Why Does Baseball Have Rain Delays?

Baseball is very much a gladiatorial contest – pitcher against batter. It is also generally considered to be a summer game, with the regular season commonly running between March and September.

This is in large part because it has to be played in good light, in order to minimize any chances of a player suffering a serious injury.

Has Weather Ever Been Blamed For A Baseball Player Being Injured?

The tragic incident which caused the only recorded on-field death of a player, during a game in 1919 between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, is a major reason why umpires nearly always insist on conditions being dry and clear before a game can begin.

On that fateful occasion, Red Sox pitcher Carl Mays pitched a ball in very poor light to batter Ray Chapman.

Chapman missed the hit, and the ball struck him so hard on the head that those on the field believed it had actually hit his bat. However, he didn’t and he died from his injuries. The incident was the catalyst for the introduction of the first laws forcing batters to wear helmets, and played a major part in influencing the conditions in which a game is allowed to take place.

But weather is of course one factor over which no one has control, and as a game which sees players doing a lot of running around – both in offense and defense – conditions under the players’ feet have to be good to ensure that a game is fair, is a spectacle for the paying fans, and – above all – is played in conditions which are safe for all players.

How Can Rain Affect A Baseball Game?

  1. It Makes The Infield Slippery: Both a batter and a pitcher need to be sure of keeping their footing in order for the way in which they face off to satisfy the rules of the sport. So if a pitcher cannot safely deliver his pitch while pivoting on one foot, as stipulated in the official rules, or likewise, the batter cannot be sure of a safe grip for both feet, this could endanger either of them.
  2. It Affects Outfield Players’ Vision: The ball used in a baseball game is between just 2.86 and 2.94 inches in diameter, yet players standing many yards away from the batter’s box have to try to keep it in their sights at all times once it has left the bat. This will increase their chances of achieving a fly out, but it also means that there is less chance of them being hit by a ball which can be travelling towards them at very high speed.
  3. Rain Makes Catches More Difficult: It’s tough enough trying to keep both eyes fixed on a small ball heading towards you in optimum light conditions – but rain definitely hampers anyone’s ability to sight the ball precisely. The shape of a baseball bat in itself means that the ball will bounce off it with great unpredictability (see point 2). But if that ball is also wet, its flight will become even more unpredictable.
  4. Rain Makes The Baseball Slippery: The pitcher and every other member of a defensive team need to know they can throw and catch the ball safely. A pitcher will try to maintain as much grip on the ball as possible, while at the same time trying to deceive their opposing batter by deploying a few clever tricks to affect the flight of the ball – none of which are possible if he doesn’t have full control of it, as became tragically apparent from an incident at a game in 1919.
  5. The Ball Becomes Heavier And Can Lose Its Shape And Color: Moisture will quickly start to affect the properties of a baseball. One thing a batter has to be able to rely on is that a ball aimed at them will behave as predictably as possible while in the air. Keeping this consistency is one reason why every MLB game always has plenty of spare balls in reserve. A completely new ball may be easier to see in drizzle and light rain – but there comes a point when dirt and water on the ball will start to affect the way it behaves. And the older a ball is, the more receptive it becomes to these outside factors.
  6. The Batter Cannot Grip The Bat As Easily: With every play, the batter must have total confidence that they have that heavy piece of wood in their hands under total control. Bat handles get more slippery anyway in a player’s hands thanks to their own sweat – and when rain is added the potential for the bat to slip out of their grip is multiplied many times, putting defensive players at risk.
  7. Rain Is Often Followed By Lightning: This is one kind of strike no batter wants to get, but no umpire will be prepared to take the risk of anyone on or at the side of the field being struck. The batter is at even greater risk – a wooden bat can channel electricity through to them, and turn them into a walking lightning conductor.
  8. Rain Can Give The Offensive Side An Advantage: A shower making a baseball wet will mean a pitcher will find it more difficult to control, so invariably they will slow their throws down to compensate. The fielders’ jobs also become more difficult, as those stood some way from the batter might struggle to keep rain from getting in their eyes and so hamper their ability to sight the ball.
  9. Rain Puts Players In General Danger: Baseball is a fast game, involving players doing a lot of running, and when the field is wet, that will always greatly increase the risk of them slipping. So it can affect a defensive player running in to try to catch a ball, as well as an offensive runner, who might not to able to properly judge their slide into a base.

The final call over whether rain is severe enough to warrant them calling a game off is down to the umpires. In making their call, they will have to consider the safety implications from both the offense’s and defense’s viewpoint.

How Can Rain Affect The Result Of A Baseball Game?

At the game’s highest level of MLB, a head umpire is allowed to make an initial call that a game should be delayed. Of course, he and other match officials will always have in mind that many thousands of people will have paid to watch – but their and the players’ and coaching staff’s safety must always be paramount.

Under official MLB rules, Rule 4.03(e) says that, after an initial 30-minute delay called by a head umpire due to rain or other bad weather, the official can either postpone or cancel the game. However, if they still believe the weather might relent, and the game may be completed, they can extend the delay period.

As we have shown, rain – along with other poor weather conditions – can greatly affect the quality of a baseball game, and importantly, the safety of those taking part.

So as we have shown, showers, continuous rain, and even snow don’t just hamper fans’ enjoyment of a baseball game – they all present their own levels of danger to players and officials, so can result in a fixture being temporarily delayed, or even abandoned.