What actually happens to the clock in the NFL when a ball carrier goes out of bounds?

Dear Sports Fan,

My friends told me that the clock stops in an NFL game when a player with the ball goes out of bounds. Now, I’m fairly new to watching football, but I’m pretty sure they’re wrong. I was watching a game this weekend and clearly saw the clock running before the next play after the ball carrier went out of bounds. Am I crazy or are they wrong? What actually happens to the clock in the NFL when a ball carrier goes out of bounds?


Dear Vincent,

You’re not crazy, you’re observant. This is one of the most common misconceptions about football. 95% of football fans will say the clock stops when the ball goes out of bounds, just like your friends did. It’s not true. They are either avoiding a complex answer or they’ve never even noticed that it’s not true! Avoiding complexity is a good policy when it comes to explaining something to a beginner, but never if it results in saying something that’s not true. In this post, I’ll clear up this misconception about the NFL game clock and going out of bounds. In case you want to check the NFL rules themselves, the ones that apply to this question are here.

There are three main possibilities for how the game clock is dealt with after a play ends.

  1. It continues to run
  2. It stops until the ref places the ball on the ground in the spot where the next play should begin
  3. It stops until the next play begins

We can apply some basic rules to when each of these options applies in an NFL game.

  1. As a default, the game clock continues to run.
  2. When it may take a little while for the players and refs to untangle themselves from the result of the previous play and get back in place to start a new one, the game clock pauses until the ref gets the ball in place.
  3. When it’s likely that each second of game time is at a premium, the NFL, because it wants games to be as exciting as possible (this is an entertainment industry, after all), has created ways for smart teams to get the clock to stop after some types of plays.

Once you understand those as the three options, you can start making sense out of what seemed like an almost infinite set of possibilities, each with their own specific treatment. Here is how these principles apply to a ball-carrier going out of bounds.

If a ball carrier goes out of bounds with the ball, the game clock temporarily stops. For most of the game, the game clock restarts when the ref places the ball on the ground where the next play will begin. (Option 2) Exceptions to this are: during the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half. During these times, the game clock is not restarted until the next play begins. (Option 3) In case you were wondering, a regular season overtime period is treated like the second half of a game, while playoff overtime periods are treated as though a new game is beginning and the first overtime period is the first quarter.

The rules that apply to the NFL game clock and going out of bounds are often simplified to, “the clock stops when the ball carrier goes out of bounds.” This misleading simplification works most of the time because it is true for most of time that fans pay attention to the clock. If it’s not in the last two minutes of the first half or the last five minutes of the second, barely anyone is paying attention to the clock at all. This is how a rule that is in place for 53 of a game’s 60 minutes can be completely missed by even the most knowledgeable football fans.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does an onside kick work in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What are the rules for an onside kick? When do teams try them? What are they trying to gain from it? How does an onside kick work in football?


Dear Jacky,

Onside kicks are chaotic, happen rarely, and are often quite confusing, even to football fans. The first step in understanding and making sense out of the onside kick is to categorize it as a tactic, not a special type of play that has special rules. The onside kick is a tactical option during any kickoff play for the team kicking off. A team that chooses to execute an onside kick is hoping to retain (or regain) possession of the ball instead of giving it to the other team as is normal on a kickoff.

A kickoff happens at the start of the game, the start of the second half, and after any scoring play — although touchdowns are followed by an extra point or two-point conversion attempt and then a kickoff. All kickoffs have the same rules. The team kicking off must line up with no less than four players on either side of the ball and with all its players behind or even with the ball when it is kicked. The receiving team must line up on their side of where the ball is. Once the ball is kicked, it is free for either team to take possession of once it has traveled 10 yards down the field OR been touched by a member of the receiving team. If the ball goes out of bounds on the sidelines, the receiving team automatically takes possession of the ball at their own 30 yard line or wherever the ball went out of bounds; whichever is best for the receiving team. If the ball goes out the back of the end zone or is taken by a player on the receiving team in the end zone who subsequently kneels, this is called a touchback and the receiving team gets the ball on its own 20 yard line.

