What is a Foul Ball in Baseball?

Baseball pitches use lines and poles to indicate on the field where boundaries and territories are set. Baseballs rely on these territories set to define whether or not they can be considered a foul.

A foul ball in baseball is defined as being a ball that has made contact with a fielder in foul territory. Additionally, a foul ball can also be declared by the umpire if the ball has not been touched by a fielder in fair territory, and has instead made hit the field in the foul territory. 

At its simplest, a foul ball is a ball that has landed in or bounded past territory that it shouldn’t have landed in or entered.

When is a Ball Foul in Baseball?

Foul balls are notoriously a complicated aspect in the game of baseball, as the rules surrounding them can be confusing.

Rules surrounding balls in the outfield and infield can differ, meaning that some rules don’t apply to certain situations. 

One of the easier rules to follow is that a ball that is hit beyond the infield is a foul ball. A ball that lands or touches the ground inside the fair territory is considered a fair ball. On the contrary, a ball which hits the foul territory and then rolls into fair territory is considered a foul ball. 

There are different ways in which a ball can end up in the wrong territory, either through human error or through a series of accidents. A foul ball is a ball which has been batted and has either 

  • Settled on foul territory, which could be between first base, or between home and third base.
  • Bounds past the first or the third base over or on foul territory.
  • First lands on the foul territory beyond first or third base.
  • Or touches an umpire, player or any object that is foreign to the natural ground, whilst being over or on foul territory. 

A ball which has been batted and touches a batter whilst in the batter’s box is a foul ball regardless of whether the territory is foul or not.

Baseball arenas use a series of lines and poles to set boundaries during play. These boundaries help decide whether or not a ball is foul, or in foul territory. The two foul lines in baseball meet at the home plate and run perpendicularly to the outfield fence.

One benefit of foul balls is that the foul area helps segment the baseball field more effectively. After all, there are nine defenders on the pitch, which can be up to 119,200 square feet in size. (That’s 2.72 acres!).

One exception to the foul ball rule is how home runs pertain to foul balls. If a batter hits a ball and it passes the foul pole in fair territory (thus curling around the pole), then they are awarded a home run.

In the infield, a foul ball is determined by where the ball is when it’s touched or where a ground ball is when it passes the first or third base.

In the outfield, a foul ball is determined based on where it lands. For example, if a ball in the outfield lands in foul territory, then it’s automatically foul- regardless of whether or not it rolls back into fair territory.

What Happens on a Foul Ball in Baseball?

A foul ball occurs when a batted ball lands, bounds past or hits someone or something in foul territory. Whilst a foul ball sounds serious, it doesn’t always mean that a batter is out.

A foul ball that is not caught means the batter receives a strike. Providing that the batter doesn’t already have two strikes, they may continue batting. On the other hand, if the ball is a fly ball and is caught in foul territory, the batter is out. Runners are allowed to advance whilst on a foul ball but do so at their own risk of being caught out. 

A batter can’t be sent off for fouling off the pitch, but if a batter attempts to lay down a bunt with two strikes and bunts it foul, they are immediately sent off as it’s considered a strikeout.
Bunting a ball in a particular direction with two strikes is considered a way of tiring out the pitcher, which is prohibited in the rules of baseball. 

Some foul balls are immediately put out of play, depending on where they’re hit. An example of this would be how at college and professional levels, a foul ball that is hit out of the fences is officially considered out of play. These balls are often used as souvenirs by the people who catch them.

History of Foul Balls In Baseball

Foul balls were included in the original Rules of Baseball, which were published by Alexander Cartwright back in 1845. Foul balls were described as being “a ball knocked out of the field, or outside the range of the first and third base, is foul”

There was never any specific reason given for the inclusion of the foul ball rule, but it has persisted throughout the decades in which baseball has been a regularly played sport.

Are Foul Balls Common in Baseball?

Foul balls are relatively uncommon in-game, and one of the reasons that they are fairly uncommon is due to the size and ratio of the baseball field. Whilst a baseball field’s fair ball territory can reach around 100,000 square feet, the foul territory makes up less than half of that in additional space. The foul territory can reach up to 40,000 square feet, which means that a batter is significantly more likely to hit a ball into the fair territory rather than the foul territory. 

Around 30% of strikes thrown in MLB are foul balls, which can equate to nearly 140,000 fouls being thrown in a single season. Whilst this is already a small percentage of balls which are foul, the amount of foul-outs are even lower. In fact, only about 3500 foul-outs occur in a season. You can read more about how many balls are used in baseball here.