5.09(b) Any runner is out when (1) he runs more than three feet away from his base path to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s base path is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely.
Holy shit, you guys: I understand this rule. This is no small feat, as it seems like most spectators, announcers, managers, and players do not. But as of Saturday in class, I DO. Here’s how it works:
First, you gotta understand the difference between the base lines and the base path. The base lines are the imaginary straight lines between the bases, first to second, second to third, etc. Runners usually stick pretty close to the base lines because they are the shortest distance between the bases, but they don’t have to. Runners can run anywhere on the field that they want to(1).
But a base path only comes into existence the moment that a tag attempt occurs. Let me repeat, there is no base path until a fielder attempts to tag a runner. Take a look at this:
Here’s the runner and the fielder. You can see that the runner is already really far off the base line, but no one would expect him to be called out by the umpire at this point. That would be cray. He’s just giving the fielder a wide berth.
Now the fielder attempts to tag the runner and BAM! Base paths materialize, like magic.
Note that because the runner can go both forward to second and backward to first (assuming that no one’s going to be on first), there are actually two base paths here, one to first and one to second.
Once the tag attempt happens and base paths appear, the three foot rule applies, like so:
The runner can go three feet from the base paths in any direction in order to avoid the tag, including getting even farther from the base line than he already is. The base line is irrelevant to this analysis and has been since the beginning.
Also of note is that the runner is only restricted in his running if there is a tag attempt. If there is no tag attempt, the runner can go anywhere. One of our instructors (Ed Hickox for those of you who care about umpires) described a situation in which the fielder stopped and didn’t make a tag attempt and the runner juked him. When the manager came out to complain about the runner deviating from the base path, Ed had to try explain to him that without a tag attempt there is no base path.
Further, each tag attempt creates a new set of base paths and resets the 3 foot limit. This is why the phrase “the runner creates his base path” is a little misleading. The runner doesn’t create it, exactly. The tag attempt creates it, and the runner has three feet on either side of it to execute.
Here’s an excellent video of multiple tag attempts on a rundown of Josh Harrison that clearly shows that Harrison is not out for being out of the base path.
You can see at 2:39 that there is NOT a tag attempt by the fielder, so no base paths, at 2:44 there is the first tag attempt that Harrison avoids, his base path appears, and that he clearly stays on that bath path to third until the second tag attempt at 2:47, which creates his SECOND bath path that he follows directly to the bag. The key question is whether Harrison went three feet off his existing base path to avoid the second tag attempt, which he didn’t.
The best view is at 2:22 when you can clearly see the second tag attempt. At that moment, Harrison’s new base path to third appears and he scrambles directly along it to third while the defensive player mistakenly tries to argue that Harrison is out instead of making a throw to third.
Notice ALSO the repeated incorrect use of the term “base lines” by the announcers at the 2:03 mark and beyond. There’s no penalty for being off the base line, Announcer Men! This is why spectators get confused about the issue.
So the next time you’re watching a runner trying to avoid a rundown, you’ll know how he can end up in the shallow outfield and not be out for being out of the base path, unlike almost everyone else watching.
(1) within reason. There is a rule that you’re out if you abandon your effort to run the bases and one that says that you’re out if you run the bases backwards to make a travesty of the game.