An onside kick is a tactic that tries to manipulate the situation of the kickoff so that the team kicking the ball ends up with possession of the ball. The most common approach to an onside kick is for the kicker to try to kick the ball to one side of the field so that it’s about eight feet above the ground and ten to twelve yards down the field from where it was kicked at exactly the time that six players on the kicking team who are sprinting up the field reach that spot. If all that happens as planned, the sprinting players on the kicking team can leap into the air and try to catch the ball or smash into the receiving team’s players and hope to cause enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt that one of them tries to catch the ball but isn’t able to secure it. This can be a spectacularly violent play with players throwing themselves at each other and at the ball. A more subtle approach is to kick the ball on the ground either at a receiving player with the hope that it might bounce off of them and be free for the kicking team to corral or at an empty spot between receiving players with the hope that a quick player on the kicking team can reach that spot before the receiving team responds.

The kicking team only successfully regained the ball on only 36% of attempts in the NFL in 2014. The reason why we don’t see them happen more frequently is that when the kicking team doesn’t get the ball back, the receiving team gets to start their offensive possession wherever they got the ball, which, since onside kicks generally only travel about 10 to 15 yards, is quite advantageous to the receiving team. A 36% chance of getting the ball back simply isn’t worth a 64% chance of giving the other team the ball on your side of the field. At least, an onside kick isn’t worth it most of the time. At the end of games, when one team is trailing, it could be quite worth it, in fact, it’s often the only chance a trailing team has. The reason why the logic tilts so much is that once a team has possession of the ball, it is able to run time off the game clock by running plays (or kneeling, which is kind of a simulation of a play) that keep the clock moving. It’s often the case that a trailing team knows that it will lose if the leading team gets possession of the ball. In this case, since it doesn’t matter where the other team gets the ball, trying an onside kick becomes an obvious choice.

The downside of attempting to retain the ball on a kickoff in that situation is that the other team knows what’s coming. The receiving team reacts by putting a “hands team” of players out there, all of whom practice receiving onside kicks as a unit. The rate of success for onside kicks when the other team knows its coming is less than 20%. The overall success rate of 36% includes times when a team decides to try an onside kick in a non-obvious situation. These surprise onside kicks – executed at a time when the other team is not expecting it and does not have their hands team on the field – are successful 60% of the time! It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy that’s most often used by teams that feel they are out-matched and need to find some edge to get ahead.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do baseball players slide?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do baseball players slide? Surely it’s faster to keep running than to slide in the dirt, right?


Dear Ellis,

Running is faster than sliding but speed isn’t the only consideration. Baseball players have two other reasons for sliding into a base: elusiveness and stickiness. In this post, we’ll explain each of the major reasons why baseball players slide instead of just running.

Often in a baseball game, a fielder only has to catch the ball while touching the base that a runner is headed toward in order to get him out. This is called a force play and we’ve covered it extensively before, in case you need a refresher. When a force play is not in effect, a fielder must tag the runner in order to get her out. Tagging involves having the ball securely, usually in her glove, and then touching the base runner with the hand or glove that’s holding the ball. In order for a tag to count, the fielder must touch the runner while he isn’t touching the base and must maintain control of the ball throughout the process. A tag is a rapid and precise moment. A fielder sets up near the base, reaches out to catch a throw from a teammate, and then sweeps the glove with the ball in the direction the runner is coming from to try to touch the runner before the runner is able to touch the base. It’s much easier for the fielder and for her teammate who is throwing the ball to aim waist to head high. This offers the best chance for a safely completed throw but it leaves the fielder with the ball pretty high up. Sliding on the ground forces the fielder to have to catch the ball and then sweep it down to reach the runner. This is slower and harder than tagging closer to the height at which the fielder caught the ball.

You might have wondered why I described a successful tag as needing to happen when the runner “isn’t touching the base” as opposed to “before the runner touches the base.” This is because a runner must maintain contact with the base in order to continue to be safe from tags. A runner that touches a base and then stops touching it while play is going on is at risk for being tagged. Sliding helps a base runner stay in touch with the base they are aiming at for the very reason you suggested sliding might not be a good idea – sliding slows the runner down. Sliding is perhaps the only way for a very fast runner to shed the speed she needs to in order to not run by or overrun the base.

