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Talking Strategy: The "Contact Play"

by Tim Muma                                                   4/15/2013

The "contact play" makes a ton of sense at the amateur level where good throws are far from guaranteed. In the Major Leagues, it's not so black and white - barring truly horrible conditions, most guys will execute routine plays for the out. The question then is when to incorporate the "contact play."

For those who aren’t familiar, the “contact play” is when a runner on 3rd breaks for home as soon as bat hits ball (except on a fly ball or line drive if read properly). The idea is to force the defense into making a mistake or not having the time to throw out the guy streaking home.
In general, the Brewers make far too many outs at the plate
considering how good their offense has been.

On Sunday , the Brewers had 1st and 3rd with 1 out of a tie game in the top of the 9th inning.  Jean Segura hit a chopper over the pitcher’s mound where Edward Mujica made a nice play to snag the ball and fire a strike to the plate, cutting down Yuniesky Betancourt.

Ryan Braun followed with a sharp groundout to end the frame.

There was plenty of discussion of the Brewers' decision to send Betancourt on the “contact play,” a common strategy used by the aggressive-minded manager, Ron Roenicke. In fact, since Roenicke took over in 2011, the Brewers are among the top 3-4 in the NL in terms of outs at home plate.

2011 - 27 outs at home (3rd)
2012 - 24 outs at home (4th)
2013 - 3 outs at home (1st)

The ire drawn from fans comes from the visualization of a runner being thrown out at home – that rarely goes over too well. However, the “contact play” has its value, but only if used appropriately.

For example, with runners on the corners and 1 out – like Sunday’s scenario – the runner needs to take off for the plate to give the defense a decision to make:  throw home for the single out or try to turn a double play to end the inning.

Offensively, clearly you’d rather it be 1st and 2nd with 2 outs than the end of the frame. Plus, if the ‘D’ makes an errant throw home or can’t turn two, you steal a run.

 Milwaukee made the 2nd-most outs
on the bases in 2012
The play in game 3 of the Cardinals’ series was a touch trickier. Segura’s chopper was snared by Mujica while reaching over his head near the back of the mound. If he deflects it in any way, Betancourt scores easily; if he misses it, 2nd baseman Daniel Descalso is charging and would have had a play, but there was at least a 50-50 chance Yuni scores ahead of a tag.

A case of appropriate aggressiveness in most cases such as this.

However, here’s where the tough part comes in. With the infield moved up and the ball hit slowly, there’s almost no chance the Cards could have turned a double play to end the inning, instead just getting the out at 1st. That would mean if Betancourt stayed put, they would have had 2nd and 3rd with 2 outs for Braun (instead of 1st and 2nd). Still, that probably results in St. Louis walking Braun intentionally to face Rickie Weeks,  who is mired in a horrible slump.

So now pick your poison if you're the Brewers:  1st and 2nd with 2 outs for Braun or bases loaded with 2 outs for Weeks.

This just shows there is often much more to think about than the one, singular play at hand. While I’m normally conservative on the basepaths (both as a player and a coach), this was a case where the “contact play” was warranted.
Roenicke and company would be wise to be more
selective in their risk-taking and trust the bats
Still, there are plenty of times it makes no sense and Roenicke still puts it on. For example, with the infield in and no double play in order, I would never do it. Roenicke has on a number of occasions and 9 out of 10 times, the runner is retired easily. If the infield is back – go for it – but have the foresight to stop if it’s hit directly at the third baseman or pitcher, because those are still easy outs in MLB.

To recap:
  • Runners at 1st and 3rd with 1 out is the perfect time for the contact play.
  • Runners on the corners with 0 outs, it really matters who is up next. A great hitter like Braun or a legitimate power threat, you should take off for home to either steal the run or force them to face the batter with 2 runners on base, as that is the ultimate goal – have your best hitters up with men on base.
  • Infield in with no double play opportunity, please stay on 3rd. Infield back, only if you get a jump and the ball isn’t hit directly at the 3rd baseman or pitcher.

Each manager/coach has his own idea on what to do and we know Roenicke likes to push the envelope, but hopefully he plays it a little smarter in the future.


1 comment:

  1. I like the aggressive base running much more than the station to station strategy incorporated by grandpa Macha. But I agree you have to be smart about it and not just run with reckless abandon. The contact play being the most glaring example where I see a guy take off from 3rd on a ground ball right to an infielder and know he is going to be meat at the plate and give up a runner in scoring position. I don't know if Roennicke considers the situation much with that play and seems to have the contact play on almost every time there is a guy on third except maybe when the infield is playing in or to try and stay out of a double play with 1 out. I wish he would use it less, especially when Ramirez and Hart are back where there will almost always be a quality bat coming up to try and drive in the guy on third.


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