brawl and/or assist, no matter how wrong he is. Nine on one is never good odds.
- When ejected from a game, always "get your money's worth" (continue arguing with the umpire until someone arrives to take you back to the clubhouse). Similarly, managers are expected to step up and so-little-as pull the umpire aside for further advocacy on behalf of any ejected player, regardless of how blatant his misconduct.
- Rookies are expected to act like they've been there before; not getting overly excited at big plays or home runs.
- Don't blatantly take advantage of a pitcher who is a bad fielder; i.e., don't keep bunting the ball into the pitcher's mound.
- Don't intentionally call time-outs late in regulation so as to break the pitcher's concentration.
- It is considered bad luck for his teammates to speak to a pitcher who is in the process of throwing a no-hitter.
It should be noted, however, that the only way of enforcing these rules on the opposing team is by throwing the ball at them, and/or charging the mound. While baseball isn't ice hockey, bench-clearing brawls almost always lead to fines and suspensions, and always have the possibility of injury.
Baseball was first dubbed America's "national pastime" or "national game" sometime in the 1850s. And while it hasn't been the most popular US team spectator sport in surveys since the 1960s (having fallen behind American football), it is still consistently near the top (almost always no. 2, at worst no. 3 behind basketball) in those surveys. Not to mention that some baseball people are secretly relishing football's current problems with head injuries, and some commentators' speculation that the gridiron game may eventually go the way of boxing — a sport so violent that, while it has a small and devoted fanbase, is no longer nearly as popular as it once was — has piqued baseball's (and other sports') collective schadenfreude. It's also telling that the yearly attendance for Major League Baseball is more than that of every other major North American pro sports league combined (although this admittedly is due in part to baseball having a longer schedule — starting from late March or early April and usually ending at the end of September for the regular season and the end of October for the World Series — and its teams playing virtually every day). The sport has also left a big imprint on American culture, as manifested in the country's language, entertainment, and perhaps most tellingly sexual activities. Important historical players, such as Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, are often cited as metaphors when describing athletes from other sports and/or countries with which many Americans may be less familiar (e.g. "the Babe Ruth of soccer" or "the Jackie Robinson of Japan").
At all levels, the culture of baseball differs from that of other North American sports. For many, going to a baseball game is as much an excuse to have a leisurely day with friends as it is a sporting event. While it doesn't quite go to the extent of cricket in being a picnic with something to watch, the nature of the sport lends itself to being watched only casually by a good portion of the folks in the stands. At the professional level, the only-vaguely-baseball-related ballpark spectacle can be as much of a draw as the actual game— more of a draw, in fact, when the home team sucks. This is part of the reason that baseball has maintained its popularity; attending a game in person is much a social outing as it is a sporting event. Young people can go to cheer mindlessly as they get sloshed on usually-overpriced beer,note while families can enjoy some of the odd food items and distractions, and of course diehard fans do get to watch their team do something interesting every once in a while. In stadiums with lawn seating, picnic baskets are not uncommon at lower levels (especially in the amateur game). In other words, a baseball game — at least during the regular season — generally has a much more relaxed atmosphere than you'll find in football, basketball, or hockey. (That is, unless it's a Yankees/Red Sox, Dodgers/Giants, or Cubs/Cardinals game.)
The near-undisputed top professional league in the world is the USA's Major League Baseball. With 30 teams (29 in the United States, one in Canada) and players that come from (as of the beginning of the 2019 season) about 16 different countries or territories (sometimes more, sometimes fewer). Unless you live in Asia or Cuba, this is the level of competition that the average ballplayer is striving for. Also known as MLB, "the Major Leagues", "the Majors", "the Big Leagues", "the Bigs", "the Big Show", "the Show", and sometimes just "Baseball".
For more information, check its dedicated page.
To get to the Majors, most players (with the exception of people coming over from Japan's league and occasionally a rare prodigy) have to go through time in the Minor Leagues, lower leagues in smaller cities where every team is made up of players who are the property of a major league club. More information can be found on its own dedicated page.
