You may have heard that the record for strikeouts in one inning is four—not exactly the answer one might expect. There are numerous occurrences of the feat over the years, most recently it happened when Manny Parra of the Brewers struck out four Cardinals in the fourth inning in last week’s Sunday Night game.
How does this happen?
Rule 6.05b tells us that a batter is out when a third strike is “legally caught” by the catcher. It goes on to explain that a “legal catch” occurs when the catcher catches the ball before it hits the ground—even on a foul tip.
Rule 6.09c states that a batter becomes a runner when strike three is not caught when either first base is empty, or first base is occupied by a runner with two outs. Rule 6.05c states that a batter is out when there is a runner on first base with less than two outs, even if the catcher does not catch the ball.
Rule 10.15b3 states that a pitcher is to be credited with a strikeout, even when the runner advances to first base; which is to say the batter and the pitcher are both given a strikeout, but there is no put out on the play.
So let’s look at that play from the Cardinals Brewers game. In the bottom of the 4th inning, Albert Pujols led off and struck out swinging. The next batter, Matt Holliday singled to right field, then stole second during Ryan Ludwick’s at-bat. Ludwick eventually struck out swinging. With two outs and a runner on second, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina struck out swinging, however, the third strike was deemed a wild pitch and Molina advanced safely to first base, despite being the third strikeout in the inning. The next batter, Colby Rasmus, ended the inning, going down on strikes and becoming Parra’s fourth strikeout victim of the inning.
This is really a two part play. Once the third strike is swung at by the batter, or called by the umpire, the batter has struck out. The second part is then how his advancement to first base is accounted for.
The most two common ways that the batter will advance to first base are a wild pitch and a passed ball. Those aren’t the only two ways though.
Had the Brewers’ catcher picked up the third strike and threw it down to first base in plenty of time to get Molina out, but the first baseman dropped the ball, it wouldn’t be fair to charge the pitcher with a wild pitch or the catcher with a passed ball—the runner’s advancement to first base would have been on an error charged to the first baseman.
Another possibility is that of a fielder’s choice. Had the ball gotten far enough away from the Brewers catcher that Holliday—who was on second base—made a dash for third base and the Brewers catcher picked up the ball and threw it to third base in an attempt to catch Holliday stealing, rather than trying to throw Molina out at first base, then Molina’s advancement would be on a fielder’s choice.