There is one giant exception to these calculations about sliding and that’s first base. Because there is always a force play at first base, the first baseman never needs to worry about tagging the runner. Perhaps as a way to even things out, baseball rules allow the runner a similar advantage — the runner doesn’t need to stay in contact with first base. Once a runner touches first base, they are considered on the base as long as they don’t make a move toward second base. This evens things out – the fielder doesn’t have to tag the runner and the runner doesn’t need to bother sliding. Once in a while, you’ll still see players, even professional players, slide in to first base anyway! This is a dumb move and is always met with skepticism and scorn by announcers and knowledgeable fans. Feel free to join in!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is field goal range? How is field goal distance measured?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. When I watch a football game, I often hear the announcer talk about a team being “in field goal range.” Sometimes they even superimpose a colored line on the field to show how close a team is to being in field goal range. When they talk about the distance of a field goal though, it doesn’t directly correspond to the yard market the team is on, which is very confusing. What is field goal range? How is field goal distance measured?


Dear Ron,

As a sport and a culture, football sits at the intersection between precision and chaos. There’s no sport whose plays are more carefully and complexly designed and there’s few sports whose action can become as chaotic, as quickly. Football culture glorifies precision even while success and failure often come down to luck. Field goal distance and field goal range are both measurements which seem very exact but are actually quite wishy-washy. Field goal distance purports to be a measurement of the distance between where a field goal is kicked and the goal posts the kicker is aiming at. It is expressed as a number of yards. Field goal range is a similar measurement but is hypothetical. It is the distance from goal that a team believes it can score a field goal from with a reasonable chance of success. In this post, we’ll break both of these measurements down and see how inexact they actually are.

For both of these measurements, the number quoted will not match up to the yard marker on the field. The NFL moved the uprights from where they had been, on the goal line (as one might expect from the name!) in 1974 to the back of the end zone. The end zone is ten yards deep. So, a field goal kicked from the 20 yard line is actually called a 30 yard field goal because it must travel that extra distance through the end zone. A team cannot kick a 30 yard field goal from a play that starts on the 20 yard line. In order to have time and space to kick the ball over a horde of defenders intent on blocking it, teams snap the ball backwards about seven yards before setting the ball up to be kicked. Add these seven yards to the 10 yards from the end zone and you get 17 yards, the standard figure which people talking about football add to the yard marker of the start of a play in order to get the field goal distance. So, a 30 yard field goal must be taken from the 13 yard line. A field goal kicked from a play starting on the 20 yard line is actually a 37 yard kick.

Field goal distance seems like it should therefore be an exact measurement. Add seventeen yards to where the play starts and BOOM! you’ve got an exact distance. Two considerations stop this from being true. First, there may be some variation from kicker to kicker and team to team about how far back from the line of scrimmage a kick should be set up. It’s hard for me to believe that all 32 kickers in the NFL and 200+ kickers in college all like to kick from exactly the same spot relative to the line of scrimmage. I’ve never heard an announcer take the preference of a kicker into account when calculating a field goal distance, but perhaps they should. The second is much more meaningful. Football fields are not one-dimensional! Depending on where you are side to side on the field, a field goal may need to be struck at an angle or straight on. A play in football can start from one of three places horizontally, the center, or either of the two hash mark lines that run up and down the field to the right and left of center. Kicks from the center of the field are shorter than those from the sides. This effect is magnified in college football where the hash marks are much farther apart than in the NFL. Field goal distance does not take either of these factors into account. It’s a slightly fuzzy measurement masquerading as an exact one.

Field goal range is even fuzzier. It’s an estimate of the field goal distance a kicker has a reasonable chance of success and scoring from. A kicker with a very strong leg may have a field goal range of around 50 yards. Anything over that and the chance of scoring falls to below 60%. Estimates are great! There’s nothing wrong with estimates. But football, or at least football TV announcers, in an obsession with precision simultaneously treat this estimate as if it’s an exact number and leave out an important factor. The factor they leave out is the 60% in our example. Announcers talk about field goal range as if it’s the distance from which a kicker will be able to score. It’s not! There’s no distance from which you can absolutely guarantee a kicker will score. It’s important to know what percent chance field goal range applies to. Or maybe we should talk about it as several ranges — 50-55 yards is a long-shot, 10-20% chance of scoring, 45-50 gives a 40% chance of scoring, and so on. Meanwhile, television executives treat a range like a number and superimposes a line across the field to show how far a team needs to advance the ball to be “in field goal range.” A better graphic would surely be a gradient to show the increasing chance of scoring as the team moves forward, wouldn’t it?