- The Independent Leagues are like the minor leagues, but before 2021 had no connection at all to Major League Baseball, much less its teams. Starting in 2021, four of these leaguesnote became official "MLB Partner Leagues", but even those leagues hire their own players (usually at a lower salary than even a Minor Leaguer). Although generally this is a "last gasp" place where the careers of has-beens, never-wases, and never-will-bes go to die, some players will get signed by affiliated clubs after playing in indy leagues, every so often even making it to the majors, and on occasion an affiliated player will suit up for an independent team, as during a salary dispute or to prove that an injury wasn't as serious as thought. Due to the generally low level of play, independent teams often make up for it with over-the-top promotions and giveaways, although this is also common for many Minor League teams.
- College Baseball is not followed from a spectator standpoint nearly as much as its Basketball and Football counterparts. There are a few reasons for this. For one, many top prospects are drafted right out of High School. Second, all but the very, very, very, best collegiate players will still have to go through a few years of the minor leagues, dampening any "buzz" they might generate. Third, they use metallic or composite bats, which means that their offensive statistics are somewhat inflated — though in 2009 the NCAA outlawed composite bats to lessen hitting power and injury risk. Two years later, the NCAA made composite bats legal again, but limited the "coefficient of restitution" (a measure of the relative speed of two objects after a collision) of all bats made of materials other than one-piece solid wood. That led to a noticeable decline in offensive production, although it was alleviated somewhat when the NCAA tweaked the ball specifications in 2020. Finally, due to weather and economic issues related to it, warm-weather schools from the South and West have tended to dominate competition. The top collegiate competition is the annual Men's College World Seriesnote held in Omaha, Nebraska, and the current champions are the Ole Miss Rebels.
- High School baseball has similar problems to College: all but the very, very, very best are still going to have to go through the minors, so it's not like a prospect can get much "buzz" like a top football or basketball recruit.
- Little League and other youth organizations such as Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken Baseball and RBI Baseball are, of course, organized leagues for younger people, basically from as soon as someone is old enough to swing a bat until they are eligible for college (sometimes even longer). Little League itself is the largest youth sports organization in the world, and its Little League World Series (which differs from the Men's College and MLB World Series in that it actually has teams from different continents) in Williamsport, Pennsylvanianote draws pretty large crowds, is shown on ESPN and ABC, and has featured many future Major Leaguers back when they were young innocent 12-year-olds. The current champion is the El Segundo Little League, out of the Los Angeles suburb of that name.
- Negro Leagues Now defunct, but from about 1887 to 1947 Major League Baseball instituted a color line, barring players of African descent (this was technically a gentleman's agreement since neither the American nor National Leagues had an explicit policy. The result was the creation of a "third" major league (although many of its teams were not as consistently financially viable as their white counterparts) consisting of the top African-American talent. Many Negro League teams were often on par with or better than their white counterparts. Sometimes it would exist as a formal league other times it would exist as a collection of barnstorming teams. After 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, Negro League teams hemorrhaged talent to the Majors. The Negro American League formally folded in 1958 and the final Negro League team to exist, the Indianapolis Clowns, lasted until the 1980s.
- The All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Also now defunct, the "Girls League" was created by chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs Philip Wrigley in response to the most popular male professional baseball players going off to fight in World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that professional baseball was important to national morale, and asked the various team owners to come up with ways to keep it going despite the war's draw on the players. In 1943, Wrigley, who knew a thing or two about baseball from owning the Cubs (Wrigley Field is named for his father), decided to create a league made up of teams of women recruited from various fast-pitch softball leagues around the country, who would play pro baseball (not softball) in small cities across Midwest. After a slow start, the league became very popular during the latter years of the war. It finally folded in 1954, under pressure from competition with the newfound pastime of following the Majors on TV, when the Major Leagues decreed that women were to be banned from organized professional baseball. This diktat had no legal force, of course, but since the club owners tended to also own Major League teams, they dropped the AAGPBL like a hot potato. It should be noted that some of the players in this league generated playing records that are easily comparable to the greatest baseball players in the major leagues. The story of the league was dramatized (and fictionalized) in the movie A League of Their Own.
