History of two-strike bunt rule a reminder pace of play issues are over a century old
Baseball has tried to fix the pace of games for a long time and foul ball rules have evolved accordingly
On Oct. 15, 2017, I was sitting in the press box at Dodger Stadium when Cubs pitcher Jon Lester attempted a two-strike bunt and ended up striking out on a foul ball during Game 2 of the NLCS.
The previous day, there was a replay ruling that Cubs catcher Willson Contreras had blocked home plate illegally and the initial out call was reversed to a safe, giving the Dodgers a 5-2 lead that they would hold. After the game, there was much discussion about the plate-blocking rule, thanks in part to the negative reaction of Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
The teams and situation don't really matter much here, other than the foundation for what gave me the idea to delve into the two-strike bunt rule, specifically, and also generally how we don't really question if older rules make sense while putting any rule changes under more scrutiny.
Generally speaking, we rarely hear widespread outcry about rules that have always been in place from our personal perspective. Even if a rule might have sounded dumb when we were kids just learning the game, it has long since been accepted as the way things are. Just think back to when you first learned the rules as a kid. It was tough to wrap your head around why a bunt foul was strike three when a swinging foul wasn't, right? Eventually, we just learned to accept that it was the rule instead of trying to figure out why. Once we've loved the game for 25-plus years, we don't even consider if it still makes sense or not.
When a rule that we have always known gets changed, however, it's now under the world's biggest microscope. We run through all the reasons it should or shouldn't be a rule. We argue. We tailor hypotheticals and analogies to prove our side of the argument is the correct one.
It's only natural. We love this game. We always have because we grew up with it. Why would we like major changes to something we already fundamentally love?
I have no issue with any of this. I just find it interesting.
This is an especially pertinent discussion right now, too, given that most of MLB's measures to move along the pace of play are met with lots of resistance, whether we're talking players, media or fans.
When it comes to the two-strike bunt rule and -- as we'll find out with the history of it -- the fair/foul rules in general, it's all at the intersection for me.
Imagine if we'd never before heard of the two-strike foul bunt rule. Imagine if, from the time we were kids -- or whenever we first learned about the rules of baseball -- attempting to bunt on strike three was simply treated the same as a swing. Sure, it changes a lot of how the game has been played, but we're all smart enough to imagine the alternate reality, right? Now, commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball are announcing their intent to change the rule and make an attempted bunt foul ball with two strikes count as a strikeout, all the name of pace-of-play concerns.
Oh man, I can see the imaginary fists of internet fury shaking through my screen with all the cries of Manfred trying to ruin the game.
The funny thing is, the rule was originally implemented in part due to pace of play concerns.
In fact, the swinging foul ball wasn't always a strike. It was originally instituted to, you guessed it, speed up the game.
Can you believe that? Trying to move the game along pre-dates the "quit looking at your cell phone and enjoy the game!" era and actually goes all the way back to the 19th Century.
Let's take a quick look at how we got to where we are today with foul balls and bunting.
Going all the way back to the 1845(!) Knickerbockers rules, we have this. Rule No. 18:
18. No ace or base can be made on a foul strike.
"Ace" here is a strike, getting on base is a "base" and a "foul strike" is simply a foul ball or a ball "struck" into foul territory.
Through the rest of the 19th century, the rules continued to evolve at different paces in different areas. For a while, any ball that first landed in fair territory, regardless of where it ended up, was fair. This paved the way for the "fair-foul hit," in which skilled hitters such as Dickey Pearce would purposely hit the ball down the line initially in fair territory but put spin on it so it would break foul and elude the defense before reaching a base. The loophole in the rules was closed by the late-1870s, but we were already seeing our first signs of the league preventing tomfoolery with plays resembling a bunt.
There was a period when NL president Nick Young informed umpires that they were to call a strike on any foul bunt -- many say beginning in 1894. On swinging foul balls, though, it was up to the umpire to use his discretion as to whether or not it was an intentional foul ball. Reports from the time indicate that this rule wasn't really enforced, due to the rule lacking teeth and the umpires not really wanting to get into the intent of a swing.
It wasn't until 1901 that we got this down in the written rules, separating foul balls with zero or one strike from those of the two-strike variety:
Foul Ball A foul hit ball not caught on the fly is a strike unless two strikes have already been called.
Note: This rule was used by the National League in 1901 and 1902. The American League adopted the rule in 1903
Also, the aforementioned stipulation remained:
Foul Ball The batter is out if after two strikes have been called he obviously attempts to make a foul hit.
Again, we can see the rules evolving with the years. Obviously, a fledgling game making changes to help improve the product versus one that has been proven successful for over a century is different, but tinkering game rules as the years pass has always been part of the sporting process.
