Picture the scene. The Cardinals have a runner on 3rd Base with less than 2 outs. The batter hits a groundball on the infield. The runner immediately breaks for home, challenging the infielder to make the perfect play. He does. The throw home is good and the runner is out.
Cardinals fans should be familiar with this one. It’s the contact play. And it’s a strategy that Mike Matheny loves (almost as much as pitching Matt Bowman in high leverage or batting Molina 5th), and Cardinals fans have grown to hate.
The “contact play” is pretty simple. The runner on 3B, with less than 2 outs, goes on contact in an attempt to score. When the ball is hit in the air, this becomes irrelevant as the runner then has to react to whether the ball is being caught or not. Where we see it come to light is on groundballs. The fielder can either allow the run to score and take the sure out, or make a clean throw home to cut down the runner. The strategy behind the play is to force the issue and “steal” a run in a close game. It doesn’t sound like terrible logic, but its real life application has not been so good.
Success and Failure
To really dig into all of the contact play occurrences, I had to turn to the vast resource that is the Baseball-Reference Play Index, many thanks.
I perused 2071 At-Bats (and another 5400 for 2017) looking for every time the Cardinals had a runner on 3B, with less than 2 outs and either scored a run on a groundout OR had a runner thrown out at home on a fielder’s choice. I excluded instances in which the bases were loaded, as the runner is forced to go on a groundball, therefore it is not a “called” play.
So far in 2018, there have been 12 contact play happenings. All but one of those occurred with the scored tied or the Cardinals down 1 run (I’ll get to the exception in a minute).
6 times the team has scored a run.
6 times the team has had the runner cut down at home.
So right now they have a 50% success rate. (The tiebreaker could be Tommy Pham being picked off because he was straying too far to prepare for the contact pay, but it doesn’t really count.) 50% isn’t really awful for a do-or-die type of play. So I dug deeper into the events. What I found was that timing and situation were key.
Of the 6 times the runner SCORED, only 2 occurred in the 6th inning or later. 1 of those was classified as a “weak” groundball that resulted in the 1B taking the out unassisted. Without hunting down video, we can assume the weak hit ball was well placed to where the 1B had no shot to get the out at home. So it truly worked in that instance. The other successful “late” attempt occurred in a game in which the Cardinals were down by 2 runs. This instance came with 1 out and was also classified as a weakly hit ball, so the fielder chose to allow the run to score and take the out at 1B. The decision not to throw home was made easier by the fact that the run would not tie or put the fielder’s team behind.
All other successful attempts occurred in innings 1-3, otherwise known as ‘early’. During those innings, opponents are more likely to simply trade the run for the out and not force the issue.
All 6 unsuccessful attempts came in the 6th innings or later. Again, these came with the Cardinals tied or down 1. In all of these instances, the fielder chose to not allow the tying or go ahead run to score in a late/close situation.
So while the Cardinals have a 50% success rate this season overall, they have just a 25% success rate when the contact play happens in a pivotal moment.
In 2017 they managed to have a 62.5% success rate. However, 6 of their 15 successful attempts happened in the 1st inning. Take away the 1st inning attempts, they were 9 for 18, 50%. They managed to force errors in two instances, and in another Fowler simply beat the tag at the plate. If those plays are executed cleanly by the defense, then they would have had just a 33% success rate outside of the 1st inning. However, a major part of the contact play is forcing the defense to get it done, so I can’t discredit that. Still, it’s worth mentioning because in the 12 tries so far in 2018, if the fielder has thrown home they’ve gotten the out 100% of the time. There have been no forced errors or any beaten/avoided tags at home this season.
Shut ‘Er Down
I would personally retire the contact play, at least partially. This mostly because they are not having success when they deploy it late and close. It’s costing them important runners in scoring position. Even early in games, I would rather keep the runner on 3B and give the next hitter a chance to drive them in with 1 or 2 outs. I hate seeing the team get a runner to 3B with less than 2 outs only to lose them because of feigned aggression.
Pick your spots. If you put it on and a fast runner like Pham or Harrison Bader gets cut down, then tip your cap. But you are dramatically decreasing your chance of success by putting the play on with Matt Carpenter or Jedd Gyorko at 3B (both of whom have been thrown out twice this season on the contact play). Give yourself the best chance.
Additionally, teams are well aware that you always send the runner under those circumstances. In a big spot, they will cheat the infield in and won’t think twice about where to throw it. Opponents are prepared, so the pressure you are trying to create doesn’t exist.
The contact play is far from being the fatal flaw for the 2018 team. However, it’s an overaggressive strategy that could be removed (or used more selectively) to help clean up some of the messy baseball we’ve seen.