An interesting baseball trivia question asks how many different ways can a player reach first base without getting a hit. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive answer. The ground rules of the answer are left to personal taste and there’s no absolute way to tell when one way is actually different from another. For example, you could judge a way to get to first different from another only if it was scored differently, or only if it fell under a different official rule, or you could use a more subjective measure that reflects so called common sense or conventional wisdom. All these methods are legitimate, but they often conflict.
It’s a fool’s errand to try to support an answer as the one and only correct solution, but it’s interesting to probe into the oddities of the game for possible answers. It’s also more than enough of a challenge. A good list of candidate answers accompanied by references to the official rules of baseball, done properly, appears to be sorely needed. I’ll assume that we’re interested only in legal ways that are allowed in the official rules of baseball as published on MLB.COM, and that can occur during a regulation major league baseball game.
A walk is normally construed as a base on balls, four pitches outside of the strike zone. However, there are a number of interesting ways to get awarded ball four and advance to first base. Some people consider these different ways of getting to first base. Others argue (as would I) that they are simply other ways of getting a walk.
(a) Base on balls – the batter takes a pitch outside the strike zone for ball four
(b) Intentional walk
Some people consider an intentional walk different from an unintentional walk for intuitive reasons, and because it is scored differently.
(c) Umpire calls ball four due to a balk caused by an illegal pitch (quick pitch) with no runners on base (see rule 8.05(e))
This one is a bit obscure and confusing because it is listed in the rules under balk, can occur with no runners on base flying in the face of many people’s idea of a balk, and can result in ball four called to the batter. It is scored as a base on balls. Note that other forms of balks affect only the base runners, not the batter.
(d) Umpire calls ball four when the pitcher illegally brings his pitching hand in contact with his mouth or lips while on the mound (see rule 8.02(a)(1)). The rule states explicitly that a ball should be called as the penalty in this case. But for other, more blatant violations such as spitting on the ball, the only penalty is ejection and suspension (not calling a ball).
(e) Umpire calls ball four when the pitcher takes more than 12 seconds to make the pitch when the bases are unoccupied (see rule 8.04).
(f) Ball four gets lodged in the catcher’s mask or the umpire’s equipment (see rule 5.09(g))
- Hit by pitch
- Batter reaches first base on 3rd Strike
There are several varieties of this case that most people would count as a single way to reach first base.
(a) Catcher drops 3rd strike with two out or first base unoccupied (and batter beats the play)
(b) Passed ball on 3rd strike (and batter beats the play, or ball goes out of bounds)
Usually occurs when the batter swings and misses an errant pitch.
(c) Wild pitch on 3rd strike (and batter beats the play, or ball goes out of bounds)
Usually occurs when the batter swings and misses an errant pitch.
(d) The 3rd strike gets lodged in the catcher’s mask or the umpire’s equipment (see rule 5.09(g))
There are several type of intereference that can result in a batter being awarded first base. These are usually counted as a single way that the batter reaches first, although (e) is often considered another way by itself.
(a) Fielder interference
This occurs when the catcher or another fielder interferes with the batter’s attempt to reach first base while the fielder is in possession of the ball or actively involved in the play. It is scored as an error charged to the offending fielder.
Obstruction occurs when a fielder who does not have possession of the ball and is not actively involved in the play illegally interferes with the batter reaching first base. It is also scored as an error charged to the fielder who committed the obstruction. This would be a very rare way to reach first base because it would require interference by a fielder not involved in the play that would otherwise be an out. For example, I suppose it could be called if the pitcher blocked the base path while a routine ground out was played from third base.
(c) Spectator interference
If a batter is interfered with by a spectator on the way to first base, the umpire can award first to the batter, although I believe this is scored as a hit.
(d) Umpire interference
If a batted ball hits an umpire before passing a fielder other than the pitcher, the batter is awarded fist base. This is scored as a hit.
(e) Runner interference
If a batted ball hits a runner other than the batter, the runner is out and the batter is awarded first base. This is scored as a hit.
- Fielder’s choice
A fielder’s choice is defined a little differently in the rules and in the scorekeeping rules. The best definition is when the batter reaches base when the fielder could get him out but chooses instead not to make the putout. This choice is made in order to put out a different base runner (or runners) instead, or to attempt to do so. It’s also a fielder’s choice if the fielder simply allows the batter to reach base without attempting the out. For example, with a man on second base and no outs, the batter grounds to the pitcher, he could conceivably intentionall allow the batter to reach first. It can also occur when a fielder intentionally drops a fly ball in order to attempt a double play (when not covered by the infield fly rule).
A batter can reach first on a fielder error, typically when the fielder misplays a routine ball. Some other cases (such as interference and obstruction) are ruled errors for the purpose of scorekeeping but are usually still counted a distinct ways to reach first without getting a hit.
- Pinch runner
Technically a player can reach first base without getting a hit by being designated a substitute runner for a player who already reached first base. Some people count this as a way to reach first without getting a hit, and others consider it beyond the spirit of the question because it does not apply to the batter. When the question does not mention a batter, I prefer to reward the creativity of this answer. There’s an even more creative and questionable case in which a batter reaches first, the game is suspended (many variations), then the batter is traded (many variations), and another player takes his place. All of these seems clearly to be simply runner substitutions and should probably not be counted separately.
- NOT Sacrifice
A batter can reach first on a sacrifice without getting a hit. This case is highly questionable as a distinct way to reach first because it always involves either an error or a fielder’s choice. Some people will count it anyway. Some will even count a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly differently.
- NOT Blown call by umpire
When the umpire calls a batter safe at first when he should have been called out, you could argue that he did not get a hit, even though it will be scored as such. This is a judgement call. I prefer not to count it because it opens a can of worms of other bad calls.
- NOT Catcher balk
When the pitcher pitches and the catcher is not in the catcher’s box, it is ruled a balk. But in this case, even if no runners are on base, the rules do not state that the batter is awarded a ball nor could he reach first base (see rule 8.05(l))
I count at least 8 (1 through 7 plus 4e), and as many as 19.