What Is a Dropped Third Strike? How the Rule Works

A catcher drops a third strike.

The world of sports is full of strange terms and rules that are unknown to casual viewers of the game. Even avid followers sometimes don’t know the complete letter of the law when it comes to some rules. One of these rules has to do with a dropped third strike.

So, what is a dropped third strike in baseball?

A dropped third strike occurs when a batter strikes out but the catcher fails to catch the pitch. When this happens, the batter can run to first base, even though he just struck out. If the batter isn’t tagged or the ball doesn’t reach first base before the batter, the batter is safe.

Dropped third strikes occur in all levels of baseball. In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at dropped third strikes, what the rules entail, and how they work during games. We’ll also look at how a dropped third strike can impact a baseball game and why the rule exists.

How Does a Dropped Third Strike Work?

In baseball when a pitcher is facing off against a hitter, there are always three players involved. The pitcher who’s throwing the ball, the hitter who’s trying to hit the ball, and the catcher who’s catching each pitch.

The hitter gets three strikes to hit the ball and get on base. A strike is when the pitcher throws the ball in (or around) the strike zone and the umpire calls it a strike. If a pitcher successfully throws three strikes, the hitter strikes out.

However, if the pitcher throws the third strike but the catcher fails to catch the ball, the hitter has the opportunity to run to first base. If the hitter makes it to first base without being tagged or put out by the catcher, they can stay on base and the play doesn’t count as an out.

Essentially, the catcher has to catch the ball before it hits the ground. Even if they cleanly scoop it out of the dirt, they must still tag the hitter or throw the ball to first base before the hitter can get there. Basically, a dropped third strike gives the hitter a second chance to reach first base even though they struck out.

What Is the Rule for a Dropped Third Strike?

The rule for a dropped third strike applies anytime the third strike in an at-bat touches the ground instead of the catcher catching the pitch. A dropped third strike can occur when the batter swings and misses or on a called third strike.

They more commonly occur on a swing and a miss when the pitch is in the dirt and the catcher doesn’t have the opportunity to make a clean catch.

While the dropped third strike rule sounds simple and straightforward, there are a few caveats and nuances that must be known to fully understand the rule. We’ll go into more detail on those rules in a moment. However, here’s the exact third strike rule according to Section 5.05 (a) (2) of Major League Baseball’s rulebook.

“The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing first base is unoccupied, or first base is occupied with two outs.”

Additionally, an amendment was made to the dropped third strike rule in 2006 which is as follows:

“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.”

The rule change was made so that players couldn’t pretend that they didn’t know they had three strikes and make a last-second dash for first base. The previous rule would have allowed a hitter to go for first base anytime they wanted before they reached the dugout. The rule change was made to reduce trickery and deception on the part of the hitter.

What Is the Reason for the Dropped Third Strike Rule?

The dropped third strike rule is one of the oldest in baseball and its roots can be traced all the way back to 1845. In those days, there were stipulations put in place where it was possible for a catcher to deliberately drop the pitch and record a double or triple play.

However, due to rule changes and amendments, it’s no longer possible to get more than one out on a dropped third strike. That is, of course, unless a baserunner attempts to steal a base and is thrown out by the catcher.

The main reason for the dropped third strike rule in modern baseball is twofold. The first reason is to serve as a small punishment to the pitcher and catcher for either a wild pitch or for a catching error.

The other reason for the rule is that it adds an element of surprise and excitement to a game that can get stagnant at times. It definitely serves as an advantage to the offense rather than to the defense.

Dropped Third Strike Rule History

The umpire stands behind the catcher in marron gear.

As previously mentioned, the dropped third strike rule is one of the oldest rules in the book. It has a long and storied history that stretches back to the days even before baseball. The origin of the dropped third strike rule actually begins courtesy of a German teacher by the name of Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths.

Gutsmuths designed games for children and adults to promote physical activity and exercise. One of these games was known as “Ball with freestates” or “English base-ball.”

This game was one of the earliest forms of baseball and it involved two teams with a pitcher tossing a ball to a hitter. However, the intent of the game wasn’t to strike people out, but rather for the hitter to hit the ball to initiate running and physical activity.

Therefore, Gutsmuths put a rule in the game stating that each hitter would get three strikes but on the third strike, the hitter automatically had the opportunity to run for first base.

The reason for his rule was to promote activity rather than a competition between the pitcher and the hitter. Fast-forward to 1845 when the first baseball rules were made, and the rule was incorporated into the rulebook. This was courtesy of the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club who felt the dropped third strike rule was a good way to add an element of competition to the game.

The rule in 1845 simply stated that if the catcher caught the third strike on the fly or on one bounce, the hitter was out. However, if the catcher failed to do this, the pitch was essentially a fair ball and the hitter had a chance to run to first base.

Up until the 1880s, there wasn’t a rule stipulating the ins and outs of the dropped third strike rule. Therefore, it was fairly common for a catcher to purposely drop the third strike when there was a runner on first.