I guess that turned into a rant on top of a definition! Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does forward progress mean in NFL football?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve been watching a bunch of football so far this season. I’m enjoying it and learning to. I do have one question — I’m confused about where the offense gets to start their next play from? I thought it was where the person with the ball’s knee hits the ground. Sometimes it seems like they start much farther down the field. This is sometimes accompanied by the announcer saying something about forward progress. What does forward progress mean in NFL football?


Dear Joel,

You’re absolutely right. Most of the time in football, when a player is tackled with the ball, their team’s offense starts their next play from the spot (end zone to end zone, not side to side) where the ball was when their knee or butt hit the ground. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Some may be obvious but easy to forget, like what happens when the offensive team scores a touchdown (they get to attempt an extra-point field goal from the 15 yard line or a two point conversion from the 2 yard line), what happens when a team fails to earn a new set of downs on a fourth down play (the other team gets the ball), or what happens when a player goes out-of-bounds (their team gets the ball wherever it was when they first touch the ground out-of-bounds with any part of their body). Another exception is what happens when a player, usually a quarterback, slides feet first. By far the most confusing exception is the one you’ve identified – the rule of forward progress.

The best way to explain forward progress is to start with a fairly absurd scenario. Suppose an offensive player is running with the ball. He gets surrounded by a group of defensive players converging on him. These defensive players wrap their arms around him to stop him from moving forwards. Then, moving in unison, they pick him up in the air and begin to carry him down the field. They eventually deposit him onto the ground in his own end-zone, where his being tackled with the ball earns the defensive team a safety and two points. The forward progress rule addresses and prevents this scenario by declaring the play to be over as soon as an offensive player who is running with the ball has his movement down the field stopped by an opponent. If the play is over as soon as forward movement ends, then what happens afterwards, often the offensive player falling or being pushed backward is no longer relevant to the game.

There is an element of judgement to this call. Each ref must decide for herself when a player’s forward movement is conclusively stopped. Most give the benefit of the doubt to the offensive player. Given how insanely athletic football players are, this makes sense. What would once and for all stop your or my forward progress (and potentially our lives) may be a momentary setback to an NFL running back or wide receiver. Generally, because of this, the way that refs actually enforce this rule is that as long as a ball-carriers legs are still moving in some facsimile of an attempt to run, they are allowed to continue to play, even if they are forced backwards. As long as this is true, refs will give the play a little bit of time to play out, almost like an advantage call in soccer. If the offensive player ends up getting tackled to the ground without ever being able to start moving forward again, the ref gives their team the ball where they originally stopped moving forward. If the offensive player is able to break out of the grasp of the defender and runs forward, the play continues until he is tackled or has his forward progress stopped again.

Like many rules in football, the enforcement of this rule is a balance between ensuring the safety of the players — the faster a ref stops a play, the less likely it is for players to get hurt struggling for an extra yard — and allowing potentially amazing and entertaining feats to happen. For an example of that, check out this run by Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber. Watch how he’s able to keep his legs running and therefore the play going as he’s forced backwards several times:

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does scoring work in rugby union?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does scoring work in rugby union?


Dear Clara,

There are four ways to score in rugby, a try, a conversion goal, a penalty goal, and a dropped goal. A try is worth five points, a conversion goal, two, and both a penalty goal or dropped goal are worth three points. The three scoring methods with the word, “goal” in their names, all involve kicking the ball, while the try doesn’t. Two of them can happen in the course of normal play, while two are only done during a stoppage in play. Let’s go through each one and describe how it works.

How does a try work?

