On Tuesday night's game, the contact play failed miserably. Aoki was caught cleanly on the way home and Lucroy was picked off trying to get to 2nd base.
Watching the Brewers' consistent flow of TOOTBLANs this season has been as annoying this year as any other year, but what if the contact play is actually a strategically sound decision?
Let's take a quick overview of the contact play (henceforth "CP") and how it is supposed to function.
The base runner at 3B takes an aggressive, but not suicidal, lead when the pitcher throws the pitch to the plate. If the bat makes contact with the ball in any fashion, the base runner immediately releases to home plate. If the hitter does not swing or make contact, the base runner quickly retreats to 3rd base.
Once the runner takes off, he either needs help from the hitter in the on-deck circle or make a judgment decision on his probability of making it home safely. If the runner cannot score or inconvenience the catcher legally (i.e., a collision at the plate), it's his job to stop and retreat to 3rd base to induce a run down play, thus giving the hitter time to make it to 2nd base. The base running error last night was actually Aoki's not Lucroy's since it was Aoki's responsibility to get Lucroy to 2nd in a rundown.
The CP is distinctly different from the hit-and-run. In the hit-and-run, the play starts before the hitter even swings the bat and the hitter at the plate is forced to try to make contact regardless of where the pitch is located. In the CP, it's treated as a normal plate appearance for the hitter as none of the action occurs until contact is made. The likelihood of a base hit is lower in a hit-and-run than in a CP.
The scenario when the CP makes the most sense is 1 out, man on 3rd base. The ideal scenario is a left-handed pitcher and a left-handed batter. A runner at 3B can get a better lead against a left-handed pitcher. A left-handed batter both gives the base runner better visibility of the type of contact and increases the probability of the ground ball going to the first baseman. The throw to the plate is difficult not only because most first baseman are poor fielders, but also because they have the pitcher running between the mound and home plate on his way over to cover first base. I was never able to decide if Prince Fielder looked more ridiculous sliding into a base or throwing to home plate.
So now that we know how the CP is supposed to run and when it's supposed to be called, let's look at scenarios of what happens after the bat makes contact with the ball:
- Clean base hit
- Pop up or short fly ball to the outfield
- Deep fly ball to the outfield
- Line drive out to an infielder
- Sharp groundball fielded cleanly by an infielder
- Sharp groundball requiring a difficult play for an infielder
- Slow roller to an infielder
In the first 3 scenarios, the CP is entirely neutral as the outcome of the play would be the same regardless of whether the CP was on.
Scenario 4 is negative for the CP, because there's a very high probability the base runner is doubled off at 3rd base with the CP on, but may have remained safe at 3rd base without it. Of course, scenario 4 is extremely rare.
Scenario 5 is the worst case scenario for the CP. The runner would have safely stayed at 3rd base had the CP never been called, but is instead easily thrown out at home plate. As mentioned above, the hitter ends up at 2nd base after an extended run down.
Scenario 6 is the gray area of the CP. Without the CP, there would be 0% chance to score if the infielder can't field the ball cleanly, whereas with the CP it's going to be a close play at the plate. This should create a scenario that the catcher will be left in a position unable to make a throw after the runner scores or is called out at the plate allowing the hitter to make it to 1st base.
Scenario 7 is the bread and butter of the CP. Without the CP, the runner would certainly not have scored and with the CP he does score.
It's also worth noting that Scenarios 5 and 6 induce a high pressure, awkward throw so the probability of an error is much higher than a typical assist-putout play.
In all baseball decisions, context is king and there are 2 primary scenarios I always consider. In the early and mid-game, the exclusive role of the offense is to score as many runs as possible. In the late-game, a team may be in the position of needing only 1 run either to tie up the game, take the lead or extend a 1- or 2-run lead. In the former situation, we're interested in the expected runs from a given outcome and in the later situation, we're interested in the probability of scoring at least 1 run.
