The Rules of Baseball: A Comprehensive Guide to the Game

Baseball stadium full of fans look on during game.

Whether you played baseball growing up or have just seen it on T.V., there’s always more we can learn about the game. This is especially true considering the rule changes baseball has put into place over the years.

With that said, let’s take a look at the basic rules of baseball and some of the more complex ones.

Baseball is a sport that involves two teams of nine players, playing nine innings to see who can score more runs. To score runs for their teams, players have to round all the bases and touch home plate. Players reach base by getting hits and drawing walks. The umpires call balls, strikes and outs.

However, the game is much more complex than that and that’s why we’re here. If you’d like to learn more about the basic and advanced rules of baseball and learn how the game became “America’s Pastime”, we invite you to read on.

What Are Balls and Strikes in Baseball?

It would be unfair for the pitcher to be able to throw the ball anywhere and force the batter to swing and attempt to hit it. Therefore, the strike zone was created.

The strike zone is an imaginary “box” that begins at the batter’s knees, ends at the batter’s chest, and is the width of home plate (approximately 17 inches). This “box” adjusts to the height of each batter.

Strikes in Baseball

Strikes can be accounted for in three different ways…

  • The pitcher throws the ball in the strike zone and the batter doesn’t swing.
  • The pitcher throws a pitch and the batter swings, failing to hit the ball.
    • This is regardless of whether the ball is in the strike zone or not.
  • The batter hits a foul ball.

The batter’s job is to get on base before they earn three strikes, which results in a strikeout. Batters can’t strike out on foul balls.

Balls in Baseball

Any pitch that doesn’t meet the requirements above is considered a ball. If the pitcher throws four balls to a batter before getting them out, the batter is walked and heads to first base.

With balls and strikes being a general rule of baseball, how are these determined? It would seem a little biased to have one of the teams make the call, as they would benefit themselves, right? This is why we have umpires.

What Is a Hit in Baseball?

College baseball player puts the ball in play as umpire and catcher watch.

A base hit occurs whenever the batter hits the baseball safely in play. Hits can be accounted for in four different ways…

  • Single: Batter reaches first base (batters can run through first but not second and third)
  • Double: Batter rounds first and reaches second base
  • Triple: Batter rounds first and second and reaches third base
  • Home Run: Batter hits the ball over the outfield wall or rounds all the bases and scores (“inside the park home run”)

Each plate appearance (except walks and sacrifice hits/bunts) affects the batter’s batting average. This is written as hits divided by at-bats. Say on the season a batter got 150 hits in 600 plate appearances. This would result in the batter having a .250 batting average.

How to Score Runs in Baseball

Runs are scored whenever the hitting team has a runner touch all three bases and home plate.

This can happen by tallying multiple hits in a row where runners advance one base at a time, by batters hitting doubles or triples with runners on base or by hitting a home run, which scores all the runners on base.

Once the hitting team accrues three outs, the fielding team comes up to bat. One inning is in the books after each team gets to hit and field once.

Baseball games usually consist of 6-9 innings, depending on the age and league. In the event the home team is winning after the top of the last inning, the bottom of that inning isn’t played and the home team wins.

What Is an Out in Baseball?

An out occurs whenever the batter doesn’t reach base safely during his at-bat. This can occur in multiple ways…

  • Strikeout (swinging or looking)
  • Grounding out
  • Flying out/lining out

The Baseball Field

Baseball fans look on during baseball game.

Baseball fields are similar to the shape of an ice cream cone and are split into two basic parts- the infield and the outfield.


The infield is generally made of dirt and consists of the “cone” of the ice cream. This is often referred to as the diamond. The infield is where six of the nine positions on a team are played.

These positions include the pitcher, catcher, first base, second base, shortstop and third base. The infield is also the only territory the hitting team will ever encounter.

The infield consists of two players on each side of 2nd base, a pitcher placed in the middle of the infield, and a catcher directly behind home.

The primary goal of the infielders is to stop ground balls hit by the batter and throw the batters out at a base, as well as to catch any popups in the infield.


The outfield stretches from where the infield dirt meets the grass to the outfield wall, which is the top of the ice cream in the example shape. The outfield is where the three other positions play.

One is positioned between each of the gaps between the infielders. This is what gives the outfielders their names: the left fielder, the center fielder, and the right fielder (given you’re standing on home looking towards the field).

The primary goal of the outfielders is to run and catch any balls that are hit deep into the air and to prevent balls from rolling to the outfield wall.

After catching or fielding the ball, outfielders will throw the ball quickly into the infield to prevent the runners on base from advancing any further.

The Pitcher and Catcher

Pitcher and catcher visit at the mound.

Although these two players are listed as infielders, they have very unique and critical roles.


Often labeled the most important player on the playing field, the pitcher attempts to get batters out by forcing them to pop-out, groundout or strikeout.


The primary responsibility of the catcher is to catch the pitches that the pitcher throws. This is difficult depending on the accuracy and/or the type of pitch. The catcher is also the one who relays the signs from the coach to tell the pitcher what pitch to throw.


There are three bases on the field: 1st base, 2nd base, and 3rd base. In addition to the bases, there is a home plate where the majority of the action takes place, as that is where the pitches are thrown, the catcher is positioned, and where the batter tries to hit the ball.

The bases (in the MLB) are 90 feet apart and create a diamond shape in the infield. Players must touch each base before proceeding to the next base. If a player fails to touch the next base on his way to another base (running first to third), he could be called out if tagged with the ball.

Baseball Umpires

Umpires serve the role of the middleman in baseball, synonymous with referees in football, basketball, soccer, etc. Typically, in Major League Baseball, there is an umpire at home plate, first, second and third. Each of these have their specific assigned roles.

