Inside the rules: four outs in an inning?

Some baseball fans may contend that it is possible to have more than three outs in a half inning, but that contention rests on a poor semantic argument. Put simply, there can only be three outs in a half inning.

Despite the absolute frivolity of looking for some way to record a “fourth out” in baseball, this edition of Inside the Rules will stubbornly press on and look at two ways that someone might think that the number of “outs” in a half inning could somehow exceed the norm.

Pitchers may record a strikeout, only to see the batter-runner still reach first safely. This is due to the “uncaught third strike rule.” In short, a third strike that bounds away from the catcher can result in the batter reaching first base and prolonging an inning. In fact, after such a strikeout, three more outs are required to end an inning. Innings with such a play may even have four strikeouts, and may have some thinking that means there were four outs in the inning.

The list of pitchers who’ve recorded four strikeouts during such an inning is surprisingly lengthy, given how strange the idea of “four outs” is.

Kerry Wood is on that list, and his outing in 2002 provides an example of how a pitcher can strike someone out, yet not record an out. In fact, Wood’s fourth inning is an example of how the uncaught third strike could lead to all manners of absurd circumstances.

See, garden variety innings with four strikeouts—if there can be such a thing—see all outs recorded in the inning via the strikeout. They have another thing in common, in that they usually feature just one instance of an uncaught third strike. But, back on Sept. 2 of 2002, Wood pitched in an inning in which some misguided souls might argue that the Cubs put out five Brewers before finally retiring the side.

Matt Stairs led off the inning for Milwaukee by grounding out to first. Wood then struck out Bill Hall, but Hall reached third base anyway due to Cubs catcher Todd Hundley’s failure to catch the third strike. Hundley subsequently made a bad throw down to first when Hall took off, which led to a two-base error and a man on third.

The next Brewer batter was Ryan Thompson. Wood struck him out without incident. The next batter was Paul Bako, who also struck out, but reached first after Hundley failed to catch the third strike for the second time in the inning. Wood then struck out Andrew Lorraine to finally end the inning.

Had Stairs not grounded out for the first out, Wood may have had to strike out a half dozen Brewers to get out of that inning.

Colorado pitcher Bruce Ruffin is on that list linked above, and he had an interesting line against the Chicago Cubs six years before Wood’s game, back in 1996.

On July 25th, at Coors Field, Ruffin entered with the game tied in the ninth inning. Ruffin walked Mark Grace, then gathered himself and struck out Sammy Sosa. After that, Doug Glanville bunted safely and moved Grace over to second base.

Then things got interesting. Ruffin threw a wild pitch to Scott Servais, and Grace and Glanville each moved up a base. With first base open, Ruffin eventually struck out Servais, but Servais still reached first while Grace scored on a wild pitch on the uncaught third strike. Two more singles and two more strikeouts followed, and Ruffin left the game having given up two runs on three hits, with three men left on base.

He recorded four strikeouts in his half of the inning, and unfortunately also recorded the loss as the Cubs closed out the game in the bottom of the inning.

The Detroit Tigers drafted Chance Ruffin in June of 2010. Chance is Bruce’s son, and if he somehow strikes out four batters in an inning, they would become the first father-son duo to achieve the feat.

Chuck Finley holds the honor for the most innings with four strikeouts. He did it three times in his career and compiled a pretty amazing line over those three innings:

3 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 4 WP, 1 PB, 12K, 7 LOB.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

These illustrations are examples of strange innings, no question. But just because a pitcher recorded four strikeouts in those innings, it does not mean there were more than three outs in the innings in which this unlikely feat occurred. One of those strikeouts was merely a statistic for the pitcher, and not an actual out, since the batter safely reached first base.

Another situation, one that boasts a better case for the elusive fourth out, involves a “time play.” A time play is a play where a runner may score before the third out of the inning is recorded. Runners can score if the defense gets the third out, but not if the out was a force, of if the out is recorded on the batter/runner before he reaches first.

If a manager makes an appeal on a time play after three outs already ended an inning, such an appeal could result in another out call for a baserunner that previously had been ruled safe. While far-fetched, this is possible and sounds like a scenario where a defense records four outs.

The closest we’ve come to such an occurence recently was April 12, 2009. The Arizona Diamondbacks faced the Los Angeles Dodgers at home on a get-away day for the Dodgers. In the second inning, Dodger manager Joe Torre made an appeal on a time play that plated an important run for his team in a tight ballgame.

Dodger outfielders Juan Pierre and Andre Ethier were on second and third bases, respectively. With one out, Dodger pitcher Randy Wolf lined out to his Diamondback counterpart, Dan Haren. Haren then threw behind Pierre, who had broken for third on contact. Arizona’s second baseman, Felipe Lopez, casually applied the tag to Pierre to record the third out and end the inning with no runs scoring.

Or so he thought.

Lopez’s lackadaisical tag gave Ethier enough time to cross home plate. After the Diamondbacks left the field, and on advice from Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer, Torre walked out and appealed to the umpire crew for Ethier’s run to count. The umpires allowed the run, which they should have done in the first place, and left us with a narrow miss of a so-called “fourth out.”