Now it's time to break out the numbers and use the Aoki/Lucroy play from last night as a basis for an example. Lucroy was the 3rd hitter in the lineup and there was one out in the 6th inning with the Brewers up by 1. You could make a good case for the Brewers to be interesting in either playing for multiple runs or playing for only 1 run. We'll look at both, starting with scoring multiple runs. Ultimately, the conclusion is the same. Only scenarios 4-7 are important so they will be the focus.
As Lucroy steps up to the plate, the Brewers are in the run state of having 0.993 xR. After the play finishes in scenarios 4-7, there are a few possible outcomes to consider given everything goes according to design:
- With CP: 2 outs, no one on (1.12 xR) after Aoki scores and Lucroy is put out at 1B
- With CP: 3 outs, no runs scored (0 xR) on a line out double play
- With CP: 2 outs, Lucroy on second (0.35 xR) after Aoki is caught in a rundown
- With CP: 1 out, Lucroy on first (1.55 xR) after Aoki is safe on a close play at the plate and the catcher fails to make the out at 1B
- With CP: 2 outs, Lucroy on first (0.26 xR) after Aoki is out on a close play at the plate and the catcher fails to make the out at 1B
- Without CP: 2 outs, Aoki on third (0.39 xR)
When the CP succeeds as designed with Aoki scoring on a slow roller and Lucory out at 1st base, the Brewers are left with 2 outs and no one on. We see a dramatic increase to 1.12 xR that inning with the CP vs. 0.39 xR without it. That's a 187% relative increase in xR from the CP.
There are 3 outcomes if the CP doesn't go according to plan. If Aoki is out, but successfully baits a rundown and Lucroy ends up at 2B, the Brewers have lost only 0.04 xR due to the CP being on. That's a 10% relative decrease in xR state compared to not running the CP.
If Aoki is safe at the plate and Lucroy ends up at 1st base with 1 out, the Brewers are now in a +1.16 xR state due to the CP being on (297% increase). If Aoki is out at home plate and Lucroy is out, because Aoki failed to get into a rundown, the Brewers have lost 0.39 xR (100% decrease, obviously).
So we have potential gains of 0.73 xR and 1.16 xR vs. potential losses of 0.04 xR, 0.13 xR and 0.39 xR. That's a lot of gain for not much cost and honestly far more than I had expected when I first started writing this. The biggest surprise, by far, was the miniscule difference between a runner on 2nd with two outs and a runner on 3rd with 2 outs.
When everything goes according to plan, the CP is a high upside, low downside call and I didn't even consider the possibility of an errant throw leaving Lucroy at 2B with 1 out (1.72 xR).
Switching focus to only needing to score a single run, we see much the same thing. When Lucroy steps to the plate, the Brewers will score at least 1 run on average 69.6% of the time (pR = probability of scoring at least 1 run). The same scenarios as above:
- With CP: 2 outs, no one on (1.0 pR) after Aoki scores and Lucroy is put out at 1B
- With CP: 3 outs, no runs scored (0 pR) on a line out double play
- With CP: 2 outs, Lucroy on second (0.23 pR) after Aoki is caught in a rundown
- With CP: 1 out, Lucroy on first (1.0 pR) after Aoki is safe on a close play at the plate and the catcher fails to make the out at 1B
- With CP: 2 outs, Lucroy on first (0.15 pR) after Aoki is out on a close play at the plate and the catcher fails to make the out at 1B
- Without CP: 2 outs, Aoki on third (0.28 pR)
I won't milk the numbers here, but we end up with a potential gain of +0.72 pR vs. a possible loss of 0.05 pR, 0.13 pR or 0.28 pR. The conclusion is pretty much the same. There's a high upside and very little downside to running the CP.
To conclude, I'm extremely surprised by the results. If you trust your runner at 3B to make the right call on the fly as to whether he should try to score or stop and get into a rundown, the contact play is pretty much the dominant strategy with 1 out and a man on 3B, regardless of the inning/score situation.