A try is scored when an attacking player with the ball places the ball on the ground in her opponent’s “in-goal.” The in-goal is rugby’s term for the area that in American football is called the end-zone. As opposed to in American football, where a player just needs to have control of the ball in the end-zone to score, in rugby, a player must get the ball into the end zone and place it on the ground. Two other small matters distinguish how a try works from how a touchdown works in American football. In rugby, a player’s body can be out-of-bounds and still score as long as the ball remains in play. Likewise, a player can be lying on the ground and reach his arm out to score a try. A try is worth five points and triggers the second form of scoring, the conversion goal.

How does a conversion goal work?

A conversion goal attempt is earned by scoring a try. After a team scores a try, they are given 90 seconds to attempt a conversion goal. A conversion goal is a mostly undefended kick that must go over the cross-bar and between the two goal posts of the rugby goal. I say, “mostly undefended” because the defending team is allowed to run, from the goal-line, toward the player kicking the ball, as soon as that player starts their kicking motion. The kick may be taken as a drop-kick (kind of like a punt in football, but the ball must be kicked as it hits the ground instead of while it’s on its way down) or from the ground, where the ball may be supported by a tee or a teammate to keep it upright and in position. The player who scored the try doesn’t have to be the one to take the conversion kick. Any player on the team is eligible to kick it.

The location of the dropkick is decided by where the try was scored. The conversion goal must be attempted from a spot “perpendicular” to where the try was scored. That means, if the try was scored in the exact center of the field, the conversion goal must be kicked from the center. If the try was scored all the way on the left edge of the field, the conversion must also be taken from the far left. The closer to center a conversion goal attempt is, the easier it is to score. That’s why you’ll sometimes see players try to run to the center before placing the ball on the ground for a try. As for the distance from the goal, there’s no requirement at all. In practice, the kicker chooses a distance that is far enough from the goal so that she feels comfortable she’ll be able to get the kick off free from interference by the other team. The farther the kick is from the center of the field, the more difficult it is to make. In order to get a reasonable angle from that wide, the kicker will generally move back a bit.

A conversion goal is worth two points and may only be taken directly after a try. There are two other forms of scoring. Both are similar to a conversion goal but do not follow a try.

How do a penalty goal and a dropped goal work?

A penalty goal is procedurally similar to a conversion goal, with the only real difference being that a player may not use a drop-kick to score a penalty goal. A penalty goal attempt is awarded to a team when the opposing team commits a foul. It is similar to a free kick set piece in soccer. The ref blows her whistle to call a foul, the opposing team must move ten yards away from the spot of the foul, and then the team benefiting from the penalty call can choose what to do. If the spot of the foul is close enough to reasonably score a goal and the game situation calls for it, they may choose to attempt a kick through the uprights. A successful penalty goal is worth three points.

A dropped goal is the active cousin of a penalty goal. Instead of happening when play is stopped, a dropped goal happens during active play. Whenever a player has possession of the ball, they always have the option of drop-kicking the ball through the goal. If they are able to do this successfully, their team scores three points. You’d think this might happen more frequently than it does, but going for a dropped goal means giving up the opportunity to score seven points (a five point try and a two point conversion goal), and giving possession of the ball to the other team. When a dropped goal is successful, the other team automatically gets the ball. When a dropped goal is unsuccessful (the ball misses the goal wide or isn’t high enough), play continues and whoever can get to the ball first (usually the defensive team) takes possession of it.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer


What happens in rugby union when someone gets tackled?

Dear Sports Fan,

What happens in rugby union when someone gets tackled? Can they get up and keep running? Do the tackler and the tackled player fight for the ball? What can their teammates do to help?


Dear Terri,

For people who didn’t grow up with rugby, myself included, it’s often helpful to think about the sport as a mixture of soccer and football. Your question gets at one of the essential inflection points where rugby has some elements of soccer and some of football. In soccer, play is not stopped, nor altered in any significant way by a tackle, as long as it’s legal. In football, a tackle brings play to a halt. The whistle blows, the ball is dead, and everyone has to get up, dust themselves off, and receive a new set of instructions before starting the next play. In rugby, a tackle changes the rules of engagement for how players can interact with each other and the ball, but it doesn’t stop the flow of play all together. It’s a blend of soccer and football.

A tackle in rugby happens when the player with the ball is forced to the ground by an opposing player. The ball-carriers knee or butt must touch the ground while she is in the clutch of an opposing player. Once that happens, the phase of play shifts, and the game is now guided by a set of rules which only apply to this particular situation.

