117 years ago, in response to an epidemic of infielders intentionally dropping popups to attempt double plays instead, the National League adopted the infield fly rule, and with some minor adjustments, the rule has survived to the present. Like many remedies from the 1800s, the intent- protecting the offense from chicanery- was good, but the implementation- calling their batter automatically out- was fraught with problems.
First, and most obviously in light of recent events, even when the defense can’t make the play, the rule intended to protect the offense punishes them by giving the defense the out anyway. Second, any time a fly ball can be intentionally dropped for a good shot at a double play, the offense should be protected from that, but because the play requires calling the batter automatically out, the rule as written can’t be invoked liberally. Third, and related to the second, the umpires have to make a judgment call based on the trajectory of the ball, the position of the fielder, environmental factors, and anything else they consider relevant to determining “ordinary effort”. That leads to late calls and inconsistent application.
Enduring those problems does prevent infielders from making a travesty of the game, but there’s a much better way. The purpose of the rule is to prevent the drop-double play, so the rule should simply state that if a fly ball does drop, the defense can’t force two baserunners on the play. That’s all the protection the offense needs. A couple of examples so it’s clear what is meant:
Men on 1st and 2nd, 1 out. A popup to the 3b. The runners are staying close to their bases, as they should, and the ball drops. The 3b picks it up and steps on 3rd for the force. Once this happens, the runner on 2nd is forced out, but the runner who started on 1st gets to advance to 2nd safely (and the batter will be safe at 1st once he gets there, not automatically out). The offense doesn’t have to do anything special- if the runners can’t safely advance, they stand on their bases, wait for a runner to be forced, and then the trailing runners (if any) take their free advance. Other than the identity of the runners on each base, the end result is the same.
Men on 1st and 2nd, 1 out. A popup to the 2b. The runners are staying close to their bases again, as they should, and the ball drops. The 2b picks it up and steps on 2nd. The runner who started on 1st is forced, and unless the batter or the runner who started on 2nd wandered, this will be the end of the play with an out recorded and runners still on 1st and 2nd.
Men on 1st and 2nd, 1 out. A high popup a good bit behind the normal ss/3b position. The runners are taking normal leads. The ball drops. The runners attempt to advance and beat the throw to 3rd (or 2nd). Everybody is safe.
Compared to the rule as written, this has several major advantages. First, when the defense drops the ball, the offense isn’t penalized. Second, it requires absolutely no judgment call on the part of the umpire other than the bare minimum “Is this a fly ball?”. Third, it can and should be called IMMEDIATELY on EVERY fly ball when the defense can possibly force two runners, although it doesn’t matter if the call is made in other cases because it will just have no effect. It will always protect the offense when it needs to be protected and it will never punish the offense by giving the defense a free out or allowing a drop-double play.
One objection is that the defense can let the ball drop on purpose to choose which runner to force, and this is true, but the defense can already do that with a runner on 1st and 3rd and actually does do it occasionally with a runner on 1st only, so this isn’t adding anything new. Another is that it would be simpler to keep the IF rule but call the ball dead and advance everybody one base (and the batter to 1st) if the ball is dropped. This has all of the problems of the current IF rule, plus it punishes the defense because many accidentally dropped IFs would result in forces, plus it prevents the offense from advancing multiple bases on a horribly misplayed ball.
A third objection is that problems with the IF rule arise so rarely that it’s not worth changing, and there is some truth to the first part- the vast majority of IFs are caught, and a lot of the ones that aren’t would be forces anyway. However, there’s no reason to do something badly now just because it’s been done badly in the past. Also, MLB is the leader, and their rules trickle down to all levels of play, even kids’ leagues and recreational softball, and at those levels of play, popups are dropped all the time and forces well might not be recorded after drops. In those environments, the deficiencies of the current rule come into play much more often.
The one-forceout rule for fly balls is simpler to explain to anybody with even a rudimentary understanding of baseball (“The defense isn’t allowed to force two runners after a fly ball drops”), it’s easier for everybody to call and anticipate (“Fly ball, make the call!”), and it avoids the undesirable consequences of the current rule. It’s just a better rule for MLB and for every other level of play as well.