The dropped third strike rule might be one of the most confusing baseball and softball rules. To help make more sense of it, imagine that the dropped third strike is the same as a fly ball to an outfielder. If the outfielder does not catch the fair ball on the fly before it touches the ground / hits the wall, the hitter at home plate becomes an eligible baserunner as they run to first base.
A dropped third strike can occur when the catcher drops a called third strike, a batter swinging at the ball that hits the ground, or a wild pitch on a swing. As long as the first base is open, or if there are two outs, the hitter becomes a baserunner when a dropped third strike occurs.
Here is the complete breakdown of the dropped third strike rule in baseball and softball.
Why is there a Dropped 3rd Strike Rule in Baseball and Softball?
The dropped or uncaught third strike rule is to limit unfair double /triple plays on the diamond. For example, the softball and baseball rule states that if there is a runner on first base with less than two outs, the base is occupied, and therefore the hitter does not become a baserunner on a dropped third strike. Without this rule book in place, the catcher could throw the ball to second base and then have the fielder throw the ball to the first base to create a double play from a dropped third strike. The idea of a potential double-play would encourage catchers to drop the third strike on purpose, which is why the rule is in place.
The second reason for the dropped third strike rule is to confirm a catch, which is the same for any fielder playing defense. For example, a fly ball to an outfielder means that the ball is in play. The hitter is out if they can catch the baseball or softball first on the fly without it touching the ground or hitting the wall. However, if the ball hits the ground or wall before they can catch it, the hitter can continue being a baserunner.
The third reason for the dropped third strike rule in Major League Baseball and softball is that it awards the pitcher with a strikeout. Even if a baserunner can get to first base before the throw beats them there, the pitcher still records a strikeout. Also, the batter does not receive a hit credit because they struck out, so the reward goes to the pitcher in this case.
What is an example of a Dropped 3rd Strike in a Game?
Let’s pretend that there is a game between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers’ pitcher is dealing with a runner on second base with no outs, and the hitter is behind the count 0-2. The hitter swings, and the ball gets by the catcher on the next pitch to the dirt. Since the first base is open, the hitter can run to the first base and attempt to beat the play at the base. If the baserunner can get to first base before the ball gets caught by the first basemen, they are safe even though the pitcher just got a strikeout.
Keeping with this same scenario, the baserunner at second base can attempt to take third base on the dropped 3rd strike. However, the baserunner should consider this their own risk since they don’t need to take a base since there is nobody on first. With that being the case, most baserunners won’t attempt taking another base unless they are 100% sure they can make it safely.
Finally, a new example of a dropped third strike to keep things interesting. If bases are loaded, there are two outs, and a dropped third strike occurs, then every baserunner must move up one base. The catcher can touch home plate to record the force out on this play, with that being the case. The catcher can make a force out at any base, but touching home plate tends to be the easiest play to make.
What Does the Catcher Need to Do on a Dropped Third Strike?
When first base is open and or there are two outs in an inning, the catcher needs to do a few things on a dropped third strike.
- Force out Opportunity: If the bases are loaded with two outs, the catcher can touch home plate with the ball in their glove to record the final out.
- Tag the Hitter: If the hitter swings and strikes out even with a dropped third strike, the catcher must gather the ball and tag the hitter with it.
- Throw to First Base: If the third strike pitch gets away from the catcher, the catcher must get the ball and throw it to first base before the runner gets there. The catcher should position themselves, if they have time, to get the best angle to throw to first base. If possible, the catcher shouldn’t attempt a throw to first base if that could result in an error, which means that the baserunner and others can move up on the errant throw.
What Does the Umpire Do to Signal a Dropped Third Strike?
A high school, college, or professional umpire signals a dropped third strike in two ways. First, they stick their right hand out to the side to signal that the hitter can attempt to go to first base. Second, the umpire can yell out “no catch” along with their arms out to make it clear to the catcher and batter that it was a dropped third strike.
