When using the on-deck circle makes absolutely no sense

Even in situations where batters have no chance whatsoever of coming to the plate, many of them still stand in the on-deck circle. Baseball is nuts. Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

If you're the on-deck batter, and the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning, do you go stand in the on-deck circle?

(This is what football writers ask me about baseball.)

There is, of course, no chance you will get to bat. You can't. It's impossible. The hitter will either make an out, and end the inning, or do literally anything else, and end the game. I don't need to explain these facts to you. The question is, do I need to explain these facts to major leaguers?

There have been 31 such situations in the majors this year -- the bottom of the ninth or the bottom of a later inning, in which the only two possibilities were an out or a walk-off run scoring. The most recent came on Labor Day. As Matt Wieters batted for the Washington Nationals, the on-deck circle was empty -- but the relief pitcher Greg Holland's spot was scheduled to come up next. Even if there had been only one out or no runners on, Holland would have been pinch hit for, and sometimes managers like to wait before sending a pinch hitter into the on-deck circle (to avoid giving anything away, for example), so we can't really count that.

The day before Labor Day, Paul DeJong batted in the same situation for the Cardinals, and the scheduled on-deck hitter was Patrick Wisdom. In this case it is indisputable: Wisdom goes and stands on deck, and takes some swings.

We watched all 31. There were a few games where the broadcast never showed us the on-deck circle, but in the overwhelming majority we can see at least one shot of the next batter standing on deck, or walking to the on-deck circle. Why? Why would they stand on deck?

One hypothesis, offered by Mark Armour, the co-author of the excellent book "In Pursuit of Pennants," goes like this: You have to have somebody there who can tell the runner coming home whether he needs to slide. (For a sort of loose example: on-deck Billy Hamilton here, with no play at home, but pointing at the plate, like "that's the thing you touch.") This is a very smart hypothesis, but I believe a wildly optimistic one.

For one thing: The scenario where the runner coming home would need to slide is very unlikely. The bases are loaded (forces everywhere) and there are two outs, so in practically any situation the throw would be to first or second or third. Perhaps if the ball is dribbled in front of the pitcher, or slowly down the third-base line -- but then the play is directly in front of the runner coming home, and he thus requires no extra communication from the on-deck batter. Maybe you can talk me into other dribbles. Maybe. Maybe the runner on third is much slower than the batter, and maybe the ball is tapped softly to shortstop or first base and maybe the easiest out is going to be at home. Maybe. But even then, there's no tag play, so no reason for that runner to slide. He should just run right through the base. So even then! But maybe. Maybe.

But a better reason to be skeptical of Armour's smart (but wrong) hypothesis is this: You don't need a bat to fulfill this function, and yet the on-deck batters took bats with them. In fact, among our on-deck hitters:

That's not to mention all the guys who took a bunch of practice swings, and the near-universal wearing of batting gloves. These are not on-deck batters who are focused on serving as a sort of third-base coach. These are guys who are getting ready to hit. Equipment on, equipment off, swings and stretching and the whole ballgame. They think they're going to hit.

For this objection, Armour offers an even smarter hypothesis:

Presuming that's not it, a third hypothesis is that there's a rule requiring an on-deck batter. The current MLB rulebook doesn't say so -- it diagrams where the "next-batter's box" should be but otherwise makes no prescription for how, or whether, that box is used -- but Major League Baseball's umpires manual does say that the on-deck circle must be occupied during an inning "by the next batter up." A lawyer could probably fight it and win, but presumably this wording would apply even to the batter who is only hypothetically, but never actually, up.

This would end the topic if this guidance is uniformly followed. But it's not. Our review turned up four probable exceptions, in addition to the Holland example on Labor Day:

These three cases are strongly suggestive, but it's always hard to prove a negative. Maybe each batter was just out of sight. But the case of Ian Kinsler is clearer:

There's no Kinsler in that on-deck circle, nor anywhere near the on-deck circle, and the shot gives us a lot of extra visibility. Now, there are (if you squint) two people wearing helmets at the top step of the dugout:

The helmet closest to us is the bat boy. The other helmet -- who knows who it is, but if it's Kinsler he's basically enacting the same fallacy; he's prepared for an AB that can't happen. So we watched, and watched, and watched, until we found the shot we needed:

That appears to be half of Ian Kinsler's face, on the right side of the frame next to Mike Scioscia. He's the on-deck hitter, theoretically. But he's sitting in the dugout, with no helmet on, because why in the world would he do anything different?

Final tally:

  • 20 batters stood on deck

  • Five batters did not, if we include Holland

  • Six instances in which the broadcast could not confirm

So what do we make of the 20, if none of the previous three hypotheses is conclusive? Most likely, they stand on deck because it's the safe move. Sure, there is no way they could bat. But what if somehow they could? What if there's some million-to-one shot that they're just not thinking of that would require them to bat? There's not, but what if there is? Then they would look like a fool. In baseball, the comfortable, safe thing to do is to go through the motions of being a baseball player. That means standing on deck, putting on batting gloves, taking a few hacks.

Of course, in a very literal sense, it's safer in the dugout:

So when they don't have to go into the on-deck circle, the clever ballplayers opt out and get away with it. The rest, though, go do the dangerous thing that feels safe. We can be very generous with these on-deck-circlers, and assume they've got a good reason for doing something that has no good reason. We should be generous. We should always be generous with strangers.

But if, in the back of our minds, we think it's kind of funny that they're standing out on a rubber mat awaiting an at-bat that literally could not possibly happen, that's probably justified.