  1. The player who tackled the ball-carrier must immediately let go and either get back to their feet or roll, crawl, or slither away from the tackled player and the ball.
  2. The player who just got tackled cannot get back up and run with the ball. He must relinquish control of the ball right away. He can, pass it, release it, or push it toward his teammates as long as the ball doesn’t move forward, in the direction his team is trying to score.

Passing the ball out of a tackle to a teammate is the ideal scenario for the tackled player, but to do so legally, it’s got to happen quickly. As soon as an opposing player comes to try to get the ball, if the tackled player is still holding on to it, a foul will be called against him. In reality, tackled players often have to simply drop the ball, hopefully in the direction of their teammates. What we’re left with, is two players on the ground, neither of whom can pick up the ball and run with it again until they get off the ground and away from the play. Teammates of the tackler and tackled player may get involved to try to win back possession of the ball as long as they follow these rules:

  1. If they want to grab onto one of their teammates, they have to approach their teammate from behind the farthest back point. In other words, they can’t come running in from any direction, they have to circle around to their side of the field and then jump into the pile. Every successive player who wants to get involved has to do the same thing, only this time, they must come into the pile from the farthest back point of the farthest back player.
  2. Once the two players initially on the ground our joined by at least one additional player, this is called a ruck.
  3. Players in the ruck, who are grabbing on to one of their teammates or an opponent, cannot touch the ball with their hands. They can only use their feet, knees, etc. to roll the ball backward.
  4. One player on each side, as long as they are not grabbing on to one of their teammates, can reach into the pile, grab the ball, and pass it backwards to a teammate or run with it.

What often happens, is that the ball remains relatively still while the two sides try to push their opponents backward so that their teammate behind the mass of pushing players has an easier time grabbing the ball. In this way, the ruck resembles the offensive and defensive lines in football engaging at the start of a play. It’s a test of strength for territorial gain. In the case of a rugby ruck, possession of the ball is also at stake.

Watch the first minute of this video. Players from the New Zealand team get tackled over and over again, and each time, their team wins possession of the ball in the resulting ruck. Note how players on both sides have to circle back behind the ruck in order to enter it.


Thanks for reading,


Does a team have to hit the ball three times in volleyball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Does a team have to hit the ball three times in volleyball? Is that a rule or a custom? What happens if you hit it right back to the other team when you get it?


Dear Kerry,

If you’ve ever played or watched volleyball, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “bump, set, spike.” That three word phrase describes the most common way that a volleyball team deals with a ball hit to their side of the court. The ball usually comes over the net from the other team moving pretty fast, and it’s often not possible for the defensive team to reach it until it’s close to the ground. This necessitates an underhand hit, usually done with two hands folded into each other, called a bump. The purpose of the bump is to prevent the ball from hitting the ground and to get the ball moving back up into the air, where it can shed some of its speed and be easier for the next person to handle. The next person closest to the ball runs under its arc and is ready to take it when it reaches close to head height. Their job is to take the now much more controllable ball and set up one of their teammates in a position where they can really attack the other team with the next hit. This gentle, tactical move is called a set and it’s done with two hands pointed towards each other with the fingers slightly loose. A set sends the ball easily back into the air, right into a spot that’s above the height of the net and usually quite close to it. From there, a leaping teammate can spike the ball, hitting it as hard as they can with the heel of their hand, aiming for a spot on the other team’s side of the court where they think it will be able to find the ground regardless of the opposing team’s defensive efforts. This pattern, bump, set, spike continues unabated until one team is unable to save the other team’s spike from hitting the ground or the ball goes out of bounds. Bump, set, spike – three hits on each side of the court – is the common rhythm of volleyball but it is not a rule.