For little league games, umpires tend to call the hitter out to limit the confusion on a dropped third strike call and what to do.
How Do You Score a Dropped Third Strike on a Baseball Scorecard?
To score a dropped third strike that results in the baserunner being safe at first base is with a K-E2 only if an error occurs. The K-E2 represents that the batter swung at the third strike, but the catcher threw the ball errantly to first base, or the ball got by them on the pitch. If the pitch were a wild pitch, it would go down as a K-E1.
If the pitcher strikes the hitter out looking and still reaches first base via an error, you write the K-E2 with a backward K. The backward K represents that the pitcher struck the hitter out looking.
If there was no error on the play and the batter still got to the first base via the dropped third strike, you mark it as a strikeout, and you can document the scorecard showing they got there via a dropped third strike.
Does the Hitter Get a Hit / Pitcher Get a Strikeout?
The hitter at-bat via a dropped third strike during a softball or baseball game does not record a hit. Instead, they struck out even if they got to first base before the throw got to the first baseman.
The pitcher records a strikeout on the dropped third strike, even if the batter runs and gets to first base before the throw. With that being the case, the pitcher can technically strike out more than three batters in an inning, even if they can only record three outs.
What Happens if There is a Foul Ball Via the Third Strike?
One reason why the dropped third strike rule is confusing is when there is a foul ball. For example, a hitter might barely tip the ball on a third strike swing, and the catcher can’t hold onto it. When that occurs, the dropped ball by the catcher is treated as a traditional foul ball. A traditional foul ball means that the hitter has another chance at the plate to swing.
Usually, when watching a game live, you will hear the crowd cheer thinking that the away batter struck out, but then the umpire will clarify that it was a foul ball.
How is the Dropped Third Strike Rule Similar to the Infield Fly Rule?
The dropped third strike rule and infield fly rule are similar in limiting unnecessary double play and triple play moments.
For instance, both rules protect the runners on base when there are less than two outs. If there is an infield fly with less than two outs with runners on base, including first base, or a dropped third strike, the umpire will clarify that the batter is out and that the baserunners don’t advance to another base.
The Rule Change After the 2005 MLB Playoffs
During the 2005 ALCS between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, the dropped third strike rule became a contentious moment that had a rule change the following season.
A.J. Pierzynski struck out swinging on a 3-2 pitch in the ninth with two outs and ran to first base, which was confusing because L.A. thought they caught the ball without it hitting the ground. The Angels were walking off the field, but A.J. ran to first base after initially heading to his dugout since that was the final out. Later on, the White Sox won that game in the ninth inning, so a new rule went into effect the following season.
The rule change occurred in 2006 partly due to this confusion in 2005. A.J. attempted to go back to their dugout as the Angels were going to theirs but then turned around and ran to first base. The new rule states that a batter must attempt going to first base on a dropped third strike. If they head towards their dugout or leave the home plate area without going towards first, they can’t attempt to go to first base anymore.
Famous Dropped Third Strikes
- The 1941 World Series: New York Yankees hitter Tommy Henrich swung and missed at the dropped strike three and got to first base safely since Mickey Owen couldn’t get their throw to first in time. The New York Yankees later scored multiple runs after this play in the ninth inning.
- Justin Verlander’s 3,000 career strikeout: The 3k strikeout took place on a dropped third strike that allowed the runner to get to first base in 2019.
- John Means of the Baltimore Orioles: John threw a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners in 2021. It was not perfect because one of his strikeouts led to an error, which broke up the perfect game.
Conclusion: What is the Dropped Third Strike Rule in Baseball and Softball?
In summary, the dropped third strike rule in baseball and softball might be confusing when you see it happen live. After all, the batter struck out at the plate, and sometimes they run to first, while other times they walk back to the dugout. However, rules are set to determine what happens next when a dropped third strike occurs.
To recap, when the first base does not have a baserunner and or there are two outs in the inning, the hitter automatically becomes a baserunner when an uncaught third strike occurs.