- The Savannah Bananas, a professional exhibition team based in the Georgia city, have achieved considerable internet fame in the 2020s for their unique hijinks (many of them over-the-top even by independent-league standards, though suitable for kids) and even more unique ruleset, which they call "Banana Ball". The team started out as a collegiate summer baseball operation in 2016 playing under standard rules, and enjoyed strong success in that sphere, selling out every game since the middle of their first season. However, what caused them to truly take off was their exhibition side, which has sold out every single game it's played, both in Savannah and on tour,note since Banana Ball launched in 2020. After the 2022 season, they shut down their college summer operation and went all-in on Banana Ball. For their regular exhibitions, they split into two squads, and unlike the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals, both sides are trying to win. The rules are similar to standard baseball, but with some wild twists:
- While runs are scored, they don't directly count toward the game score. The team that scores the most runs in each inning gets a point—except in the 9th inning, where each run earns a point. If an inning ends with one team having 5 points and a lead, the game ends.
- There's a strictly enforced 2-hour time limit. If either team is ahead at that time, it wins. In case of a tie, see below.
- Batters cannot step out of the batter's box. A violation is an automatic strike.
- No bunting is allowed. An attempted bunt results in the batter's ejection.
- Batters can steal first base. Specifically, the batter can attempt to advance to first on any wild pitch or passed ball, regardless of the ball-strike count.
- Walks become "sprints". The batter starts running the bases. Yes, we said bases. The catcher must throw the ball to a fielder other than the pitcher, starting a sequence of throws in which all fielders other than the catcher and pitcher must touch the ball. The batter-runner cannot be put out until said sequence is completed.
- Ties are broken by a one-on-one showdown. Each team chooses a hitter and a pitcher. The pitching team can have only the pitcher, catcher, and a single fielder. A batter who hits a fair ball must run the bases while the pitcher and fielder chase the ball and return it to the catcher for a play at home. (There are provisions for walks.)
- No mound visits are allowed.
- Foul balls caught by fans count as outs.
Baseball came to Cuba in the 1860s. Brought by Cubans who studied in the United States and American sailors in Cuban ports. Nemisio Guillo is credited with bringing a bat and baseball to Cuba in 1864 after being schooled in Mobile, Alabama. Soon after this, the first Cuban War of Independence against its Spanish rulers spurred Spanish authorities in 1869 to ban playing the sport in Cuba. The reasons were because Cubans began to prefer baseball to viewing bullfights, which Cubans were expected to dutifully attend as homage to their Spanish rulers in an informal cultural mandate. As such, baseball became symbolic of freedom and egalitarianism to the Cuban people. Until the 1959 communist revolution Cuba was a hotbed for Major League scouts. Afterwords, Cuban professional baseball was shut down and replaced by "amateurs." This resulted in Cuba becoming the most powerful team on the international stage since Major League clubs refused to allow their talent to play in international competitions. Major League money is still a powerful lure to their players, and those brave enough to do so, often defect to the US. This lure is so powerful that when the Cuban national team is playing abroad the Cuban government will rely on police state tactics to prevent defections. The impending normalization of US-Cuban relations, if it comes to full fruition, is expected to regularize the process for Cuban players entering the Majors (which they had started to do a lot more anyway) and there's even talk that the Major Leagues might put a team in Cuba at some point in the (somewhat distant) future; a team in the Minor Leagues is more likely (and not unprecedented; the International League had the Havana Sugar Kings from 1954 until 1960).