On this front, I get a hearty chuckle now just imagining how ridiculous the following hypothetical scenario is, at least from our perspective:
The pitcher throws two balls before 10 straight pitches in the zone, but the batter fouls off all 10 in-zone pitches. It's a 2-0 count.
That feels absurdly wrong on so many levels to nearly all of us, so the "new" rules seemed to make a lot of sense. Remember what I said earlier about how weird we are with "new" rules compared to old ones, though? It wasn't much different back then.
There was a push to change the rule back following a low-scoring 1905 World Series between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Athletics, in which one team was shutout in each game and only 18 runs total were scored in five games (nine by the Giants in Game 3). Yes, they wanted to revert to foul balls just not counting as anything, in an effort to help increase offense.
Some also discussed moving the pitcher's mound back to 62 feet and only requiring three balls for a walk (for more on this, seamheads.com has a very good writeup).
The discussed changes didn't happen, but this is just another reminder of how proposing rule changes in light of things that appear to be problematic is nothing new.
Thankfully, the foul ball rule was left in place as partially a -- you ready?!?! -- pace-of-play issue. Back then, foul balls into the stands weren't souvenirs. The league didn't have enough baseballs for that. They had to retrieve foul balls to continue game use, so it took a lot of time when there were multiple foul balls per batter. The other part of the reason for the rule was fouling the ball off on purpose with the intent to wear out the pitcher was making a mockery of the game.
The 1902 changes are part of the evolution on the two-strike foul bunt rule, in addition to how the game got to where we are with it today. Dig in on the "obviously attempts to make a foul hit" part. Players who were incredibly skilled with the bat could sit up there and foul bunts off over and over in an attempt to wear down the pitcher, even if it was just a swinging bunt, as to skirt the actual two-strike bunt rule. Judging intent was obviously incredibly difficult for umpires, too, so it was a murky area.
Speaking of which, Hall of Fame umpire Hank O'Day was quoted on the bunt rule in 1903, via the Buffalo Evening News, with the following:
There is nothing in the rules that instructs an umpire to declare a batter out for bunting on the third strike...We umpires are calling batters out on it only because it is the custom.
These days, the rulebook explicitly states that a foul bunt with two strikes counts as a strikeout, but back then, the rulebook didn't say anything of the sort. Even when it was updated in 1904, there still wasn't any wording regarding how to handle foul bunts with two strikes. It is unclear specifically when the change officially happened, but we know it did at some point.
There's one story in particular on the intent rule that comes from the year immediately before this it was implemented that both gives us the temperature of the players' feelings on excessive foul balls and is also hilarious.
Apparently, in 1900, Roy Thomas of the Phillies fouled off around 12 pitches from the Reds' Bill Phillips. On another occasion, Thomas reportedly fouled off 22 pitches. On the Thomas vs. Phillips incident -- in the eighth inning -- Phillips was so enraged that he punched Thomas. Yes, a punch over foul balls! Thanks to history not being clear at this point in time when it came to baseball, we can't be sure if Phillips was bunting or just skillfully swinging.
I asked MLB's official historian, John Thorn, and he said, "Thomas, like Willie Keeler, had a gift for ticking balls foul that were not to his liking."
With this information, it makes sense that the league attempted to judge intent of the hitter on foul balls.
All of the above information paved the way for the game we see today when it comes to foul balls and bunting rules.
I have no doubt some of the best batsmiths in baseball today can foul pitches off on purpose (hello, Joey Votto), but they are also dealing with much more difficult pitching. In the early advent of the game, the players had no idea what pitches like the modern slider, splitter or cutter looked like, much less did they have to deal with those pitches in addition to high-90s four-seamers regularly.
In fact, given that, there's a part of me that can't help but wonder if the two-strike foul bunt rule is still even necessary these days. Pitchers have such amazing stuff and the bunt is becoming somewhat of a lost art. In how many scenarios per game can we truly envision a player sitting up there and fouling off a dozen pitches on purpose with a bunt, hoping to wear down the pitcher, all the while taking the risk he'll whiff on one of the pitches and strike out instead of just trying to swing away and get a hit?
It feels like in some rare scenarios, it could and would happen. In many others, it simply wouldn't be worth it. That's my feeling, at least, but we just don't know.
A bigger part of me doesn't even want to find out. I like the rule exactly how it is. It's the way I've always known the game and there's no reason to change this rule.
Seriously, though, this game is just as historically fascinating as it is to watch on a daily basis. Just seeing a simple play against the backdrop of something that happened the day before can send you down a big-time rabbit hole. Take it from me with this article as evidence.
And it's all still so much fun. Just like this game has always been and always will be, as far as I'm concerned, no matter what tweaks are made.
- Major League Baseball's official historian, John Thorn, was very helpful. Thanks again, John.
- Dickey Pearce's SABR page
- Thorn's "Pitching: Evolution and Revolution" article
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