In the coming week thousands of players around the world will head off to their favorite place for summer, the ball field. They will be excited and happy and wanting family, friends and partners to come watch. While players may know the rules of the game, and understand what’s happening on the field, often times, their supporters won’t.
We wanted to provide a really basic, cheat sheet for you to share with friends you introduce to the game so they can learn to love and enjoy it as much as you do!
Before we begin with rules, let’s go over some basic words of the sports.
Game: A competition is called a game.
Field: A baseball or softball game is played on a field.
Umpire: The person who officiates the game is called an umpire.
Batter: The person who holds the bat in their hand and swings at the ball is a batter.
Runner: Any person on base for the offense is a runner.
Fielder: A player on the field in a defensive role is a fielder.
Battery: The catcher and pitcher together make up the battery.
Base/bag: A base is also called a bag for 1st, 2nd and 3rd.
Home/homeplate: Homeplate is the hard plastic plate where the batter and umpire stand, and the catcher crouches to receive the pitch.
Mound: The mound is the area in the middle of the infield from where the pitcher throws.
Infield: The area inside the base paths including the area for runners.
Outfield: The area behind the bases but inside fair territory.
Neither baseball nor softball are timed sports. Each team places nine defensive players on the field, including a pitcher, to face off against one offensive player, the batter.
There are four bases. Where the batter stands, and the pitcher throws to, is called home plate. Then, from right to left from the stands you have 1st, 2nd and 3rd base. A player must make their way around all these bases, and back to home to score. When they do, their team receives one run on the scoreboard. The team with the most runs at the end of 9 innings in baseball if it is a single game, and 7 innings in softball, is the winner. If the score is tied after 9/7 innings the teams continue to play complete innings until one of them is ahead at the end.
The game is complete following the end of a certain number of innings. An inning has three parts, a top half, a middle and a bottom half. The top half of the inning ends when the first team to bat receives three outs. Then, the middle of the inning happens while the teams switch sides with the offense going out to play defense and the defense coming in to take their turn at bat. The bottom half of the inning occurs when the second team, usually the home team, bats. An inning is complete when both teams have received three outs on offense. Outs happen, generally, in one of three ways.
1) A batter strikes out: This means the batter swung at the ball and missed, or there was a pitch they should have swung at and didn’t because it was in the “strike zone” and the strike was called against them. If this happens three times, the batter is out on strikes.
The exception to this is if a batter swings and makes contact with the ball, but the ball does not leave the home plate area. This is called a foul tip. The first two foul tips count against the batter’s strike totals but a batter cannot be called out on foul tips so, as long as they continue to make contact with the ball, their at bat continues.
2) The second way a person is out is on a fly ball. If a batter hits the ball in the air and the person on the field can catch it without the ball making contact with the ground, then the batter is out. This includes at home plate. So, if a batter foul tips the ball high in the air and the catcher can catch it before it hits the ground, the batter is out.
3) The third way a person can be out is by being thrown out. There are a few ways this can happen. Starting while still at bat, if they hit the ball on the ground and the players on the field can get the ball to 1st base, the baseperson need only put their foot on the base with the ball in their hands before the runner arrives to the base for the runner to be out.
Once a batter reaches base safely, they become a base runner. As soon as they are on base they can be thrown out if they are caught with their foot off the base at any time. The difference now however is the runner must be tagged out. That means that, when they are off the base and the ball is thrown to the baseman, now the baseman must touch the runner with the hand that has the ball in it in order to get them out.
Baseball and softball are games ruled by the number three. Just as there are three outs per/side per inning, and three general ways to get out, there are also three ways to reach base safely as a batter.
Hits: You are likely familiar with the most common way, that is a batter hits the ball and makes it safely to base. There are four types of hits. All but the home run have the same rules and generally just depend on the distance the ball goes and the speed of the runners. A single, is a ball that allows a runner to safely reach 1st base. A double allows them to get to 2nd base and a triple is a hit that allows them to reach 3rd.
The homerun is a ball that is hit so far it leaves the park and become unplayable. In that case, everyone who is on the bases gets to come home and every runner scores. If a single player in one game were to hit at least one of each of these types of hits, they would have “hit for the cycle”. It is a very rare thing to have happen because triples are hard to get but also because most players don’t get up to bat enough in any one game. If a player manages to accomplish the cycle in order, single, double, triple then a homerun, it is called a natural cycle. In the history of the game roughly 200 players have hit for the cycle. Of those, only 16 were natural cycles. The last one occurred in 2016.
Walks: When a pitcher throws the ball to the batter they have to throw it within the strike zone. The strike zone is the area between the batter’s knees and the letters on the chest of the uniform in height. It also must cross over the plate on the ground. If it is anywhere within that area it is a strike. If it is anywhere outside of that area it is a ball. When the batter misses three in the strike zone the batter is out. However, when the pitcher fails to throw it into the strike zone four times, and the batter doesn’t swing at those pitches, then the batter has earned the right to take 1st base. This is called a walk.
