There are dozens of plays that can occur in every at bat in baseball. Here are some basics to help you understand what is happening on the field.
Strike Zone: When a player is at bat the pitcher will throw either a ball or a strike. A strike means the ball crossed at a height between the batter’s knees and chest and in a position that crossed over home plate. If the ball is delivered outside of this area but arrives safely in the catcher’s glove, it is a ball on the offensive scorecard. The home plate umpire determines if the pitch is a ball or strike.
When a batter swings at a ball and misses, no matter the delivery, this is also a strike. If a batter makes contact with the ball but it does not land in fair territory by leaving the batters box, the box drawn in chalk around the home plate area, or it goes foul by crossing outside the white chalk lines before going over either 1st or 3rd base, then it is also a strike.
Outs: Each batter is allowed up to three strikes before they are called out. There are three outs allowed per team, per offensive attempt. Outs may occur in other ways, besides at the plate, but when the team reaches three, then their turn at offense has ended for the inning. Each team has nine chances, or innings, at both offense and defense with the home team going last. When the home team is ahead at the end of the visiting team’s final at bat, the last half inning does not need to be played.
Hits: When the batter makes contact with the ball and puts the ball in play, it is called a hit. There is a loophole to the three strikes and you’re out rule however. As long as a batter continues to make contact with the ball, the first two contacts are called strikes. In order for the batter to be struck out however, the batter must swing and miss the ball, pop the ball into the air where it can be caught without hitting the ground for the out or they must get a hit. Until they do, as long as they make contact, or the pitcher throws balls, they remain an active batter.
Walks: If the pitcher throws four balls, then the batter gets awarded 1st base. This is called a walk.
Base Running: When a batter hits the ball, they run to first base. Because they are running as fast as they can to arrive safely, they are allowed to overrun first base and not be called out. As long as they safely arrive on base before the ball, they are safe. If they overrun the base, they must do so by running straight ahead.
Players can overrun all the other bases as well but they must make it back to the bag before the ball makes it there. If they do not then they can be tagged out.
If a runner rounds any base, in other words faces the next base, then they are considered to have taken the lead off the base they are on. This indicates intention to take the next base and they will be deemed out if caught off either base. This includes first base.
Every time a batter successfully makes it around all the bases and back across home plate, they have scored a run for their team. One point is awarded for each player that scores.
Did he go?: Sometimes you will see a player begin to swing at a pitch then pull the head of the bat back at the last second. The home plate umpire will point to the first base umpire and ask, “Did s/he go,” before making a call. They are asking if the batter swung past the point of the center of the plate. If the 1st base umpire saw the barrelhead of the bat, then it is deemed to have crossed over, making it a completed swing, and it is counted as a strike. If not, the batter is deemed to have pulled back in time and the pitch is called a ball.
Uncaught Third Strike: On a called third strike with no one on base, if the pitch touches the ground before being caught by the catcher the batter immediately turns into an active runner and must be tagged out.
The situation is made clear by the umpire’s failure to call the batter out. With crowd noise, the expectation of the call and their position at the plate, often times it is their teammates that tell the batter they are getting a second chance by yelling “run”.
In those instances you may see the batter try to run for first but it rarely happens that s/he is not immediately tagged out because both catcher and pitcher can easily run down the ball, and the player, for the tag.
Often times, the batter does not realize the situation because their back is to the play. In any instance where the batter is unaware of the situation and is not in the process of running towards first as they leave the box they are deemed out.
A batter may be asked to hit the ball in a specific way in order to help runners increase their chance to score. These are offensive strategic techniques that allow the teams to “make something happen” for themselves.
Sacrifice Fly: A “sac fly” is used by the team to help a runner score. Let’s say you have a runner on first and second with no outs. The 3rd base coach may instruct the batter to hit the ball up in the air very high and very far. This will allow the runners time to “tag up” and still reach the next base safely.
Tagging up happens whenever a ball is hit in the air. A base runner can leave a base at any time but must have their foot on the bag they last arrived safely upon before they can make a play for the next base.
In the case of an out from the fly ball, they have to tag the base and then, once the out is made, they can safely leave for the next base. Hitting the ball far provides the runners time to get to the next base after the out.
When this play is successful, and a runner scores, the batter gets rewarded by not having the at-bat count against his personal batting statistics. He’s literally, “taking one for the team."
Bunt: Bunting is another offensive strategy that relies on the batter. The batter is instructed to “lay down the bunt." This means after the pitch is thrown they bring the head of the bat into their top hand and try to lightly tap the ball rather than make a full swing.
When contact is made correctly this results in a fair ball, one that is playable, but it is also closer to home plate than the fielders generally play. This forces the pitcher off the mound to field it, when their normal routine is to cover plays at 1st. This also creates a physical block between the catcher and the ball, the batter, which makes fielding the ball immediately more difficult. It is then harder to get the runner out but generally s/he is anyway.
What is the point of a bunt then? The purpose is to advance the runners at the sacrifice of the batter. You are hedging a bet that, by the time the defense gets their hands on the ball they will choose to throw out the runner going to first for the “easy out”. The distraction affords your other baserunners safe passage to the next bag.
Stealing bases: One way to advance through the bases is to wait for a hit from the batter. Another way is to steal a base.
Base stealing involves “leading off”, taking a few steps away from the base you are already on and heading toward the base where you would like to go. From the time the pitch is thrown until it lands back in the pitcher’s hands, it is in play. If the batter can help slow down that timeline, by swinging at a pitch that would otherwise be a ball and, therefore, the catcher would not be set up to throw for the out, then the runner has an opportunity to steal the base.
As long as s/he arrives on the next base before the defensive player with ball tags them with the hand holding the ball, then they are safe. If they feel they might be called out, they can also always return to the base where they were last called safe. In stealing, it all comes down to the tag.
That is why, on occasion, players get themselves into a “pickle” or “hotbox” by being caught in a “run down”. They get part way to the next base and realize they have gone too far in either direction to make it back without being tagged. That’s because a base runner must always remain inside the base path. They are not allowed to run around the tag if it means running out of the path designated for running and into the field of play. Doing so also makes them out.