He would drop the pitch, then throw the ball to second to initiate a double play. This was especially common with the bases loaded because a skilled catcher could drop the pitch, step on home plate, throw to third, and then to second or first for a triple play.

However, in 1887, the rule was rightly changed so that the dropped third strike rule only applied with two outs or when first base was unoccupied. This was done to prevent easy double and triple plays from occurring. To this day, the dropped third strike rule remains in play despite having seemingly no purpose other than to give struck-out hitters a second chance at life.

Does a Dropped Third Strike Count as an Out?

A dropped third strike only counts as an out if the catcher is able to retire the hitter before they reach first base. The catcher can retire the hitter either by recovering the ball and tagging them out or by recovering the ball and throwing it to the first basemen before the hitter gets there.

If the hitter who just struck out is able to reach first base before he is tagged out or thrown out, the play doesn’t count as an out.

How Is a Dropped Third Strike Scored?

Dropped third strikes don’t happen overly often so some scorekeepers may not know how to score them. To clarify, if a catcher drops the third strike but is still able to retire the hitter before they reach first base, the play is simply scored as a strikeout.

However, if the hitter reaches first base on a dropped third strike, the play is scored as a strikeout for the pitcher and an error for the catcher. Here’s how that looks: K-E2. If it’s necessary for the catcher to throw the ball to first to record the out the play is scored as K 2-3.

Dropped Third Strike with 2 Outs

If there are two outs and there is a dropped third strike, the hitter and any baserunners have the opportunity to advance to the next base. With less than two outs and first base occupied, the hitter is automatically out even if the third strike is dropped.

However, because there are two outs and there is no possibility of a double-play occurring, the hitter has a chance to run to first base.

If you’re a baseball player or an umpire, it’s important that you’re aware of the different rules regarding the dropped third strike rule. You must be aware of what’s going on in the game and be prepared to act accordingly.

Dropped Third Strike with Bases Loaded

The batter takes a pitch.

If the bases are loaded and a dropped third strike occurs, the hitter can only advance to first if there are two outs. If there are less than two outs, the hitter is automatically out and the baserunners can optionally advance at their own risk but they aren’t forced to do so.

This rule is so that a catcher can’t purposely drop the ball, pick it up, and step on home plate to initiate a double-play. However, if the third strike happens to skip far away from the catcher and the baserunners have the chance to advance, they can do so. The hitter, on the other hand, is automatically out, no matter what.

Dropped Third Strike with Runner On First

If there is a dropped third strike with a runner on first, the hitter can only advance if there are two outs. If there are less than two outs with a runner at first, the hitter is automatically out on a dropped third strike. The runner on first can optionally advance to second if they desire, but they aren’t forced to do so.

What About If the Runner Is Stealing?

Whether the runner on first is stealing second or not doesn’t matter in regards to the hitter striking out. Regardless of what the runner on first is doing, the hitter is struck out and must return to their dugout.

Does a Dropped 3rd Strike Ruin a Perfect Game?

The tragic downside of a dropped third strike is that it can definitely ruin a perfect game. While this might seem improbably, it’s actually happened before. John Means of the Baltimore Orioles was the victim of a dropped third strike ruining a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners.

It occurred in the third inning of the game when the hitter, Sam Haggerty, struck out but was able to advance to first base on a dropped third strike. Means had retired every batter leading up this and would go on to retire the rest of the batters to follow. However, because a player reached first base, the game didn’t count as a perfect game.

A perfect game can only occur when the pitcher prevents everyone from reaching base. A player can reach base via a base hit, an error, a walk, a hit by pitch, or even by a dropped third strike. Even though John Means struck Haggerty out, he still reached base and ruined his perfect game. Means would go on to record a no-hitter, but not a perfect game.

Dropped Third Strike Little League Rule

Little League and all leagues ages 12 and under don’t have a dropped third strike rule. This is simply because catchers at this age level are still learning the game and usually aren’t skilled enough to catch every single pitch. Were there to be a dropped third strike rule in Little League, there would be way too many players reaching base on strikeouts.

Should There Be a Dropped Third Strike Rule?

Despite being one of the oldest rules in the book, there’s much debate about why the dropped third strike rule is still in existence. Many believe that it’s an outdated and pointless rule that should be dropped from the game.

While hitters like the rule because it gives them a second chance at life, pitchers despise it. They feel like they shouldn’t be penalized because they have a bad catcher or because the hitter swung at a bad pitch.

Justin Verlander said it best in a 2019 interview after recording his 3,000th career strikeout, “If I can make a pitch that’s so bad that the catcher can’t catch it but you still swung at it,” he joked, “you probably shouldn’t get to go to first base.”

Final Thoughts

Whether or not there should be a dropped third strike rule in baseball varies largely from person to person. Many people feel like there isn’t any logical reason for having the rule, while others like the second chance that it affords to hitters.

Whether you agree with the rule, if you play baseball it’s important that you stay on your toes and be ready for a dropped third strike.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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