April 10, 2009

D-3-6-3 DP elective

During the Cardinals/Pirates series that opened the 2009 season, Cards' first baseman Albert Pujols was faced with a snap decision on a defensive play: How to approach a potential double play.

With a Pirates base runner on first base, a sharp ground ball was hit to Pujols. It is not known whether he was holding the base runner at the bag or holding the base runner by played just behind his lead off, but in either case, Pujols was within a large step of the bag when he fielded the ground ball.

The elective: Whether to start the potential double play by firing to the shortstop covering second base or to quickly step on the bag and fire to the shortstop covering second base.

Pujols elected to use the force-out route -- safer when it is applicable. Unfortunately, the choice was faulty.

The return throw from shortstop Khalil Greene was not in time for the force out on the batter-runner at first base, resulting in no double play.

Had Pujols decided to take the quick step onto first base and fired to shortstop Greene for the putout at second base, it seemed more likely the double play would have been accomplished.

There are pitfalls to this, latter, play, however, which would score 3-6 DP.

On the 3-6 DP, the first baseman need to shout "tag!" since the force out at second base has been eliminated. A tag play in this situation is difficult and risky, requiring a much more accurate throw and a tag. (The force out reception is much easier, due to its margin for error on the throw.)

The tag play, though, in this instance, would have worked, granted that Greene would've been able to complete the tag.

In defense of Pujols' defensive election, however, he may have felt there a) wasn't enough time to complete the force out at first base and make the throw for a tag play; b) he would have been unable to "clear the throw."

On the 3-6 DP, requiring a tag at second base, the first baseman usually needs to step wide of the base line (normally to the infield grass side) in order to make sure there is a clear line for the thrown baseball to reach the shortstop covering second base.

What makes this 3-6 DP a reluctant choice is probably the idea that throwing base runners out on tag plays is a difficult mental process which requires as much split second decision time as any other play. (To show how alarming these throws for tag outs can be, during the same series, the Pirates' first baseman, Adam LaRoche, fired a throw to his third baseman, thinking there was a Cardinals' base runner trying to take third, when in fact, it was a teammate, shortstop Jack Wilson, hustling toward third to cover the bag.)

A first baseman with substantial experience, such as Pujols, should have realized which play was had the better odds of completion. Mental mistakes, however, can happen to anyone, at any time. Such mistakes have the bright side to them, though, of adding to the experience of a player, who can then process them and utilize the knowledge in order to make a better decision the next time a similar play occurs.

Given Pujols desire to continually learn anything and everything about the game, there is little doubt he has spent considerable time visualizing the botched double play.

Pirates series -- early April, 2009
photo by Barbara Moore