Cuban refugees brought the game to the Dominican Republic in the nineteenth century, and the Island soon developed a thriving domestic league. After the communist revolution closed Cuba to the majors the Dominican Republic became a major pipeline for Major League talent. The island is home to numerous baseball academies run by MLB clubs seeking to find those diamonds in the rough. The Dominican Republic are also the the champions of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Baseball was first played in Japan in 1873 at Kaisei Gakko (now Tokyo University) under the instruction of an American teacher, Horace Wilson. Around 1880 the first Japanese baseball team was organized at the Shimbashi Athletic Club, and several college teams were formed in Tokyo. During the period 1890 to 1902, a team from the First Higher School in Tokyo played and often defeated a team made up of American residents in Yokohama; the publicity for these games helped make baseball one of the most popular Western sports in Japan. Since World War II, baseball is the most popular spectator sport in Japan; no doubt the American-led occupation had something to do with that. High school baseball in Japan is immensely popular, especially the National High School Baseball Tournament held every August at Koshien Stadium.
Various other places got the game variously. Most of the Caribbean got it through American and Cuban evangelists for the game. Korea and China got it through a combination of Japanese imperialism and literal American evangelism (American Protestant preachers were as thick as bees in late 19th and early 20th century Korea and China; many locals said "thanks but no thanks" to the Protestantism but gladly took the fun new hobby of bashing a ball with a stick). In China, most of the best players and coaches fled to Taiwan after the Communists won the Civil War and while the game is the most popular sport on the island (to the point that youth baseball is featured on the Taiwanese $500 billnote ), it is only now starting to recover on the mainland. The Netherlands received baseball through an energetic American English teacher, although the fact that the Netherlands Antilles (in the Caribbean) are well within the American sphere of influence and play baseball as their main sport has an impact as well.note
Other than the earlier elaborated leagues in North America, professional leagues (or professional level in the case of Communist Cuba) exist in (in rough order of level of play- although not necessarily of the baseball playing abilities of that country): Japan, Cuba, Korea, Mexico,note the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Italy and China.
Australia has had professional baseball on-and-off since the 1980s, but after 2002 went for about a decade without a stable league. (The demise of that league came three years after the country's one MLB player bought the entire league.) A new league, the Australian Baseball League, was established for the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2010–11. It now looks to be a stable fixture in the Aussie sporting landscape, though not at the profile of, say, Aussie rules, cricket, rugby, or soccer. Soon after the league was formed, MLB purchased a majority stake, with Baseball Australia (the national federation) owning the remainder. MLB sold out to BA in 2016, but will remain in an advisory role for the immediate future. The league recently expanded, with two new teams joining in the 2018-2019 season. Interestingly, one team, Geelong-Korea, is made up entirely of Korean nationals. The sport experienced explosive growth at the youth level in the 21st century—the country had no Little League-affiliated youth leagues before 2007, but by 2012 close to 400 were operating, and the country has had its own berth in the Little League World Series since 2013.
Colombia, Nicaragua, the Philippines and several other European countries have semi-professional leagues, although little information is available on them.
Although it tends to be scoffed at in the modern United Kingdom due to its resemblance to rounders (a similar game, albeit with shorter bats, which is regarded as a children's sport in the UK), baseball enjoyed a burst of popularity there in The '30s. This culminated in England beating the United States in the final of the very first Baseball World Cup in 1938. However, the interruption of World War II largely killed off the sport's popularity there (and led to joking conspiracy theories among enthusiasts that the Americans secretly engineered the war to prevent England from beating them again).
After World War II the Americans tried to introduce Germans to the sport (as seen in the 1948 movie A Foreign Affair, in which where these efforts are depicted as somehow helping Germans to learn the values of democracy). The fact that the ball-and-stick game Schlagball had been quite popular before the war could have helped, but the people of the American zone and West Berlin stuck to playing football (soccer). In later decades German baseball teams made their appearance, but these had to start from scratch, and to this day baseball is a small niche sport in Germany that gets less attention than handball, volleyball or field hockey.
Baseball was an official Olympic sport from 1992 to 2008. The reason it isn't any longer is because the IOC, citing the fact that Major League players were not allowed to participate in the tournament due to conflict with the regular season (among other reasons, such as the steroid problems of MLB and the fact that the sport is not popular in Europe, from which most of the influential IOC members hail), dropped the sport from the program, along with Distaff Counterpart softball.
In response to that, Major League Baseball, along with the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), the sport's international governing body at that timenote , instituted the World Baseball Classic. This sixteen-team tournament — first held in 2006, with the second edition held in 2009 and future tournaments to be held in 2013, 2017, etc. — takes place in March, right before the MLB regular season, and many of the players are on MLB teams, unlike in most tournaments. Japan won the first two WBCs played so far, and has a bit of a rivalry with South Korea for obvious reasons. The Dominican Republic won the 2013 edition of the tournament. The USA were something of a disappointment, being eliminated in the second round in both 2006 and 2013, and losing in the semifinals in 2009. In 2017, they finally broke through, reaching the finals for the first time and then defeating Puerto Rico 8-0 to win their first championship.
Following later changes in the Olympic format that allow host nations to add a limited number of IOC-recognized sports to the program, baseball and softball returned for the 2020 (2021) Games in Tokyo, and may return for 2028 in Los Angeles.
In 2018, the WBSC created a new variant of the sport known as Baseball5, intending it as a more accessible entry point to baseball and softball. Similarities between Baseball5 and the standard game are the use of a ball, four bases, a fixed batting order, the concept of innings, the number of outs per inning, and methods of putting players out. The differences are:
- Each side has 5 players. While this variant allows single-sex and mixed teams, international competition for now is strictly mixed, with teams required to have at least two players of each sex on the field at any given time.
- The ball is slightly smaller than an adult baseball, and is rubber.
- The playing field is a 21-meter square, with 3 m of foul territory along the first- and third-base lines, and the bases being 13 m apart. Ideally, a wall 1 m high surrounds the playing field, but the rules allow for other boundaries, such as existing walls or line markings.
- The bases are simply markings on the playing field; they are not physical cushions. Baseball5 uses the "double first base" employed in international (though not NCAA) softball and in many youth baseball leagues.
- The physical positioning of the bases is subtly different from that seen in the regular game. Home plate is the only base that lies within the infield square; all other bases are positioned so that they are touching the outside of the infield square.
- Also, home plate is a square instead of a pentagon.
- There's no pitcher. The hitter starts with the ball in his or her hand.
- The batter's box is a 3-meter square directly behind home plate. The hitter must stay within the batter's box until hitting the ball... with his or her hand (or fist).
- No gloves are allowed for fielding or hitting.
- The hitter must strike the ball on his or her first attempt; missing the ball is an automatic out.
- A hit ball must bounce on the ground within fair territory, with the first bounce outside of a triangle in front of home plate. The boundary of said triangle is a line parallel to the line between first and third bases, meeting the foul lines 4.5 m from the rear of home plate. The struck ball must also have enough momentum to reach the outfield wall (unless touched by a defender), and also cannot touch or go over the outfield fence on the fly. Any violation of these rules is also an automatic out.
- Baserunners cannot leave their bases until the ball is hit; a violation is an automatic out for the runner.
- Sliding into a base is illegal; this also results in an out for the hitter or runner as applicable.
- Games last 5 innings, with ties broken by extra innings as in standard baseball. Each extra inning starts with a runner on first base, namely the player scheduled to bat fifth in that inning.
- A mercy rule is used. The game automatically ends if a team has a 15-run lead after the trailing team has completed 3 innings, or a 10-run lead after 4.
The WBSC holds a mixed-sex B5 World Cup every year, alternating between senior and youth teams. The variant will make its Olympic debut at the 2026 Summer Youth Olympics.
- A success is a "home run".
- If you make a great success, you "hit it out of the park".
- A tremendous success is a "grand slam".
- Strange ideas "come out of left field" (as throws from left field to first are the rarest and most unusual in baseball).
- Inappropriate talk is "off base".
- If you failed at something, you "struck out".
- A more fleeting failure is a "swing and a miss".
- Someone who hasn't talked to you in a while might wish to check up on you, just to "touch base".
- In a brainstorming session, you might "bat around" an idea.
- In trying to convince someone to buy something, you make a sales "pitch".
