Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Contact Play

I hope all enjoyed their long weekend, and I would like to welcome Carlos Quentin back to the fight.  Nice to see him finally take an at-bat as a Padre during a regular-season game.  I hope he plays every game from this point forward.

If you have watched any of the Padres current 10-game road trip, you have been quite frustrated.  San Diego has been swept out of St Louis, dropped 3 of 4 to New York, then lost a slug-fest yesterday.  Although I found time to watch at least part of all 3 games in STL I haven't seen much of the 5 games since.

I did manage to catch the top of the seventh yesterday, and saw one of those plays that I just don't get.  The Contact Play. It should be called "The Contact Play That Never Works".

Let's set the stage.  San Diego trailed 8-7 after six.  Chase Headley leads off the seventh inning with a hustle double to right.  Jesus Guzman hits a fly ball to center, and Headley tags, making it to third standing up.  Cubs Manager Dale Sveum makes the somewhat curious decision to play his infield in for Everth Cabrera.  This is only curious because 15 runs have been scored, and 7 home runs hit, in the first six innings; it seemed likely the Cubs could score more runs over the next 3 innings.  Anyway, with the count 3-1 Cabrera hits a sharp ground ball to third.  Headley breaks for the plate as the ball is hit.  It is fielded cleanly by Cub third baseman Ian Stewart, and he throws out Headley at the plate by 6 feet.  The Padres ultimately don't score in the inning.

Why in the world would Bud Black put the contact play on in that situation?  The infield is IN, with limited ability to react to a sharply hit ground ball.  Wouldn't it make more sense to wait the half-second and make sure the ball is through before moving towards the plate?  Let's say Stewart gets a glove on the ball but can't field it cleanly, and the ball caroms away.  With the rest of the infield in there's no possibility the shortstop (or anyone else for that matter) can recover to pick the ball up and retire Headley at the plate.

If what usually happens happens, the batter is thrown out at first and the team still has a runner on at third with two out - and it's a lot easier to score from third on a single with two out than from first (I know - Master of the Obvious here). 

With the infield back, and a fast runner at third, I can maybe see putting the contact play on.  First, the defensive team is conceding the run.  Second, even if the infielder fields the ball and throws home, it takes longer for the ball to arrive at the infielder, and it is a longer throw to the plate.  A speedy runner has a chance to beat the play (and depending on the runner, a GOOD chance). 

I know this falls under the 'As It So Often Happens' byline - you know, the line of reasoning that states whenever a player makes an outstanding defensive play to end one inning, he leads off the second?  It doesn't happen all that often, but everyone notices when it does.  For me, whenever the contact play is put on the runner is gunned down at the plate with Ivory precision (99 44/100% of the time).  It's probably not that often - otherwise, managers would not continue to run the play - but it certainly seems that way.

In this particular inning, it ended up being a moot point.  Cabrera stole second on the very next pitch, and advanced to third when the 2-2 pitch to Andy Parrino got away from the Cubs catcher.  So 5 pitches later the Padres were in the same situation they would have been if Headley had held the bag at third.  And San Diego caught a bad break when the 3-2 pitch hit Parrino; if it had merely been in the dirt, it was such a bad pitch that Cabrera would have scored easily on the wild pitch.  That sequence of events is the exception, the anomaly, the fortuitous turn of good luck vice the rule.  Invariably when a runner gets thrown out at the plate on the contact play that is the end of the scoring chances for that inning.

I'll add to my list of things trying to mine Baseball Reference or Retrosheet for incidences were, with the infield in, a runner got thrown out at the plate, just to see how often it does happen.  There's no scoring category for THE CONTACT PLAY so the data will be somewhat inaccurate; but it will at least give us a glimpse into how often this kind of play is called, and what the success rate is.

Some folks are vehemently against the Sacrifice Bunt.  I am vehemently against the Contact Play. Teams who use the contact play are gift-wrapping an out for the other team.  Seems really dumb.

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