The Home Plate Umpire

The home plate umpire is in charge of determining whether a pitch is a strike or a ball. Since they stand directly behind the catcher, this umpire is the one with the best view of home. This umpire is also in charge of overseeing close plays at the plate.

First and Third Base Umpires

The first and third base umpires, although they don’t have as pivotal of a role in each pitch, still have vital duties for the fairness and success of a game. These umpires stand just behind their respective bases and determine whether batted balls are fair or foul.

This is very important, as the fielders, batter and runner(s) decisions hinge on whether balls are fair or foul. The first and third base umpires also oversee their bases to determine if players are safe or out.

These umpires are additionally required to pay attention to the batter. In certain situations, a batter might begin to swing and then stop (known as a “check-swing”).

Since the home plate umpire is watching the incoming ball, they cannot always tell if the batter swings or not. This is where the first and third base umpires step in to help the home plate umprie determine balls and strikes. They do this by determining if the batter broke the plane of the plate with their bat.

Fair Balls and Foul Balls in Baseball

Baseball player fouls off pitch.

When looking at a baseball field, you’ll see two white lines stretching from the corners of home plate to the outfield wall. These foul lines serve as the physical barrier between a ball that is fair and foul.

If a batted ball hit in the air takes a bounce outside one of the foul lines, it’s a foul ball, and play is stopped.

If a fly ball or ground ball lands/rolls in fair territory and then goes foul, the ball is considered to be a fair ball. However, this ONLY happens if the ball is passed the first or third base bag.

EXAMPLE: Say the batter hits a ground ball past first base. The ball is fair the entire way but then rolls into foul territory before the right fielder can pick it up. The ball would be played as live and the play would continue.

A foul ball counts as a strike to the batter up until they have two strikes. After that, the pitch is recorded as a strike for the pitcher, but the batter continues their at-bat until the ball is hit, the batter walks or strikes out.

What Is an Error in Baseball?

An error occurs when a fielder makes a mistake on a ball that is considered “routine”. An example would be if an outfielder drops a fly ball or an infielder makes a bad throw.

A play when a fielder attempts to dive but misses the ball would not be considered an error, as this is not an expected play to be made.

What Is a Fielder’s Choice in Baseball?

A fielder’s choice occurs when a runner(s) is on base and there’s only time to get one out. An example would be if there was a runner on first base when the ball was hit in the infield.

The infielder who made the play then decides to get the lead runner out instead of the batter. Both of these plays are considered outs by the batter, even if the batter didn’t get out themselves.

What is the Infield Fly Rule?

Baseball stadium on sunny day.

An infield fly can only be called when a pop up is hit and there’s at least a runner on first and second base, with less than two outs. The ball has to be hit into fair territory and has to be considered a routine play to be called.

The rule was put into place to help protect the runners. If this rule wasn’t in place, the fielders could act like they were going to make the catch and then let it bounce at the last second. This would result in the runners staying on their bases and for an easy double play.

How Do Extra Innings Work in Baseball?

Baseball games go to extra innings if the score is tied after nine innings. After the completion of each full extra inning (top and bottom halves), the team who is ahead wins the game.

If the game is still tied after an extra-inning, more of these innings are played until a winner is determined. In the event the home team scores the go-ahead run in extra innings, the home team is the winner.

What Are the Rules for a Rain Delay in Baseball?

As you may have guessed, rain delays get called when it rains. Depending on how far along a game is when a rain delay is called, different things happen:

  • Before the game – The game is played on a later date
  • During the first four innings – The game is played on a later date
  • Completed Top of the 5th inning (home team winning) – The game counts and the home team wins
  • Completed 5th inning (tied) – The game is suspended and resumed another day (usually the next day)
  • In the postseason – Regardless of inning or score, play will resume at the point of the stoppage

It’s important to note that games aren’t immediately called when it begins to rain. If it starts raining hard enough, the umpires will usually dismiss the teams to their dugouts/clubhouses until the rain passes.

The umpires will then allow some time to pass to see if the rain lets up (maybe an hour or more). If it doesn’t, that’s when games are officially postponed or called.

Important Rule Changes to Baseball Over the Years

Throughout baseball’s history, there have been several rules put in place or changed to help games run smoothly. These are some of the most influential rules put into place, courtesy of Baseball Almanac:

  • 1879 – First umpire crew introduced
  • 1889 – Four called balls became a “walk”
  • 1891 – Substitutions were permitted
  • 1893 – The pitcher’s mound increased to 60′ 6″ from home
  • 1910 – Cork center was added to baseballs
  • 1920 – The spitball was outlawed from Major League Baseball
  • 1971 – All Major League Baseball batters had to start wearing helmets
  • 1973 – The American League adopted the Designated Hitter (DH)
  • 1975 – Baseballs in Major League Baseball began to be covered with cowhide
  • 2016 – All slides made by base runners must be at the base and not the fielder (“Chase Utley Rule”)
  • 2020 – Major League Baseball pitchers have to throw to at least three batters or pitch the remaining of the inning

What Are the Unwritten Rules of Baseball?

Along with the rules we’ve covered in this article, there are some “unwritten rules” that players are expected to abide by. Whether you agree with them or not, here are some of them:

  • Don’t step on the foul lines (mainly for pitchers)
  • Don’t bunt to break up no-hitters
  • Don’t walk on top of the plate to get to batter’s box
  • Don’t admire/over celebrate a homerun or strikeout
  • Don’t talk about a no-hitter in progress
  • Don’t make the 1st or 3rd out at third base
  • Don’t step on the pitcher’s mound if you are not the pitcher or catcher
  • Don’t show frustration toward teammates on the field

What Is the Mercy Rule in Baseball?

This event occurs when one team is substantially ahead in runs after X number of innings. This rule changes depending on age/league/tournament. The MLB doesn’t have a mercy rule.

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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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