- If a coworker proves unable to perform a task (such as, say, giving a presentation) at the last minute, you may well be called upon to "pinch-hit" for them.
- A rough estimate is a "ballpark figure".
- If two things are so different they can't be compared to one another, they're "not even in the same ballpark."
- For a similar comparison, you can say that the two incomparable things are "not even in the same league;" similarly, to suggest that something is far superior to other, theoretically similar things or is otherwise unique, it's "in a league of its own." This can be extended; if a small subgroup within a wider group are mostly vying among themselves to be the best or are doing something uniquely, they're "playing in a higher league" or "a different league" or "another league." (This usage could have come from other sports with "leagues" of course, but historically it came from baseball, with the reference being to the split between the Majors and the Minors and among the gradations of Minors; it also comes from baseball sportswriters who were prone to saying that the top few teams in the AL or NL were "playing in a higher league" when their baseball was so much better than the rest.)
- If you reach the top level of competition or professional prestige, you're "playing in the big leagues/the Majors."
- If you're on the cusp of this but have not been formally accepted you're "ready for the big leagues/Majors."note
- Someone who isn't fully trained may, by contrast, be called "not [yet] ready for the Majors."
- If you want to dismiss something as small-time and piddling, you call it "bush league" (a term historically used for really low-level minor league teams playing in the middle of nowhere.)
- If you haven't yet made a mistake, you're "batting a thousand". Similarly, "nobody bats a thousand" is a way of acknowledging that nobody is perfect; a career-long 1.000 batting average is functionally impossible due to the difficulty of hitting a baseball and successfully getting on base, plus the sheer length of a baseball season.
- If you've got contingency plans for everything, you're "covering all your bases".
- When something unexpectedly difficult happens, life is "throwing you a curveball".
- If someone is going easy on you, particularly with interview questions, they're "throwing softballs."
- If someone is seriously testing or challenging you, they're "playing hardball." This usage is particularly common when talking about negotiations.
- Also, in politics, bargaining and maneuvering for pure political gain (rather than for ideological reasons or to achieve policy objectives) is also called "playing hardball." (This is why Chris Matthews' show on MSNBC is called Hardball.)
- If someone is crazy, he's gone completely "screwball". By the same token, a madcap comedy (especially a madcap parody of a Romantic Comedy) is called a Screwball Comedy (because it goes the opposite way you expect it to, like a screwball pitch breaks the opposite of how a pitcher's pitches usually breaks).
- Laws that call for mandatory jail sentences after the third offense are called "three strikes laws".
- Someone trying for a big, improbable win, such as shooting the moon in Hearts, is "swinging for the fences".
- If something minute and technical has great importance to people who know a subject well, it's "inside baseball."note Very often used in the political context, where "this is a little bit inside baseball" is a common preface meaning "this involves about ten minutes of you hearing who hates whose guts in the House Republican caucus and why that matters" (or something to that effect). (The District has always had an affinity for baseball analogies, even though it went for over thirty years—1971-2005—without a baseball team.)
- "That's the ballgame" is used to describe a situation that is effectively wrapped up or concluded, even if it isn't technically over yet. This can, unsurprisingly, sometimes wind up tempting fate.
- The term "hit" meaning a "success" (e.g. a "hit song" or "hit movie") might even be baseball, as of course a "hit" in baseball is the desired result for a batter. If it is, it's lost all connection; the term is old enough that we can't tell and has spread beyond the US.
One of the biggest effects, though, is on American sexual slang. Here goes:
- In foreplay, the various bases indicate how close the couple are to intercourse. Usually, it goes like this:
- "Strikeout" is not getting anywhere.
- "First base" is making out (i.e. kissing with tongues).
- "Second base" is playing with the breasts or other non-genitalia erogenous zones, with most clothing still on.
- "Third base" is playing with the genitalia, including oral sex, with most if not all clothing removed.
- "Hitting a home run" in this context is often called "going all the way" and means...going all the way. "Scoring" is another useful term.
- Among gay men, the one on top during intercourse is said to be the "pitcher" and the one on the bottom is said to be the "catcher".
