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Photo courtesy Atlanta Braves
Braves outfielder Andruw Jones rounds third base.
On the offensive side of the game, there are two types of players -- the hitter and the base runner. Once the hitter makes contact with the ball and gets a hit, he becomes a base runner and must safely reach each base in succession. The ultimate goal of each offensive player is to make his way around the bases and cross home plate, thereby scoring a run.

When a hitter is at the plate, he is considered to be at bat. During an at bat, the pitcher of the opposing team throws the ball to the catcher, and the hitter tries to hit the ball with the bat before it reaches the catcher. Each throw is called a pitch. A pitch can be either a ball or a strike. (The umpire is the judge of whether a pitch is a ball or a strike.)

A ball is a pitch that is out of the strike zone, which is an imaginary rectangular box that typically runs the width of the plate and from the hitter's chest to his knees. A strike is a ball that goes through the strike zone and is not hit by the hitter. A strike can be a ball outside of the strike zone if the hitter swings and misses. If a player hits a ball that goes into foul territory and is not caught by a fielder before it touches the ground, it is also counted as a strike -- except when the batter already has two strikes. A batter with two strikes can hit the ball into foul territory indefinitely without striking out. However, a ball caught in foul territory is scored an out.

During an at bat, a hitter may do one of several actions, including:

    Photo courtesy Atlanta Braves
    Atlanta Braves outfielder Andruw Jones at bat
  • Walk - When the pitcher throws four balls before throwing three strikes, the hitter gets a free base.
  • Hit by pitch - A hitter that is struck with a pitch is awarded first base.
  • Single - The hitter hits the ball into play far enough to get to first base.
  • Double - The hitter hits the ball into play far enough to get to second base.
  • Triple - The hitter hits the ball into play far enough to get to third base.
  • Home run - The hitter hits the ball over the outfield wall between the foul poles and is awarded a free trip around the bases, or the hitter hits the ball far enough that he or she has time to run all the bases. The hitter must run around the bases and touch home plate for the home run to count.
  • Fielder's choice - A hitter makes contact with the ball, but only reaches base because a fielder chose to throw out another runner.
  • Error - A hitter makes contact with the ball and only reaches base because a fielder misplays the ball.
A runner must go around the bases in order, starting with first base. He then goes to second, third, and finally home. A base runner can advance in one of several ways. He can be advanced by another player's hit or by a hitter being walked, or he can steal a base. To steal a base, the runner starts running from one base to another before the at-bat player gets a hit or a walk, and makes it to the base without getting tagged out. If a runner veers outside of the base path, the umpire calls him out. The umpire decides how far outside the base path is too far.

At the end of all the scheduled innings, the team that has scored the most runs is declared the winner. If the home team is ahead after the top of that inning, the home team wins the game and does not have to complete the inning. However, if the teams are tied after nine innings, they continue to play until one team has more runs than the other. Keep in mind that the home team always has the chance to bat last.

Photo courtesy Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves outfielder Gary Sheffield at bat

To Complicate Matters...
All-time Leaders:
Batting Average
  1. Ty Cobb - .366
  2. Rogers Hornsby - .359
  3. Joe Jackson - .356
  4. Ed Delahanty - .346
  5. Tris Speaker - .345
  6. Ted Williams - .344
  7. Billy Hamilton - .344
  8. Dan Brouthers - .342
  9. Babe Ruth - .342
  10. Harry Heilmann - .342
*Source: ESPN Classic

See Calculate Batting Averages.

Now that you know the basics, you can see how on the face of it baseball is a simple game. Of course, while it is simple in concept, it can also become extremely complex based on different rules that have been put in place over the 140 years the game has been played. Here are a few of those:

  • Ground rule double - As has already been discussed, if a ball is hit over the outfield fence in fair territory, it is a home run. However, if a ball bounces over the fence, it is an automatic double.

  • The foul pole - Because balls traveling in the air over the outfield fence can never hit the ground in fair territory, poles are set up on the foul line in left and right fields. These have always been known as foul poles. However, a ball hitting one of these poles is considered a fair ball, and therefore a home run.

  • Tagging up - If there is a runner on base, he must not advance from his base until a hit ball hits the ground. The exception to that is if the ball is caught by a fielder, the runner can advance once the ball is caught, but only after touching the base he was at when the ball was hit. This is called tagging up, and the fielder can attempt to record another out by tagging (or assisting his teammate in tagging) the runner before he advances to the next base. This can often result in one of the more exciting plays in a game, a close play at home plate.

  • Dropped third strike - As discussed earlier, a batter is out if he has three strikes during an at bat. However, if the catcher drops or otherwise does not catch the pitched third strike, the batter can still be awarded first base if he can reach it before the catcher is able to either tag him or throw the ball to first base before he reaches it. While this is still a strikeout, it does not count as one of the three outs for that half inning. This odd quirk presents the pitcher with a strange opportunity, the ability to record four strikeouts in one inning.

  • Infield fly rule - If there are two or more runners on base with fewer than two outs, a fly ball that is not hit far enough into the field is an automatic out as a result of the infield fly rule. Since when a ball is still in the air, runners must remain on base, this rule prevents a fielder from purposely letting the ball drop and then recording an easy double play, since neither of the runners would have moved yet.

  • Balk - Similar to the infield fly rule, this rule is designed to prevent the defensive team, in this case the pitcher, from misleading base runners. Because runners who are trying to steal bases must do so based on timing the pitcher's throwing motion, pitchers are prohibited from trying to deceive the runner by starting their motion and then stopping. Once the motion has begun, the pitcher must deliver the pitch to the plate. If a balk is called as a result of the pitcher making what is ruled by the umpire a deceptive move, the runner or runners are all awarded one base.