There’s no rule in volleyball that requires a team to hit the ball three times before sending the ball back over the net to the other team. There is a rule that dictates that a team may not hit the ball more than three times before the ball travels back over the net or touches a player from the opposite team. Three is a maximum number of hits, not a required number. A team may choose at any point to hit a ball coming onto their side of the court right back to the other team without pause. So, why is three such a dominant number? It comes down to tactics. Each time the ball comes onto one team’s side of the court is a threat and an opportunity. It’s a threat because if the ball drops to the floor, the other team gets a point. It’s an opportunity because if the team can bring the ball under control and set up a strong shot, they have a chance to score a point if they can overpower or fake out the opposing team’s defense. Using the full three hits offers the best odds for a team to be able to create a winning hit for their team. It usually takes a good bump on the first hit just to prevent the other team from scoring. It’s hard to set up a good spike straight from a bump, so a set is usually the next move. Just like that, it’s the third hit! Once in a while, a savvy volleyball player will take advantage of this three hit rhythm by doing a quick spike on the second hit, when the other team is expecting a set. This rare move can catch a defensive team unprepared and score an easy point, but it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Next time you watch volleyball, see if you can identify a time when it would have been better for one team to hit the ball over the net in fewer than three hits!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What does "the play is to" 1st, 2nd, or 3rd base mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for “the play to be to” first, second, or third base in baseball?


Dear Lora,

One of the most important rules in baseball is the force play. I wrote a post explaining how it works a few days ago which would be a good post to read before this one. To summarize, a force play is when the defending team can get a runner out by the touching the base he is running to (usually with a foot) while holding the ball (usually in a hand). This ability is predicated on a rule that states that no two players may occupy a base at the same time. Whenever the batter hits the ball, she must run to first base. This forces anyone on first to run to second, which pushes a player on second to third, and so on. When someone says “the play is to” first, second, or third base, or even home plate, they are identifying the most forward force play available to be made. To run us through each of the most common force plays, I asked my friend Al Murray to help explain.

The play is to first base

Assume that there are no base runners. As always, the batter must try to reach first base. A ball hit in the infield or short outfield that isn’t caught in the air (hits the ground) must be picked up “fielded” and thrown to the first baseman. The first baseman does not have to tag the runner, simply stepping on the base while demonstrating command of the ball will record the runner as out. If the runner reaches the base first, or the ball is thrown away from the first baseman (throwing error), or the first baseman (even in female sports the position makes seem to be x-baseman) drops the ball (catching error) then the runner is safe.

The play is to second base

Assume that our runner gets to first base safely. We now have a runner on first who is obligated to run to second base if the next batter hits the ball. There is some complexity here that’s worth exploring in another post but, at least if the ball is hit onto the ground, there is no choice for the runner on first. Let’s assume a ground ball. The batter becomes a runner and has to go to first base. This pushes the runner on first to run for second. All other things being equal, the defensive team would prefer to start pitching to the next batter with a runner on first than a runner on second. So, even though there are force plays at first and second, the ideal play is to throw the ball to second base.

If there is enough time, the player that just tagged second base will try to throw to first base and force that batter turned runner out there as well. If successful this is called turning a double play. The runner thrown out at second has some opportunities and a tactical goal to prevent the second part of the double play and will try to impede the throw to first, sometimes by sliding into the baseman or by obstructing the line of throw. In the modern game, there are limits as to what the thrown out runner may do, due mostly to rules created for player safety. In the “golden age” games a hard, ‘spikes-high’ slide would sometimes dissuade the thrower from attempting the double play in favor of survival. Nothing quite like the prospect of a 180 pound person sliding into you at 15-20 MPH with 1/2” spikes set to slice open your body to make you reconsider trying to turn a double play.

The play is to third base

Assume that both runners reach successfully and that both 1st and 2nd base are occupied. Now the lead runner must try for 3rd, the runner on first must go to second, and the batter has to run to first. There is a force play on first, second, or third base for the defense, since every runner is obligated to move forward, but the best scenario (aside from a double or triple play) is to get the out at third base because that’s the player who will score first if things go wrong.

The play is to home plate

When there is a runner on every base, then ever runner is obligated to move forward when the batter hits the ball. This is called having the bases loaded. When the bases are loaded, the leading runner will score by running from third to home if the defense does not stop her. So, the ideal play for the defense is to throw the ball home and get the force play there. This is not always easy — home plate is usually the farthest from wherever a fielder corrals the ball — but it’s always the best move if it can be done successfully.

What’s the pattern or general rule?