- Bisexuals are said to be "switch hitters" or to "bat for both teams" (the latter being used in some cricketing nations). The former is the only one of this string of metaphors that occasionally requires clarification as to whether the person is talking about sexual orientation, or actual baseball.
- Relatedly, someone of a different sexual orientation "bats for the other team" (e.g.: Straight Guy: "Don't bother hitting on Maryanne, she bats for the other team" or Gay Guy: "Jimmy's hot, but he bats for the other team.")
Tropes that often come into play in baseball-related works of fiction:
- Big Fun: Because the most important skill in the sport is the ability to hit a baseball, and because that's a skill with only a limited relationship to traditional measures of fitness and athleticism, baseball has a much wider range of body types among its stars than other sports — you have skinny guys, short guys and, most famously, some very large, overweight guys. Baseball is particularly well known for that last group of players, and you can expect fictional baseball teams to have at least a couple overweight sluggers, often portrayed as big, happy dudes. Babe Ruth often gets this portrayal in pop culture, and Saturday Night Live has portrayed David Ortiz as a garrulous, food-obsessed goofster.
- Down to the Last Play: Important games in works of media almost always end with a big dramatic play, usually either a home run, a strikeout, or an incredible defensive play (usually a leaping/diving catch or a close play at the plate). You never see a climactic game end with a routine groundout to shortstop or a low arc out to left-center.
- The "down by three with the bases loaded, a full count and one out to go'" is a popular setup for a game-winning walk-off grand slam. In reality, this has been done exactly twice in the majors. Twice, in more than 200,000 games. Even discarding the "full count" and "two outs" qualifiers, the game-winning grand slam has only happened 29 times in all. It's a feat nearly as rare as a perfect game or unassisted triple play.note
- The only two walk-off grand slams that fit the complete scenario were by Alan Trammell for the Detroit Tigers on June 21, 1988 against the New York Yankees and Chris Hoiles for the Baltimore Orioles against the Seattle Mariners on May 17, 1996.
- On September 27, 2011, all but the full count happened as the Arizona Diamondbacks staged a 10th-inning Miracle Rally against the Dodgers — who scored five runs in the top of the inning — with two outs and nobody on. Ryan Roberts capped off a six-run rally by hitting a walk-off grand slam on the first pitch. The Diamondbacks won this game 7-6.
- June 2, 2015, top of the ninth inning, down by three runs, bases loaded, two outs, and two strikes against him, Alex Guerrero of the Los Angeles Dodgers hits a grand slam home run that puts his team one run ahead of the Colorado Rockies. They maintained the lead to win the game 9-8. An especially cinematic-feeling outcome because the home run was very close to the wall and went over the outfielder's glove by mere inches. (And the fact that the outfielder acted like he caught it. Reaching into his glove with his free hand to reveal... he had nothing.)
- On August 12, 2018, the entire scenario, except for a three-ball count, happened when the Chicago Cubs pulled off their own miracle rally against the Washington Nationals. The Nats' starting pitcher Max Scherzer left the game after seven innings with a 1–0 lead, and they scored two more runs in the top of the ninth. Closer Ryan Madson came in, and got the first out. He then gave up an infield single and sandwiched the second out of the inning with two hit batters, loading the bases. The Cubs brought in pinch hitter David Bote, who sent a 2–2 pitch into the batter's eye in centerfield, giving the Cubbies an improbable 4–3 win.
- A recent notable example in college baseball came on June 2, 2019. In an elimination game in the Morgantown Regional of that year's NCAA Division I tournament, the region's top seed, West Virginia (which was designated as the away team despite playing at home) took a 6–0 lead over Texas A&M in the fifth inning, and led 9–1 after the top of the seventh. A&M proceeded to put 6 runs on the board in the bottom of that inning. WVU added one run in the eighth. In the bottom of the ninth, the full scenario played out. With two outs, the bases loaded, and the Mountaineers up 10–7, A&M's Bryce Blaum sent a 3–2 pitch over the left-field fence to give the Aggies a win just as improbable as any of the others listed above.
- Sometimes happens in real life games — in baseball, extra innings go on as long as necessary, and are often referred to as "bonus baseball" or "free baseball". If the home team takes a lead in its half of any inning after the 8th, the game immediately ends, with no further play. This has led to the concept of the "walk-off" hit, originally only a "walk-off home run" but the concept was since expanded to any hit that ends a ball game. The "walk-off" hit was originally coined by pitcher Dennis Eckersley, who intended it to indicate that the pitcher walks off the field with his head hung in shame but has come to mean that the batter-runner walks off the field to the adulation of his home crowd.
- Because baseball has no game clock, a team can be down to their last out and still win, no matter how far down they are. There are actually Real Life cases of a team being way down with two outs in the bottom of the 9th and winning the game because the defense wasn't able to record that final out (e.g. Cleveland's 9-run rally against Washington in 1901, final score 14-13).
- In 2011, the ultimate example of this came in the World Series. In Game 6, the St. Louis Cardinals were down by two runs to the Texas Rangers in the bottom of the ninth inning and were down to their last strike. The Cardinals' David Freese hit a deep triple to tie the game. In the 10th inning, the Rangers were up by a run and had the Cardinals down to their last strike again, only for Lance Berkman to drive in the tying run on a single. In the 11th inning, Freese stepped up and hit a home run to save the Cardinals from elimination, where they proceeded to win Game 7 and the championship.
- The "down by three with the bases loaded, a full count and one out to go'" is a popular setup for a game-winning walk-off grand slam. In reality, this has been done exactly twice in the majors. Twice, in more than 200,000 games. Even discarding the "full count" and "two outs" qualifiers, the game-winning grand slam has only happened 29 times in all. It's a feat nearly as rare as a perfect game or unassisted triple play.note
- Game of Nerds: Baseball's fandom probably has the highest geek quotient of any mainstream sport's, and several media works (especially those involving children) will have at least one kid who isn't really athletic but tries to make up for it with his knowledge of baseball's minutiae. The advent of sabermetrics and the rise of fantasy sports has taken this up to eleven.
- Mighty Glacier: First basemen and DHes tend to be portrayed this way because... well... most of them in Real Life tend to be big, slow, power hitters. In real baseball, significantly overweight players seem to frequently end up as pitchers (David Wells, Bartolo Colón, and CC Sabathia, to name some examples). This could be because pitching doesn't require a great deal of mobility, but possessing a lot of lower body strength comes in very handy.
- Put Me In, Coach!: With seemingly every other option exhausted, a neglected player comes out of nowhere to lead his team to victory. Happens in Real Life as well, though hardly ever under as dramatic of circumstances. One of the more extreme examples, which happens probably once or twice a year, if that, is when a game goes into an absurd number of extra innings and teams run out of viable pitchers, an available position player - usually one that had experience doing it in high school, college, or even in the minor leagues - will volunteer to pitch for an inning or possibly longer. Several position players have logged official pitching stats such as wins and saves in this manner.
- That One Rule: Typically this is the infield fly rule, which is probably baseball's only truly complicated rule. However, many rules can serve this purpose out of sheer obscurity; the rule on uncaught third strikes (that is: if the catcher doesn't catch the ball after the batter's third strike, the batter is entitled to try to run to first) and force-outs, among others, have been used for drama, as virtually anything can make or break a game. That includes real drama: those two rules cost the Brooklyn Dodgers the 1941 World Series and the New York Giants the 1908 NL pennant, respectively. Another candidate the "balk" rule; the concept is simple (a pitcher can't misdirect baserunners as to whether or not he's making a pitch), but deciding what does and doesn't constitute one is another matter.
- Who Needs Overtime?: The game is always decided in the ninth inning, win or lose. Teams never tie the game in the ninth and then win in extra innings. In Real Life, extra inning games are considered very exciting (if a bit exhausting at times) to the point of being called or at least considered "bonus baseball" by most fans, but in fiction, this violates The Law of Conservation of Detail.