As the only major North American sport that is almost entirely played in open-air ballparks, baseball is at the mercy of the weather much more than football or basketball. The MLB season is scheduled to make the most out of available sunshine in as many locations as possible, but rain is always possible, and it frequently forces the officials to delay, suspend, or even cancel the game. In fact, the frequency of rain delays in baseball is so high that special rules are in effect to properly account for this risk.
While fans that grew up watching the game in person tend to understand baseball rain delay rules and instinctively know when a game is going to be interrupted, those who primarily watch on TV may require some clarifications. We tried to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about baseball rainouts and to prepare fans for what might happen if this situation occurs in a particular MLB game they are watching.
Why does baseball have rain delay rules?
Baseball is a fair-weather sport that requires a dry surface and reasonably clear skies to be played at a high level. Heavy rain or fog can severely reduce visibility and make it nearly impossible to hit or field the ball normally, while greatly increasing the possibility of an injury due to slipping on the turf. This is the reason why baseball games must be played in dry weather, and any instance of sustained rain causes a delay of action, as opposed to soccer or football games which are frequently played on schedule even in adverse weather conditions.
Obviously, high-level competitions had to adopt a formal framework to guide them in calling a baseball game due to rain. Weather can turn quickly and in some situations, it may be possible to continue after a short delay, but baseball leagues must also account for the possibility of a more severe storm that lasts for hours and leaves the field soaked. While some MLB teams responded to the uncertainty by building stadiums with retractable roofs, they are still in the minority. With this in mind, MLB rules for rain delays remain very important today and probably will long into the future.
What happens if the game is interrupted by rain?
There are several scenarios that could unfold in case the weather turns bad during a baseball game. First, it’s important to learn the difference between a rain delay and a rainout, since they lead to significantly different outcomes. When an umpire calls a rain delay, this decision pauses the game until the rain stops, and the action is continued on the same day. A rainout is called when the weather is not expected to improve any time soon, and it results in the remainder of the game being postponed for another date. In practice, MLB umpires only call rainouts if the delay is longer than 30 to 60 minutes.
Thanks to a new rule introduced in 2020, the rest of the game might not be played at all. While with standard rain delays or rainouts, the score remained unaffected, and the teams continued the game in the same inning and with the same number of outs as in the moment of interruption, the new rule declares a winner instantly if the game is deemed to be ‘official’. This rule was intended to eliminate the need to play out games where the likely winner is already known and to simplify scheduling and travel. Still, due to its novelty, some fans are confused as to when exactly MLB cancels games for rain.
How it is decided what is an official game?
The key to understanding what will occur if the umpire calls a rainout is the concept of an official game. Basically, this is an MLB game that’s progressed to the point that it can be considered advanced or almost decided. The rule states that any game that reaches the end of the fifth inning with 15 outs on both sides will be declared official. The same will happen if the home team is ahead on the scoreboard and the game has reached the middle of the fifth inning when the rain started.
This rule was originally added at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic but has remained unchanged as the league returned to normal operation. One important implication of the rule concerns refunds to fans that paid for tickets. In case the game was declared official and the winner was determined on the spot, no refunds will be issued for that game. Conversely, if the game is only suspended and there is a plan to continue it at a later date, ticket holders get their ‘rain check’ that allows them to see an alternative game. All the individual and team statistics for a shortened baseball game that meets the conditions to be qualified as official are counted normally.
How often do they cancel MLB games for rain?
While the new baseball rainout rule seems like a big departure from tradition, its impact is limited to a relatively small subset of games. Rainouts happen every season but only on a small number of occasions, and they tend to peak during the early part of the season when rescheduling is easier. Approximately a dozen MLB games are affected by a rainout in a typical year, so the number of canceled games per season is even smaller, staying in the single digits.
As more professional teams upgrade their venues to include fixed or retractable roofs, we can expect the number of canceled games to diminish even further. In this sense, the recent update to baseball rain delay rules is just a minor tweak that has practical benefits. While the rule slightly favors the home team, it can’t be exploited intentionally and is unlikely to affect the final standings. Needless to say, playoff games are never canceled because of rain and are always played out to the end, even if it means rescheduling for another day.