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Application Of The Look Back Rule After A Walk

by Dave
Thursday, August 24, 2006

A visitor named Tony has a question about the "look back" rule as it pertains to a situation his daughter has experienced in high school.   I don't have a high school rulebook and cannot figure out where I packed away my ASA and NCAA rulebooks.   The best I can do is use the PONY rulebook as a surrogate.   PONY fundamental rules generally conform to ASA rules and many basic high school rules conform to ASA, so it is at least a reasonable place to start.   Here's Tony's question:

"There's a runner on third base, the pitcher walks the batter and as the girl is jogging down to first base the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher right away, well before the runner reaches first base.   Meanwhile the pitcher has the ball in the circle and looks back the runner on third base.   Does this runner need to make a decision right away or can she wait until the runner reaches first base before she makes a decision?

A lot of times the batter who just drew a walk will tag first and continue on to second base with out stopping.   If this happens and you look back the runner at third base before the batter reaches first, does she need to go back to third?   My daughter's team had a pick off play trying to trap the runner who just walked between first and second after she rounded first base, then hoping to get the runner from third who was trying to score.   BUT THE QUESTION IS HOW THE "LOOK-BACK " RULE WORKS IN THIS SITUATION.   I was told by one coach that the runner on third could dance all she wants until the batter reaches first base or second base?"

Here's my reply:

The "Look Back" rule anticipates the play you are questioning.   The PONY version of the rule states:
"The "Look Back" rule will be in effect when the ball is live, the batter-runner has touched first base or has been declared out, and the pitcher has possession and control of the ball in the eight foot radius of the pitcher's plate ... When the baserunner fails to keep contact with the base she is entitled until the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, the baserunner will be declared out ...

Note: A base on balls or dropped third strike, on which the runner is entitled to run, is treated the same as a batted ball.   The batter-baserunner may continue past first base and is entitled to run towards second base as long as she does not stop at first base ...

Play - With R1 on third, B2 receives ball four and moves towards first base with a walk; meanwhile, R1 leads off third base after delivery to the plate, Catcher returns ball to the pitcher, who has the ball in the eight foot radius of the pitcher's plate.   The runner at this moment makes no attempt to move either way.

Ruling - The runner does not have to return to third or immediately advance to the next base until the batter-runner reaches first base.   Failure to proceed to the next base or return to her base once the pitcher has the ball in the eight foot radius of the pitcher's plate and the batter-runner reaches first base will result in the base-runner being declared out."


It is clear to me at least from the Pony rules that the runner cannot be "looked back" until the walked batter reaches first.   As an aside, there is no reason for a pitcher to physically "look back" the runner.   The pitcher's possession of the ball within the circle obligates the runner to return to her base or advance immediately whether the pitcher looks at her or not.

Additionally, please note that any act taken by the pitcher which an umpire judges to be a "play" removes the obligation to return to base or advance immediately.   If a pitcher makes a fake throw or any other act which the umpire believes is a "play," he does not have to call the runner out for failing to return or advance.

Now your question moves on to a slightly different scenario which is usually referred to as the "continuation play" where the walked batter never stops at first but rather proceeds to second.   I think the runner from third must return to third as soon as the batter reaches first if the pitcher has the ball in the circle and isn't making a play.   This would be true regardless of whether the batter-runner advances to second unless in the umpire's judgment the pitcher is making a play including a fake throw.

In your scenario, the pitcher gets the ball back from the catcher, looks back the runner to third, then goes into the "pick off play" as the batter-runner slowly proceeds to second.   Any throw of the ball out of the pitcher's circle or fake throw makes the ball live again and the runner from third can most certainly advance even if she returned to base once the pitcher had the ball and the batter-runner reached first.

So, let's try to draw a picture.

- Runner leads off third and dances.
- Ball four is called and batter proceeds to first.
- Batter reaches first.
- Runner at third must commit one way or the other but should keep her eyes on the pitcher.
- If the pitcher faces first base and lifts her hands to throw for the pickoff play, the runner at third who was returning to her base can now change course and run for home or dance.   Obviously if the pitcher doesn't throw, she wouldn't want to break for home but the point is, now we have a live ball and there is no obligation to return to base (assuming the umps understand the rule - not always a safe assumption).

What I'm trying to emphasize here is that if the pitcher begins to make a play or seems to be making a play, the rules tell us that look back doesn't apply.   So if the batter-runner can induce the pitcher to make a play, the runner on third can continue to "dance."   I hope that answers your question.


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