Torre relayed Schaefer’s heads-up call after the game, “When it happened, Bob Schaefer said, ‘That’s the four-out play.'” Schaefer was referring to a passage under rule 7.10, that reads as follows,

Appeal plays may require an umpire to recognize an apparent “fourth out.”

Had the Diamondbacks noticed the run scoring while they turned the double play, they could have appealed at third base. In their defense, the umpire should have been clear and indicated that a run scored. Unfortunately, they missed the call, and that’s why Torre had to appeal to get the run and not the defense appealing the runner leaving third early.

Had the umpires properly indicated a run scored right away, the defense could have appealed and touched third base with the ball. Umpires would have had to call Ethier out since he was running on contact and did not tag up after Harden caught the ball in the air. Since the Diamondbacks had already turned the double play and ended the inning with three outs, Ethier’s out on appeal would look like a fourth out.

But, MLB rules have that covered. The passage in rule 7.10 goes on to say:

If the third out is made during a play in which an appeal play is sustained on another runner, the appeal play decision takes precedence in determining the out.

So, an appeal by the Diamondbacks still would have held the batter to be out, but Ethier would have been the one doubled off third instead of Pierre being doubled off second.

That seems to be as close as we can get to a fourth out in an inning. In addition to the rulebook simply attributing the third out to a different runner to keep the number of outs as three, circumstances for a defensive appeal on a time play so specific as to qualify for this little exercise just don’t come around very often.

References & Resources
Major League Baseball’s website and rulebook, along with, provided most of the assistance on this one.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

With the out recorded on Pierre by a tag rather than a throw to 2nd and an appeal, would the 2nd paragraph of rule 7.10 apply?  Suppose Pierre had tagged and still been thrown out at 3rd.  Would that lead to a true 4 out inning?

David Wade
13 years ago

Let’s see if I get what you’re saying- if Pierre had tagged up and got in a rundown, only to be thrown out at third, the Diamondbacks could have still appealed to third after that if Ethier didn’t tag up.  So, you’d have the same situation- 3 outs to end the inning with Pierre being thrown out at third.  Then an appeal on Ethier would result in an out there as well, but would just supercede Pierre’s. 

Now, if both Pierre and Ethier tagged up, Ethier could score if he reached home before the Diamondbacks had tagged Pierre for the third out.

13 years ago

In one of his books (I think it was “How Life Imitates the World Series” but I’m too lazy to check) Thomas Boswell described a time play as having taken place in Cuba.

David Wade
13 years ago

Jim, I found this in a March 29, 2002 Washington Post article by Boswell-

“Once, in Cuba , a quadruple play decided the island championship. Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, home team one run behind. Liner to right in the gap. On instinct, the runners go. Diving catch. Throws back to second, then first for a triple play. But the runner on third has tagged in the meantime to score and tie the game. Defensive team appeals that the runner at third left too soon. Appeal upheld. “Fourth” out. Run denied. Game over.”

Technically, the appeal on the runner at third replaced the previously ruled third out, but it is a first hand account of a ‘four out inning’.

13 years ago

I heard a description of a possible five out inning by a current MLB umpire observer the other day.
Bases loaded with one out. A fly ball is caught (two outs). All three runners leave early. The team appeals each runner (don’t remember if order matters) and each runner is called out (outs three, four, and five). As he pointed out, why would a team appeal beyond the third out, but theoretically they would have the right.
He described this situation as the maximum outs allowed in a half inning under current MLB rules.

Jim G.
13 years ago

On these appeal plays, I don’t see them as outs as much as “negating” runs.

Also, thinking about the 4 strikeouts in an inning, it occurred to me, why do we even credit a pitcher a strikeout when the catcher boots the ball? Because the ball is live and it’s the only time a batter can reach first? I think it should be treated as a pb/error play only and tough rocks to the pitcher, just like any other error. (I know, it’s not an “error”, but c’mon.) Also, if the strikeout is credited to the pitcher, why doesn’t the batter get credit for one as well? Seems to me, if a fake strikeout is good enough for the guy who threw it, it should be even more so for the guy who swung and missed.

How’s this for a radical idea?: Allow a batter to attempt to reach first on ANY wild pitch or passed ball, regardless of the count. If someone (usually the catcher) can throw the batter out, then he’s out. If he reaches, he’s on. If he doesn’t break for first (or leave the batter’s box), then there is no play, the ball (or strike) is recorded, and the at bat continues. Traditional rules will still apply on a “3rd strike”.  We certainly would see the end of catchers dogging it with nobody on base.
Furthermore, the batter could have the same option on a stolen base play. If a runner attempts to steal a base, the batter can break for first. If the batter does attempt to go to first, a runner to second is now subject to a force, etc. As in batted ball rules, the force concept applies.  If the batter interferes with the catcher breaking to first, then the batter is out and the runner(s) return to their departure base (like the current rule).

I’m sure I missed some situations, but it seems like this would spice up the running game and give some importance back to speed on the bases. Any takers?

9 years ago
Reply to  Jim G.

How can it not be an out? A baserunner is either out or safe. If the runner is not safe and the score does not count, then he is OUT.

David Wade
13 years ago

Dave- that situation could happen, but in the scorebook the out should still go to whatever benefited the defense the most.