Whether the play is to first, second, or third base or home plate, the strategy is the same. The defense wants tag the base  the lead runner forced off his base by a following runner is headed to. If they’re able to catch the ball and tag the base before the runner gets there, the defense will register an out and prevent the offense from advancing around the base path.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer and Al Murray

Why does each team get a player in the MLB All-Star game?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is it that in Major League Baseball, every team have to have at least one representative in the All-Star game? Other professional leagues, like the National Football League don’t require one representative from each team. Why does each team get a player in the MLB All-Star game?

Derek Blackman

Dear Derek,

All-star games are a funny reminder of the thin line between sports and entertainment. The difference lies in the competitive nature of the games. Take that away, as you do during most all-star games, and what you’re left with is purely entertainment, even if it still looks like sport. That’s one of the reasons why sports leagues are so concerned about any accusations of match-fixing or betting on games by players or managers. They understand what differentiates them from reality TV is true competition and how easily the perception of its truth can be undermined. An all-star game is a voluntary relaxation on the part of sports leagues. For a day or a weekend during the middle (or in one case, close to the end) of the season, the league takes a rest from competition and puts on a purely entertaining show.

Tickets to the show are expensive – this year’s MLB All-Star game has tickes on Stubhub ranging from just under $300 to over $4,000 – but it’s primarily a TV show. Baseball games are normally TV shows, each one attracting fans of the two teams involved as well as a smaller number of casual (or obsessed generalist baseball) fans but if the league is going to halt all their other shows for a single one, they better be sure it’s going to get the ratings (and therefore advertising dollars) to merit the break from normal games. Baseball has lots of tactics to make sure this happens. It packages the game (made less interesting by the lack of competition) with lots of novelty events (the Home Run Derby, primarily) that don’t happen at any other time during the year. They partner with strong television networks who will promote the game incessantly. Lone among the leagues, Major League Baseball gives their all-star game importance to the regular season. The league that wins the All-Star game (which is played between the American and National Leagues) ensures that its representative in the World Series (baseball’s championship which is also contested between the two leagues) has the opportunity to play four out of the seven possible World Series games at home. The fact which you mention in your question — that every MLB team is required to have at least one of their players on the All-Star team — is another important way of ensuring an audience. Representation from each team, regardless of how bad the team is, is meant to guarantee representation from each team’s fan base when it comes to watching the All-Star game. So far, it seems to be working. The MLB All-Star game does get much better ratings than an average baseball game. In the past few years, it’s averaged around a 7 rating (7% of all households that have a television were watching this) while regular season baseball games averaged only a .7. This means ten times more people watch the All-Star game than a normal game.

Major League Baseball is not alone in this approach to its all-star game. The National Hockey League (NHL) also requires one representative from each team and, although they experimented a few years ago with taking away that rule, they went right back to it. The NBA All-Star game does not work that way, in part simply because of numbers. With 30 teams and only 30 All-Star players, a requirement to have one player from each team would be obviously unfair to players and fans of extremely good teams and would lower the level of entertainment by excluding too many well-known stars. The way the NFL schedules their all-star game, called the Pro Bowl, precludes it from including everyone. Held one week before the Super Bowl, players from the two Super Bowl teams are excluded. Even setting those teams aside, the league allows some teams to be excluded. In 2014, for example, four teams had zero players selected to the Pro Bowl.

Major League Baseball’s approach to team representation in its all-star game makes sense if you view all-star games as purely entertaining TV shows. Many people feel that the logic begins to break if you view the All-Star game as competition – as sport. Normally players, coaches, and fans wouldn’t dream of viewing an all-star game this way, but by making the game decide home-field advantage in the World Series, baseball forces this interpretation to some extent. If the All-Star game is competition, then it follows that each team should be trying to win as hard as they can, even if this means excluding some teams entirely from the game. The argument against this line of thought is that there’s always a balance between entertainment and competition inherent in any televised sport. Surely it would be easier to win if you hid the other team’s cleats from them so they had to play barefoot but it wouldn’t make for as appealing entertainment (actually it would, but you can supply your own example). The All-Star game must get higher ratings than a normal game to justify its existence and a rule that requires representation from all 30 teams and fan bases helps make that happen.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer