Ways to Reach First Base: The Dropped Third Strike (aka Uncaught Third Strike)

You’re definitely paying attention, you see the batter strike out, and then all of a sudden he or she starts running to first.  Did the batter not hear the call? Did you not hear the call? What is happening?

“3 strikes, you’re out” is so fundamental to baseball, even newbies have heard it.  It’s so well known that Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper references it as a sports metaphor.  So why isn’t it always true?

In the Major League Baseball Official Rules, Rule 5.05, “When the Batter Becomes a Runner”, says that one of the ways that a batter becomes a runner is when a third strike thrown by the pitcher is not caught, as long as first base is unoccupied or there are two outs. In this situation, the umpire will call the strike, but will not call the batter out unless the batter is tagged or forced out at a base.  An “uncaught” strike could either be one that is dropped by the catcher, or one that bounces before it reaches the catcher, like a breaking ball (a pitch that does not travel straight) in the dirt that a batter swings and misses.

So let’s say #12 swings and misses, but the catcher doesn’t catch the ball. #12 should not wait to see what happens, he should take off for first as fast as possible!

The rules also say that a “batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle surrounding home plate”.  For this reason, you will often hear coaches (and parents) yell for the batter to take off for first once that third strike happens. No need to wait around just to be called out.

Note that even if the runner makes it to first, the “strikeout” is still recorded as a strikeout.

A few other surprising notes:

  1. This rule can result in a pitcher throwing more than 3 strikeouts in one inning.
  2. The first iteration of this rule appeared in the original Major League Code of 1876.
  3. In Game 4 of the 1941 World Series, the Brooklyn Dodgers created an uncaught third strike situation that allowed the Yankees to get on base and ultimately come from behind to win.

If you’d like to read the full official rule from MLB, start reading at rule 5.05 in the Official Rules.

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