July 3, 2014

Clear the base runner or risk giving away runs

Let's look at two similar defensive plays that occurred in the Cardinals/Giants game on Thursday.

Both were ground balls to the first basemen of each team. The first was to the Cardinals' Matt Adams in the bottom of the third inning with one out and a base runner on first base. The second was in the top of the fourth, with a grounder to the Giants' first baseman with two outs and a base runner on first base.

Both plays featured:
  • ground balls to the first base area
  • base runners on first base
  • throws to second base that would end half-inning's, respectively.
  • improper throws from each first baseman
  • failure of each first baseman to move to a clear throwing lane
  • failure of each receiving infielder at second base to move to a clear throwing lane

Flawed defense: Cardinals
Analyzing the Cards' defense, the grounder was almost exactly to first base, Adams fielding it cleanly and close enough to the bag (half-step away) to step on the base and throw to second base to complete a double play on the base runner heading toward second base. We'll assume he properly yelled "Tag!" although it would've been obvious to a middle infielder that he would need to apply a tag on the oncoming base runner as there was no longer a force out available since Adams forced the batter-runner out when he stepped on first base.

Continuing, the problem with the play arises when Adams rushes the throw to second base, failing to clear the base runner. Clearing the base runner in this scenario means that Adams needed to take a couple quick steps away from the base line or the path which the base runner has taken. In other words, Adams needs to get a position that allows him a clear throwing lane to his target, in this case, second base. Additionally, Adams' throw doesn't have to be exactly to the bag, but can be a few feet off the base to the side which he has cleared to.

For left handed throwing first basemen, this throwing lane is usually the inner infield side of the base line; for right handed throwing first baseman, the outer side of the infield (outfield side of the base line) is normally preferred. This is not set in stone, as various types of ground balls, momentum of a first baseman while making a play, and running path of base runner (which isn't always exactly in the base line) all play a part in which side to which a first baseman will clear.

On the other side of the play (in both these cases, the shortstop), the middle infielder covering second base needs to anticipate which side is the more likely the first baseman will clear to, and in any case, clear himself to the same open throwing lane, giving his first baseman and himself the best chance of throw and reception without the base runner obstructing the lane, or the view of either defender.

Instead, neither Cardinal defender clears, and Adams' throw to second is a high arcing toss that ends up hitting the base runner in the back of the helmet. The inning extends for the Giants, but the Cards are able to shut them down before they can score any runs.

Flawed defense: Giants
As for the Giants, a ground ball took the first baseman away from the bag, onto the infield grass, to the point where the third out of the inning could've been easily accomplished with a throw to second base where a force out was possible. But the first baseman didn't clear enough to the inside, giving himself a somewhat clear throw but with little margin for error.

In this instance, the middle infielder didn't clear to the inside. Instead, the receiving infielder sort of straddled the bag at second on the first base side. He should've moved to the third base side of the base and stood clear, with his left foot sideways and near the base so that he could make whatever adjustment would be needed for reception and have time to slide over and step on the base, or in the case of a good throw, place his left foot on the base while receiving.

The first baseman, maybe feeling the pressure of needing a perfect throw to hit the target, ends up lofting the throw over the covering infielder and into the outfield. As you can imagine, a receiving infielder who doesn't clear on his side of the play adds pressure to the throwing first baseman, whether or not the first baseman has properly cleared. In other words, it is just as important for the receiver to clear, and he has an extra moment to comprehend to which side he must clear, if he reacts to the first baseman's clearing.

The inning extends for the Cardinals, and in this case, they add three runs after the failure of the Giants infielders described to execute a basic play.

During the telecast commentary, it was mentioned that the base runner in the flawed Cardinals defense scenario didn't not slide, and since he came into second base upright, the throw had to be "lollipoped". I disagree. If the defense simply clears to either side, as they should, it makes for an easier defensive play regardless of whether the base runner is standing up or sliding. Besides, there's not adequate complaint for the base runner who isn't sliding. That would be like asking a hockey goalie to skate out of the way so you more easily shoot the puck into the goal.

If you have any points to add to this analysis, please use the blogger or the Facebook comments to do so. Coaches and players would like to understand more about baseball so they can coach it or utilize it in their play.

I thank the Cardinals and Giants for providing the examples.

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