HBP: HBP means Hit By Pitch. When a batter is at the plate sometimes a pitcher can lose control on the release of a ball and accidentally hit the batter. When that happens, the batter is automatically awarded 1st base. A batter must do everything they can to step out of the way of the ball but, when contact is made, the base is theirs.
Hit: A hit happens when the batter makes good contact with the ball, meaning it stays between the foul lines – in the field of play – and it drops to the ground before a fielder touches it. Once the fielder has it, the batter, who has become a runner now, reaches the base they are headed to safely – which means before the throw to that base makes it.
This 3-minute video goes over some of additional basics, including the scope of the field, and uses visual examples to help you understand what things look like in live action.
Complete Game: In baseball a full game is usually 9 innings. That changes when a double-header is played. A double-header means two games together on the same day. When that happens then generally the games are 7 innings each. Most of the European games are 9-innings, even when the games are double-headers but sometimes you will see 7 inning games. It just depends on the rules of the country's federation.
In the event of rain or other unusual, uncontrollable circumstances, a game can be called after 5 complete innings. An inning is not complete until both sides have had their turn at bat. If the team that comes up last is ahead in the middle of the final inning they do not have to take their turn for the game to be called however. Once a game has begun only the umpires can call the game.
Foul Territory: When a ball is hit into foul territory, there are still plays that can be made. Any fielder can catch a ball that has not made contact with the ground in foul territory for the out.
If the ball makes contact with the ground however, the ball must roll past the 3rd or 1st base in fair territory, before going outside the field of play, in order to be considered a playable, or fair, ball. This can create all sorts of comical situations.
Error: Sometimes a player is trying to field the ball and they make a mistake. This mistake is scored as an error. For the purposes of watching a game, this isn’t really important to understand at the beginning other than to say that, sometimes more offensive plays open up as a result of the errors. To learn more about how they are scored, and what it can mean for a player’s career, you should read What Just Happened.
Stolen Bases: One way runners can advance between the bases is to try to steal a base. When a runner is on a base, they can make an attempt to take the next base while the pitch is being delivered to the batter. If they do this without being tagged out, then they will have stolen the base.
Caught Stealing: You will often see a runner touch a base with their foot between each pitch then take a step or two away from the bag. Each time the ball is live, meaning in the pitcher’s hand, the runner has to be aware. If they are caught with their foot off the base and the ball makes it to the glove of someone who can reach them, then they will be out. When this happens, they have been caught stealing, meaning caught trying to take a base they didn’t have a right to take otherwise.
Rundown/pickle: Sometimes the runner begins going, either on a steal attempt or a hit that doesn’t go far enough, and they are stuck between bases. Because they must be physically tagged with the ball, they can run back and forth between the bases as much as they like to avoid being tagged out. By rules, they have the right to the base they last occupied, as long as it is not now occupied by the person who ran behind them, so they can go backwards as well as forwards. When this happens you’ll see the runner trying to get closer to a bag and the fielders throwing the ball between one another to get close enough to tag the runner.
It is important to know that no two runners can ever occupy the same base and at no time can one runner lap another.
There are a few rules to consider in a rundown. First, the runner cannot leave the base path to avoid the tag or they are automatically called out. Second, any fielder not in possession of the ball cannot interfere with the runner’s progress on the path or the runner is automatically awarded the next base.
When a runner is caught in this situation they are said to be in the rundown, or caught in a pickle. It is rare for the runner to win out in these situations but, as this video shows, with your wits about you, you can will it to happen.
Mercy Rule: In Europe the games of baseball and softball are both played using a mercy rule. In baseball, if either team goes ahead by 10 runs or more any time after the 5th inning then the game will be called after the team who is behind has their last chance at bat. In Softball the mercy rule can go into effect as early as the end of three innings.
No hitter/No-No: This is a term used when a pitcher throws a game without giving up a hit.
Perfect Game: This is what it is called when a pitcher gives up no hits, runs or walks in a game.
Because a game is not official before the end of five, technically it is impossible to throw either a no-no or a perfect game in under five innings. If there is ever an occasion where a pitcher is doing this well, the number one rule is that you do not mention it.
The number two rule is that, if a pitcher accomplishes a perfect game, even if it is against the team you are rooting for, you applaud them. This is a rare and huge accomplishment and it should be recognized. It has only happened 23 times in the 140-year history of the MLB. By comparison, there are 295 recorded no-hitters.
A scoreless, hitless game is about more than just the pitcher. As you’ll see, in any game where this occurs the pitcher relies heavily on their teammates. After all, the pitcher’s job is to throw the ball in a way that puts it in play.
There are many, many more rules that come up in both games. Some you won’t ever witness no matter how long you are a fan of the game. Others will happen in very rare, very special circumstances. Dozens more you’ll see only once a season forcing you to be reminded of the call year-to-year.
Both sports are highly intellectual games but we recommend you take the time to ask questions and learn the rules on these plays. The more you understand, the more interesting every pitch becomes. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself paying attention even when there is no crack of the bat.
To learn more in-depth rules, definitely visit the Game Notes section of Training Day. Check out the subjects we’ve already covered, including fielding positions, sign language and balks. We’ll continue to add content about once a month to help you get a deeper understanding of the games we know you’ll grow to love!