Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Skunk in the Outfield - When a Runner Runs into RF

How can a runner run well into the grass in right field and not be ruled out of the base path? Welcome to baseball's skunk in the outfield play, a distraction gambit that works because of the base path rule's wording regarding tag attempts and most defensive teams' tendency not to know the rule nor how to respond to a play like this.

Usually occurring with runners on first and third, the skunk in the outfield play begins when the runner on first activates by jogging into right field—usually diagonally toward deep center. The runner's positioning is key because this play in which the offense tries to distract the defense by drawing a play on the 'skunk' in the outfield, thus enabling the runner on third base to score during the confusion, relies on a legal exploitation of baseball's out of the base path rule.

Official Baseball Rule 5.09(b)(1) states that, "any runner is out when they run more than three feet away from their base path to avoid being tagged (exception: to avoid interference). A runner's base path is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base they are attempting to reach safely."

The "when the tag attempt occurs" part of this rule is very important for this play to work, since the offensive team relies on the defensive players' confusion, such that the fielders may forget to try and make a play on the runner in right field. Without a tag attempt, a base path is not established and, thus, the runner playing the part of 'skunk' cannot be declared out for running outside of their base path.

This is not abandonment (OBR 5.09(b)(2)) because the runner is not abandoning their effort to touch the next base (they'll run toward a base eventually if the play works properly) nor is this a travesty of the game since the runner is not running the bases in reverse order to make a travesty of the game (they might be running sideways, but not in reverse order).

As soon as the fielder attempts a tag attempt, even from tens of feet away, the runner's base path to whichever base they are trying for is established and the runner is in jeopardy of an out-of-the-base-path call if they run more than three feet away from the direct line between them and that base, if their running away is in order to avoid the fielder's tag (or play).

BUT—and here's another big reason the 'skunk' play is legal—if the runner then moves toward the other base in the rundown (e.g., retreats toward first base if they were previously trying for second), then the base path drawing process starts over and there needs to be a new tag attempt to establish the line toward the new base they are attempting to reach safely—first base.

And so on and so forth until someone gets tired of one of baseball's last legal ways to waste time.


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