What is the Dropped Third Strike Rule?

The dropped third strike is one of the strangest rules in baseball. When there’s a perfect mixture of a poor batter, a poorly thrown ball, and a sloppy catcher, a strikeout run to first base might occur. 

Considering that it’s been part of the official baseball rules for centuries, this bizarre dropped third strike rule isn’t likely to be going anywhere soon. 

What is the Dropped Third Strike Rule?

The dropped third strike rule, or uncaught third strike rule, is a circumstance that sometimes occurs when a catcher drops the ball or a catcher fails to catch the ball on the third strike. 

This doesn’t often happen, only when the catcher has not caught the ball. It usually occurs when a pitcher throws a breaking ball into the dirt. 

The rule depends on various factors, like if there’s a runner on first and if there are less than two outs; ultimately, it is pretty similar to the infield fly rule when the ball isn’t caught correctly. These strange rules in baseball show that the offense and defense need to always be aware. 

Normally, once a batter has received three strikes, he is out, and three outs start the next inning or half-inning. 

If the dropped third strike rule is in effect, then the batter becomes a runner or, in other words, the batter can attempt first base when there are only two outs or first is clear. 

A batter or runner can advance at his own risk on a dropped third if

  1. The first base is unoccupied (it doesn’t matter if there are two outs or fewer).
  2. There are two outs (first base could be occupied, causing a force play).

Both circumstances happen after a strike has already been called. Once there is a strike called, then the dropped third strike rule may apply. 

In the first scenario, runners can go to first on their third strike if the first base is unoccupied. It doesn’t matter if there are less than two outs or not. 

If the first base is occupied, and there aren’t already two outs, the batter cannot become a runner. They cannot advance on less than two outs if they cause a force play where all runners advance. 

If there are less than two outs and a runner on first, a dropped third doesn’t matter, and the batter is out as usual. 

The same rule applies if there are already two outs. 

In this scenario, a batter becomes a runner and can run to first base at his/her own risk on the dropped third strike called, even if the first base is occupied. A double-play, or a force play, can occur in this circumstance. 

In the event of dropped third strikes, the play is a fair ball. Therefore, dropped third strikes are live or fair balls. 

If the batter runs to first base safely, then the out is not counted, and the game continues. 

The catcher also has a chance to get the runner out before he gets to first base, just like any batted ball, even if he didn’t catch the ball. Since the catcher can get the batter out, running to first base on a dropped third strike play is usually only attempted when the ball is far from the catcher. 

When the batter becomes a runner and runs to first base on a dropped third play, everyone else on base has a chance to advance. So, even in a bases-loaded scenario, everyone can still run. 

If a batter or runner doesn’t realize he can run to first base on a dropped third, he will be declared out when he leaves the dirt circle around home plate. 

The dropped third rule exists across every league, from Little League to Major League Baseball (MLB). The reason for this rule is because an out only occurs when a ball is legally caught by the catcher before the ball hits the ground. 

How is a Dropped Third Strike Scored?

The scorer can record a dropped third strike play if the catcher does not catch the ball and first is unoccupied, or there are already two outs. 

Initially, the scorer records the dropped third strike as a strikeout and an error on the catcher, or “K-E2.” 

If the first base is occupied on a wild pitch, the scorer records a “K WP.” 

A wild pitch is when the pitcher throws the ball far from the home plate, so the catcher cannot reasonably catch it. The umpire decides if a throw is wild. 

If the first base is occupied on a passed ball, the score is “K PB.” A passed ball occurs when a catcher drops or cannot hold onto a ball that the umpire deems he should have. 

If the third strike is uncaught, but the catcher gets the runner out, the score is “K 2-3.” The number two is for the catcher’s numerical position, while the number three represents the first baseman. 

If another player gets the first baseman out, the scorer will use that player’s number. 

Finally, in a dropped third strike, if the catcher tags the runner out, the score is “K2U.” The “U” stands for unassisted, meaning the catcher got the out himself. 

How Does a Dropped Third Strike Affect Batting Average?

Even though the batter can run to first, even with bases loaded, a dropped third strike is still recorded as a strikeout in the player’s batting average. Therefore, a hitter’s batting average is still negatively affected. 

Instances of Dropped Third Strikes

Although this bizarre rule does not happen often, it has still affected baseball history. 

For example, in 2019, Justin Verlander achieved his 3000th strike; but, as the crowd cheered for Verlander, Kole Calhoun ran to first on the dropped third rule. Although Calhoun made it to first, it was still considered a strikeout for Verlander.

In this game, the defense barely noticed. 

The most famous example of a dropped third affecting a game was during the 1941 World Series. In the ninth inning, the Dodgers were up by one. 

The Dodgers’ catcher, Mickey Owen, dropped the pitch on the third strike, making it a live ball. Tommy Henrich was the batter that swung through the pitch without a hit on the ball, and he ran to first. 

The Yankees managed to make it to home plate four times to win the game. 

Recently, the Atlantic League experimented with the batter running on any throw not caught in the air. Under these new rules, it doesn’t matter if there are less than two outs or a runner on first. 

The organization later dropped the practice. 

History of the Dropped Third Strike Rule

Interestingly, the dropped third strike rule traces its roots back to the beginning of baseball, according to an essay written by Richard Hershberger in the Society for American Baseball Research Journal. 

In 1796, a German teacher, Johann Gutsmuths, wrote a book called, “Games for the exercise and relaxation of the body and mind for the youth, their educators, and all friends of innocent joys of youth.” 

The book described English “base ball,” which was the forerunner of the modern American game. 

Back then, baseball had no strikeouts even though it was already similar to the modern game, with two teams alternating between batting and fielding. Instead of strikeouts, each batter got three swings. 

If they missed on the third swing, they could run to first base. The catcher, meanwhile, would retrieve the ball and try for an out. 

They played the game this way so that all batters, even if they weren’t good, had a chance to run. 

The rule was more common in early baseball because catchers didn’t wear mitts or any protective equipment at this point, so they were more likely to drop the pitch. 

By 1845, when the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club set its rules, the dropped third strike remained. 

In the 1860s, the rules changed so that the catcher wouldn’t have to have caught the play on the fly, but the play would be recorded as a foul ball if the catcher caught it after one bounce on the ground. The runner could still advance to first, making the dropped third strike a hybrid between fair and foul balls. 

The rule was changed again in the following decades to make it into what it is today, where the dropped or uncaught third strike means the batter runs to first in certain situations. 

Will the Dropped Third Rule Disappear?

If it does eventually disappear, it probably won’t be soon. The rule is so ingrained into the system, with baseball players becoming familiar with it as children, that no one is particularly interested in getting rid of it. 

However, the rule can be upsetting. A pitcher who believes he’s thrown a strikeout may be disappointed to find out the ball is still in play. 

The rule also puts a lot of pressure on the catcher. 

At the same time, a poor batter has more gameplay chances since a batter becomes a runner on the dropped third. Even if he doesn’t hit the ball and has missed three balls, he can still run. 

Furthermore, Gerardo Parra was able to gain the world record of reaching base safely 10 times on a dropped third. 

Finally, the rule makes the game more interesting, especially considering that a batter has a smaller chance of getting on base now than ever before. 

Final Thoughts

Although the dropped third is a strange and probably outdated rule, it is unlikely to be going anywhere. Baseball players have been waiting for that throw to hit the ground on the third strike for too long to give it up. 

Also, the play is an eye-catching one since it happens so seldomly, and it gives both the catcher and poor batters an opportunity to be in the spotlight.